Testimony regarding the FY 2017 city education expense budget

Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committees on Finance and Education

Good afternoon, Council members Ferreras and Dromm, and members of these two distinguished committees. Thank you for inviting me to testify today regarding the 2017 education expense budget.

My name is Michael Mulgrew, and I am here today on behalf of the United Federation of Teachers and our 200,000 members. As president, I have the privilege of visiting my members at public schools all across the city and speaking with them about their work. Every day, these visits remind me that our public school teachers are truly some of the most selfless heroes in this city. Their steadfastness, patience, work ethic and courage inspire me.

I know you find them inspiring as well. Thank you for your relentless advocacy on their behalf and on behalf of our students. The more we support them, the stronger we make our schools. Strong schools create opportunities for kids and communities.

My testimony today reflects some of the many topics that have come up in my school visits, as well as some of the priorities we are putting forward this year.

Invest in Teacher's Choice

I want to begin by talking about the Teacher’s Choice program, an initiative made possible for more than two decades of the Council’s dedicated support. The Teacher’s Choice program is even more meaningful to our members today as they spend more of their own money on school supplies and students.

While it’s not a teacher’s responsibility to buy classroom supplies to make up for school shortfalls, we all know that most UFT members do so year after year. Many are spending from $500 to $1,000 from their own paychecks to make sure their students have what they need.  Some schools expect parents to help financially, but many of our inner-city parents cannot afford that.

As you know, our teachers sometimes purchase big-ticket items such as materials for science or art projects, printer cartridges or electronics. You also know that teachers more often buy basic classroom supplies such as notebooks, pencils, pens and paper as well as must-have items including dry-board markers, tissues during cold and flu season, chart paper, scissors, hand sanitizer and towels. Also on the list are posters, calendars and books, not to mention the multiple shopping trips we make to prepare for parent-teacher events and open school nights.

What you may not know is that many teachers also help students with personal expenses.  Teachers notice when a child comes to school in worn clothing or is not dressed for the cold weather. I personally know of dozens of teachers who have bought students coats, shoes and food.No one asks us to spend our money. We just know it’s the right thing to do.

It is for these reasons that we once again ask for the Council’s support of Teacher's Choice. A decade ago, the Council’s $20 million commitment meant $250 for each classroom, whereas last year’s $9.6 million commitment provided teachers with just $122 each. Fortunately, the city has recovered economically, and we believe that the city can afford to restore the Teacher's Choice program to pre-recession levels. It’s the least we can do for our students and teachers.

Expand the NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative

For educators, nothing is quite as satisfying as helping a child overcome a barrier and thrive. As we all know, overcoming a challenge can mean the difference between a successful life and a failed education. It is no exaggeration to say that this difference sometimes is a matter of life or death.

Inside the 26 schools that comprise the NYC Community Learning Schools Initiative (CLS), miracles occur every day. Our members are making those miracles happen, one child at a time, thanks to strong partnerships with community groups, non-profits, businesses and government agencies. We are very proud of this program.

The CLS model has brought a wide variety of academic programs and related services into our schools, from academic enrichment programs, college and job counseling to dental and vision screenings, mental health counseling and even emergency food supplies. We cannot make up for all of society’s failures, but we are trying to mend some of the holes in the safety net and help our children and their families.

At the core of our program is a dedicated, school-based resource coordinator who engages with the community and works with the teachers and administrators to seamlessly integrate new programs right into the school’s regular operations.

Another primary ingredient is the school-based health center, and we are pleased to report that we expect two such centers to open next fall in PS 188 in Coney Island, and PS 18 in the Bronx. These centers are made possible thanks to the substantial support of Mayor de Blasio, this Council and our state lawmakers, as well as Borough Presidents’ Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz Jr., the DOE, the School Construction Authority, and our partner in these efforts – NYU Lutheran Medical Center.

School-based health centers bring clinical pediatric services right into the building, providing students with accessible, comprehensive care designed specifically for their needs. What’s more, many of these health centers are adding mental health therapists, as well as dental and vision services. Access to these services has had a profound effect on our students, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

This year, we are asking the Council to, once again, support CLS. With $1.5 million in additional Council funding, we can hire more resource coordinators, as well as increase academic programming and health services. We get a lot of bang for the buck in our CLS. It’s a good investment.

Support the Positive Learning Collaborative

New York City’s public schools and parents are clamoring for restorative justice programs to combat bullying, discipline issues and suspensions. The Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC) is one such program that has delivered early results by teaching tolerance and understanding.

