Testimony regarding the FY2018 education expense budget

Testimony of the United Federation of Teachers before the New York City Council Committees on Education and Finance

The United Federation of Teachers would like to thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and the entire Council, for their unwavering support for our public school communities. Thanks to your hard work, you are ensuring our students and neighborhood public schools receive necessary funding and support.

Protect public education

Your advocacy on behalf of students and our members is crucial, especially as we increasingly face challenges from the Trump administration. As you’re aware, this White House is not a friend of public education. As education policy increasingly favors the privatization movement, we need to work together to protect our public schools and our students. The current White House administration and its supporters are hostile to much of what we in New York City hold dear: public schools, health care, welcoming immigrants to our city and the civil rights of all including people of color and the LGBTQ community. Trump and Republican have already made their intentions clear — to take from those in need to give to the wealthy.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has spent her career stripping tax dollars from Michigan’s public schools to finance for-profit charter schools. She has also aggressively funded the political campaigns of those who support diverting public funds to private school voucher programs and tax credit vouchers. She has also financed similar attacks on public schools here in New York State.

Now she and President Trump are taking those attacks to the national stage. Their education budget proposes eliminating $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, cutting back or destroying dozens of education programs along the way. For example, funding for college work-study programs would be cut in half, public-service loan forgiveness would end, and hundreds of millions of dollars that public schools could use for mental health, advanced coursework and other services would vanish.

Also on the chopping block: $1.2 billion for after-school programs serving 1.6 million children, most of whom are poor, and $2.1 billion for teacher training and class-size reduction programs. The proposed budget also eliminates a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college and a $27 million arts education program.

Meanwhile, this proposal, if passed as is, will redirect $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. The budget would also spend $1 billion in Title I funding to pressure public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies.

We must continue to raise our voices, rally others to support public education, and protect our democratic principles. New York City — lawmakers,  educators, unions, parents, workers, everyone  —must do what it has always done — stand up to protect the institutions and rights we cherish. Our public schools provide opportunities for millions. They educate the citizens who will build the future.

Do we have work to do in some of our schools? Of course! Poverty, social inequalities and newcomers to our city create challenges for the city’s educators. But we don’t shirk responsibilities. The UFT will never give up on any of our city’s children, and neither will you, the lawmakers who safeguard schools.

This winter and spring, we have been reminding people of our public school’s great success stories. We call it our #PublicSchoolProud campaign. No surprise, it has gone national, with parents and teachers all across the country sharing stories of success.

Now, let’s talk about what we can do to keep this momentum in our neighborhood public schools. Our testimony focuses on five UFT programs that make a real difference to our students, and one proposal, free lunch for all students, that we believe could pay huge dividends for a relatively small investment. We hope you will support these initiatives in the final city budget.

Support Teachers Choice

The City Council helps teachers put books, musical instruments and art supplies into the hands of students by reimbursing teachers for a portion of their out-of-pocket expenses.

NYC teachers, on average, spend $500 a year of their own money on classroom supplies including pencils, paper, math manipulatives — small cubes, tiles and squares for counting — telescopes, balls, rulers, compasses, and even Hula Hoops. We have heard from our teachers who have paid for things such as school trips, lumber and tools to outfit a wood shop, and warm coats for shivering children.

Thanks to the Teacher’s Choice program, created in 1986 by the DOE and the UFT, NYC teachers are reimbursed for a portion of what they spend. This school year, each received $148 in reimbursement.

We are asking the City Council to continue to fund this worthwhile investment in New York City students — at an increased level: $20 million.

Invest in community schools

The growing community schools movement has its philosophical roots in the symbiotic relationship between a school and the community. Community schools rely on partnerships with companies, non-profits and community-based organizations to provide programs and services to the school, based on the most important needs of the school’s population. Parents and school staff have direct input into developing a school’s plan of action, so stakeholders can be confident that what’s offered matches the needs.

The UFT’s Community Learning Schools Initiative began in 2012, and has grown to partner with 28 schools serving more than 16,000 students.

At the center of the UFT’s initiative are community school directors, who work full-time in each building. They are responsible for developing public/private partnerships and integrating programs and services into a school’s daily operations. They work hand-in-hand with teachers and administrators to ensure that every extra academic program is fully integrated with the school’s mission and curriculum.

Community learning schools aim to overcome barriers to learning that hamper many of our poorer children. If you can’t see the blackboard because you can’t afford glasses; if you don’t have a place to do your homework because you live in a shelter; if you have a toothache and don’t have a dentist, if your parents struggle to put food on the table, if you’re suffering from depression and can’t concentrate on school work — these are barriers to learning.

Overcoming these barriers means providing children with medical, dental and mental health programs; providing families with food banks and social services; providing adult education classes to parents and engaging the family and community in events at the school.

