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Public School Kids To Cuomo: Don't Destroy Our Schools

At 8 a.m. this morning I was shivering outside PS 10 in Park Slope, watching as hundreds of kids, parents, and teachers held a rally to protest Governor Cuomo's education budget plan, which will raise the cap on the number of charter schools, increase the use of testing in teachers evaluations to a mind-boggling 50%, and force public schools into a Darwinian competition for dwindling public financing.

Hundreds of similar rallies were going on at schools around the city, but I came to this one because it was near my apartment and because Brad Lander, my local City Councilman, was speaking, which meant that covering the event would qualify as an acceptable press clip for the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, to whom I have to soon present myself for bi-annual re-registration of my official press pass.

As I arrived, the kids were singing a rousing version of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance", but with lyrics updated for the occasion: "all we are saying is give Public Schools a chance... testing, testing, all we do is testing... Listen to us Cuomo, give Public Schools a chance."


Public School Protest at P.S. 10 In Brooklynby Gothamist

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, and Mike Mulgrew, current president of the United Federation of Teachers, took turns winding up the crowd with chants of "Whose school? Our school!", and making some needling remarks about Cuomo's "hedge-fund billionaire friends" supporting the charter schools.

Afterwards, there were a few short speeches, which were helpfully recorded on the handout given to the assembled members of the press, which seemed to be me, a Fox 5 crew, and a two writers from the local papers:

Brad Lander: "I'm proud to stand with parents defending our public schools. We demand the $2.7 billion that New York owes our kids - without requiring more high-stakes testing, charters, or school takeovers. Our public schools are too important to be held hostage to anyone's political agenda."

Amy Schwartzman, PS 10 Parent: "Cuomo's plan to fire teachers whose students don't test well will destroy our public schools. This plan creates so much fear that teachers will feel they have no choice but to do endless test prep."

Dora Schwartman, Amy's Daughter, PS 10 student: "don't punish teachers for our mistakes." (one of the teachers called out "there are no mistakes- there are only opportunities!")


Other speakers noted that P.S. 10 has been short-changed by the state to the tune of more than $2 million, which would go a long way to reducing class size in a school of 979 students. The schools' parents have been drafting letters to their local politicians, and have collected more than 350 packets of letters so far- they also sold out a run of 300 T-shirts with a "Passion > Politics" slogan printed on them.

After the speeches the kids sang another song: "We Are The World" but with more new lyrics: "we have kids to teach / stop emphasizing tests..."

Unlike the charter schools, Public Schools can't take the kids out of class to protest, so at precisely 8:20am, the rally ended and the kids and teachers filed back into the building to begin their day.

I walked back to the subway thinking about all the years I spent as a public school kid in New York, and how much worse off my life would've been if my family hadn't had access to free public schools. I also thought about all the good teachers I'd had in those 13 years, and wondered if any of them would go into teaching now, with all stress that comes with testing, and all the politicians constantly blaming the performance of schools on teachers, instead of say, poverty or lack of funding.

Who would want to work a job where half your yearly evaluation was based on something you had very little control over? What would happen if we fired all the teachers with low-scoring classes, since most of those teachers work in schools in the poorest neighborhoods? How would you replace all those teachers? What would New York look like if all the schools were charters, free to curate their classes with high-performing kids? Where would all the other kids go?

Did I ever mention that I taught for a year in 1999? I filled in for a Stuyvesant chemistry teacher who was out on maternity leave. Even with the smartest kids in the city in my class, that was not an easy job. The hours were something like 7:30am to 3:30pm, and then there were at least another three hours of grading, preparing lessons, and trying to figure out how to do the lab demonstration in a way that didn't light anything on fire that wasn't supposed to be on fire. The pay was something like $29,000 a year.

Teachers make a little bit more than that now, but not much more, adjusted for inflation, and the hours have probably gotten worse. I have a twin sister, Molly- she teaches at an elementary school in the East Village, and she seems to be working all the time. On the weekends she's always at Staples spending her own money on school supplies, or cooped up at home writing these hugely long narrative report cards. She says she's currently rated as "effective" based on her kids test scores, but isn't sure what'll happen if they increase the focus on tests even more. I feel bad for her, because she seems to genuinely care about her kids and her school, and sometimes seems really stressed out about all of it.

We are grateful. #protectourschools #ps124bk

A photo posted by PS 124 Brooklyn PTA (@ps124pta) on


I'm guessing this is immaterial to Governor Cuomo- his main interests here appear to be breaking the public unions, which are a center of power he does not control and resents, and occupying the pro-business position on education in the hope that if Hillary Clinton dies or is incapacitated or has to bow out because of an email scandal, he can make a last minute dash for the presidency with the support of the billionaires who support the charter education movement.

The only real hope is that if enough people come out for protests like these, perhaps his political calculus will change slightly- although that seems like a long shot. As a parent with a kid in public school, though, and another one starting soon, that's what I'm hoping for- the alternative, which is a dystopian future where all the public school kids are packed into classes with 40 kids while their buildings are given away to charter schools and their teachers flee for less stressful careers, is just too depressing to contemplate.

If you agree, consider sending the Governor a polite email, asking him to reconsider this position. The budget isn't done yet, and there's still time for him to change his mind.

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