The PLC works with schools to provide intensive training in crisis prevention and de-escalation techniques. Every staff member in a school learns how to help students work through issues in a constructive manner, rather than through punishment. PLC develops an individualized action plan with every school that includes coaching in restorative practices, positive behavior support, clinical team processes, and social emotional learning. 

The mayor’s preliminary budget includes $5.4 million that he has allocated for “Restorative Justice” programs to help 20 schools that struggle with a high number of suspensions and arrests. We respectfully ask that the Council allocated $1.5 million of that amount to the PLC program. Our staff of experts is uniquely qualified to do this important work.

Statewide initiatives: Expand equity and access

The City Council has long been an advocate for our public schools, and we know we’ll have your support and help in the weeks ahead as we lobby for additional school aid in Albany. We are all committed to making the state fulfill the promise of CFE and provide the resources owed to our students. We won’t back down until we get that money.

This year, that deficit still stands at $2 billion – funding that would go a long way towards helping us lower class size and tackle overcrowding. Hundreds of schools are jammed with children — some schools are at 150 percent of capacity and one is at nearly 200 percent. Art and music rooms disappear. Laboratories are dismantled. We’ve even seen closets and bathrooms become resource rooms.

This money would also pay for the additional specialized teachers we need to address the growing numbers of English Language Learners and special education students, as well as allow us to hire more guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists and nurses. Realistically, a high school guidance counselor simply can’t handle a caseload of 500. But that’s what we ask of some of our members. The best number is 100 to one.

We have set up a special web application that will show you how much each school in your district is owed.

Earlier this week, the Assembly proposed $1.1 billion in statewide school foundation aid, as part of that chamber's budget resolution, and the Senate proposed $880 million. As we continue to advocate for additional funding, we welcome the Council’s ongoing support.

Statewide initiatives: Support Teacher Centers

As we work to strengthen our schools and improve student outcomes, it is critical that we provide educators with the appropriate support, coaching, mentoring and meaningful professional development.

Ongoing professional growth is of great importance in attracting, developing and retaining quality teachers. When we give educators the support to improve their classroom techniques, they can help their students achieve. It’s a win-win — our teachers clamor to improve their skills and our students want to bright future.

Teachers Centers are an invaluable resource in NYC’s public schools. Now in their 38th year, Teacher Centers operate in more than 125 schools and other locations throughout the city.

Drawing on current research and best practices, the Teacher Centers staff designs workshops and programs aimed at deepening content knowledge and enhancing a teacher’s skills.  Activities range from intensive in-classroom support to after-school study groups on various topics including classroom management, differentiation of instruction and integrating technology into lessons. Teacher Centers also provide specialized support for teaching our English Language Learners and students with special needs.

Our Teacher Centers also provide professional learning opportunities for our Master and Model Teachers, who in turn are mentoring new teachers, coaching their peers and leading professional learning for the entire staff. We pushed hard for these positions during our last contract negotiations because we believe a career ladder provides an incentive for teachers and makes better use of their skills to strengthen an entire school. We also hope these career paths will provide some impetus to prevent teachers from leaving our school system. Teacher attrition remains a large problem. We know that educators say ongoing — and meaningful — professional development is one thing that keeps teachers intellectually challenged.

The state Assembly has allocated $14.3 million in its budget, moving us a step closer to advancing this important work for another year. As we continue to advocate for our Teacher Centers in Albany, we welcome the Council’s support.

Statewide initiatives: End the charter enrollment gap

We also welcome the Council’s continuing advocacy as we seek state laws to fix the growing problem of charter school equity. Public schools, on average, enroll more than twice the number of English language learners as do charter schools, and more than one-third as many students with disabilities. The disparity was especially striking in co-located schools, where the public schools  typically have twice as many English language learners as the co-located charter school, as well as one-third again as many special education students and 40 percent more homeless students. 

Taxpayer-funded charter schools should not have the right to choose to educate fewer high-needs students than public schools and then point to how successful they are in comparison. We are pushing for new laws in Albany that would fine charter schools for failing to comply with the rules, and repeat offenders could lose their charters.

We applaud the state Assembly for advancing this crucial legislation in its budget. As we continue to fight for its inclusion in the final state budget, we again welcome the Council’s support.

Closing thoughts

I want to thank you for taking the time to hear from us today. As you know, together — you, your fellow City Council  members and the UFT — we continue to make critical strides towards strengthening our public schools. We look forward to working with you in the months ahead, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have at this time.

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