Overcoming barriers means providing art, music, tutoring, STEM programming and after-school programming aligned with the school’s curricula to help students achieve.

Overcoming barriers means leveling the playing field, sometimes literally by providing sports facilities, so that children from high-needs communities are in good mental and physical condition to tackle academics.

Some of our community learning schools, which have been with us longest, have seen a 12.4 point increase in the number of students proficient in reading, an increase better than the rest of the city; we have seen a 16.3 point decrease in the number of struggling readers scoring at the lowest levels, an improvement almost twice that of the city as a whole.

We launched the Community Learning Schools Initiative with the help of the City Council five years ago. We are asking for $1.5 million to provide mental health resources to select schools and provide professional learning and technical assistance to our entire CLS network.

Fund the Positive Learning Collaborative

The PLC is a joint venture between the UFT and the DOE to do something hard: change the behavior of children and adults through restorative justice tools. Our goal is to move away from punitive, after-the-fact discipline still in effect in some schools, and replace it with pro-active, highly restorative practices that can change school climate as well as the individual behaviors of students and staff.

PLC is not a few workshops or webinars. Our team of certified experts — social workers, psychologists, trained teachers and guidance counselors — embed themselves in a school for three years and train every adult in the building, from the custodian to the principal.

We started with six schools in 2013 and now have 15. Adults in PLC schools report clear improvements in school climate, as tracked by annual, anonymous surveys. Students in these schools are increasingly more comfortable talking to adults about personal issues. The adults say they are better equipped to manage challenging classroom behavior effectively, and they see the consistent application of the new school discipline policy.

Community school district schools with PLC report a 61 percent decrease in suspensions. District 75 schools report an astounding 76 percent decrease.

We achieve these results by training all school-based staff through a 26-hour course provided by Cornell University in therapeutic crisis intervention. More than 1,800 educators have received this intensive training in the past four years. PLC then provides on-going workshops in restorative practices, on-site coaching, data dives and internal evaluations. 

The results: Fewer conflicts in the halls and the cafeteria, a quieter, more focused learning environment in the classrooms and greater trust between students and staff.

We are requesting $750,000 to bring PLC to 10 additional high-needs schools and expand parental workshops this September.

Support the BRAVE anti-bullying initiative

BRAVE, an acronym for Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education, offers an array of resources and tools to help educators tackle bullying in their schools including a series of workshops for UFT members. We want to make sure students know they have allies in their classrooms.

Our BRAVE initiative began in 2012 in response to our concerns about bullying. Throughout the presidential campaign and subsequent months, our members saw an uptick in bullying in our schools and online through social media. Our teachers have expressed concerns that our immigrant and LGBTQ students have been particularly hard hit. Every day, our experts field calls from students and parents who are dealing with bullying.

The BRAVE program is requesting $100,000 to provide call facilitators and mental health specialists to help students, parents and teachers.

Strengthen Dial-A-Teacher

Dial-a-Teacher has answered nearly two million calls for homework help since it opened in 1980. 

We started with five teachers covering 17 schools. Today, 45 teachers answer more than 60,000 calls a year. This year, we’re answering calls in the following languages: Armenian, Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Haitian-Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Tagalog.

We have the expertise to cover everything from helping a beginning reader to answering questions about advanced chemistry, calculus and physics. Students and parents love this service. We receive scores of thank-you emails from satisfied mothers, fathers, grandparents and guardians. They’re especially happy about the help with math, a subject that has generated the most calls in our 37-year history.

This year, as an experiment, we are providing assistance to students living in temporary housing who are studying for their Regents’ exams.

We’re asking for $65,000 to help upgrade our outdated telephone system.

Provide free and healthy school lunch for all

In addition to these five UFT programs, the UFT also supports Lunch4Learning in its quest to provide every public school student with free lunch next school year.

The need for universal free school lunch is clear: One child in four in this city lives in a home without enough food. A recent analysis by the Citizens’ Committee for Children found 110,000 city students are from families that earn too much to qualify for a free school lunch but who still struggle to find the $315 a year it costs to pay for a child’s lunch.

Hungry children cannot effectively learn. Besides the humane virtue of ensuring our children are not hungry, free school meals are a critical tool in fighting educational inequality. Children shouldn’t skip lunch because they’re embarrassed, or because they are afraid of burdening their families. Boston, Dallas and other cities have already found ways to do this for their students. New York City needs to step up and do the same thing.

Visit our programs

Our members deeply appreciate the support the Council has provided. It is heartening when we see photos of your school visits on social media and hear you telling the world about the amazing work in our neighborhood public schools.

We are incredibly proud of these programs, and we cordially invite you to visit our Community Schools, our PLC schools and Dial-A-Teacher so you can see the value of these important initiatives. Thank you again for this opportunity to provide the Council with this testimony. Your continued help and support will help us in our fight to make sure schools provide a quality education for all.

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