By Tom Precious
ALBANY – The new leader of the state’s teachers union sees her labor group becoming an even more powerful voice in Albany with increased engagement of parents and other stakeholders to affect state policies.
“When we call up for a rally you will see rallies that fill up the streets in Albany,’’ said Karen Magee, a longtime public school teacher in Westchester County who, over the weekend, ousted longtime New York State United Teachers union Richard Iannuzzi as president. She is the first woman president of the 600,000-member union.
If there was any warming of relations between NYSUT and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it was not showing on Monday. When asked, Magee said she had received no phone calls from the governor since her election by NYSUT delegates on Saturday. In the 2010 election, NYSUT sat on the sidelines in the governor’s race.
This year, she said Cuomo and the likely Republican gubernatorial candidate, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, have until NYSUT’s governing board meets in August to gain an endorsement.
Right now, after several years of battles with Cuomo over everything from teacher performance evaluations to charter schools and school funding, Magee said Cuomo faces a stiff wind with teachers across the state. “Unless there is some significant change, I can’t imagine our teachers would even consider endorsing the governor,’’ Magee said in a phone interview Monday.
Could the union back Astorino? “The field is open as to who we endorse,’’ she said, adding that she does not know enough about Astorino's education policies.
Some union leaders over the weekend said delegates were impressed by Astorino’s recent decision to keep his children in public school from taking the Common Core assessments last week.
Magee said such decisions are up to parents. “As teachers, we have to support whatever parents choose for their children,’’ she said.
Magee said NYSUT will be fighting in the last couple of months of the legislation session to get Common Core standards delayed for the sake teachers. She said teacher performance reviews should not be based on tests that do not count for students.
NYSUT, she said, lost 35,000 members in the past five years due to cuts in the growth of spending or actual reductions by the state and districts on schools. In the meantime, she said, NYSUT had become a “top down’’ organization that “lost focus of the engagement of the membership.’’
Cuomo insisted during budget talks that the teacher evaluation issue not be a part of delays made to the Common Core standards. The day the budget was passed, though, he sent signals of being open to discussing the issue with lawmakers in the next couple months; he has not been specific about what he believes should change in the way of teacher evaluations.
Magee said she believes Cuomo has realized it makes little sense to delay the impact on students from the Common Core tests but not on the performance evaluations for teachers. “I think he finally has found out how incongruous that thinking was,’’ she said.
At the minimum, NYSUT wants a moratorium on the state standardized tests being used to judge performance levels of teachers. If NYSUT had its way, she said, “I’d like to see us rethink the entire process,’’ she said, so that there is not a “one size fits all’’ approach to evaluating teachers across the state in different teaching situations and different disciplines.