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Friday, January 9, 2015

Gary Stern: The pressure is on NYSUT's Magee

 Harrison's Karen Magee promised to make NYSUT stronger. Now teachers want their new president to stand up to Gov. Cuomo.

Gary Stern

Harrison's Karen Magee promised to make NYSUT stronger. Now teachers want their new president to stand up to Gov. Cuomo.

"I'm militant."

That's what Harrison's Karen Magee told me a year ago when she was campaigning to be elected president of NYSUT, the state's largest teachers union. She was making a case that NYSUT was perceived as weak, "cowering in the corner," and that she would reassert the union's position with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Education Department.

Magee now gets the chance to show how militant she can be.

As the new legislative session gets rolling this week, many rank-and-file public school teachers feel like they are under attack. Cuomo has promised to break the public school monopoly – which sure sounds like code for "unions." He wants to tighten the screws on New York's much-loathed teacher evaluation system as a way to get rid of "bad teachers." His recent comment that teachers "found guilty of sexually abusing students" are still in classrooms has drawn a furious response from teachers on social media.

Magee told me this week that NYSUT is prepared to fight back.

"My membership has been galvanized over the governor's comments," she said. "Nothing is off the table."

She was short on details but implied that big things are coming. I think New York State United Teachers wanted to give the governor a chance to bury his dad. But make no mistake: Teachers want to know NYSUT's battle plans.
On the defensive

Magee was elected president in April, unseating incumbent Richard Iannuzzi. She had served as head of the Harrison Association of Teachers for 11 years and was one of the most visible labor leaders in the Lower Hudson Valley. After a falling out between Iannuzzi and his second-in-command, Andy Pallotta, Magee wound up atop Pallotta's breakaway ticket.

If you talk to 10 teachers, you'll get at least seven or eight different views on NYSUT's leadership. Some want traditional, tough labor leadership while others might prefer a more flexible, white-collarish approach. NYSUT has 600,000 highly educated people to keep happy.

Today, though, there is a real concern among not only teachers but many school leaders and parents that Cuomo is pushing the vision of anti-union, hedge fund guys who see charter schools as the answer to "fixing" schools.

"The real audience is those who want to privatize public education and will gain profits from doing so," Magee said.

Magee took office hoping to work with Cuomo to rewrite New York's teacher evaluation system. NYSUT's main complaint was that some teachers are graded, in part, on student test scores. It looked like Magee scored an early victory when Cuomo proposed a two-year "safety net" that would prevent teachers from being fired directly as a result of test scores.

Then Cuomo vetoed his own bill. Many predicted he would do so when NYSUT did not endorse his re-election.

Losing ground

Now Cuomo wants to toughen the evaluation system so that poor teachers can be more easily identified and dismissed. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has volunteered how he can do so – in part by doubling the weight of student test scores in some teachers' evaluations. This is the exact opposite of what NYSUT and many teachers want.

Such a move would have a gloomy effect on the morale of many quality suburban teachers who already think the evaluation system is a time-killing sham.

When it comes to getting rid of abusive teachers, New York has gotten much better results since reforming its previously infamous hearing process in 2012. New York City's "rubber room" cases, always the focus of the problem, have declined sharply.

"Either the governor doesn't understand that he was part of (reforming) the process or he made a sensational comment just to be sensational," Magee said. "No one has an interest in protecting someone who wants to harm a student."

Though Cuomo is fired up about teacher evaluations, he hasn't proposed one potentially responsible way to remove ineffective teachers: a system of renewable tenure. Many school district officials would like to hear it discussed.

Magee led a demonstration on New Year's Day outside the Executive Mansion in Albany, using a megaphone to yell at Cuomo inside. She may need to tap a bit more militancy if she's going to give teachers a voice on New York's rapidly changing educational landscape.

Twitter: @garysternNY

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Now Cuomo wants to toughen the evaluation system so that poor teachers can be more easily identified and dismissed."

Actually, the word is 'more' and not 'poor' and the word 'toughen' should be replaced by 'make more arbitrary'.

Nobody actually believes he want to improve education - he is just pandering to the anti-teacher, anti-public sector employee crowd.