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Legislative priorities

Safeguard public education

Washington D.C.’s continued onslaught on basic human rights leaves New Yorkers little choice but to protect these critical rights at the state level. New York’s Democratic majorities in the state Assembly and Senate have shown they are up for the challenge by passing needed reforms – from voter rights and the Reproductive Health Act to the Jose Peralta New York State DREAM Act. This impressive roster was accomplished during the most progressive legislative session in decades. This was government at its best in 2019.

The UFT looks to legislative leaders to create similar safeguards for public education in 2020. At the federal level, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to push school choice policies, including the Education Freedom Scholarship program, to expand private school options for families, and Washington D.C.’s cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions is making it harder for municipalities across the state to fund their local public schools. Meanwhile, the New York State and city populations of public school students with special needs, English language learners, and those who are homeless or living in temporary housing continue to grow.

Unlike many states, New York has invested in its public schools, and has seen results from increasing elementary achievement to rising high school graduation rates. We need to continue this investment while directing more funding to classrooms serving our neediest students, particularly schools bearing the brunt of the state’s homelessness crisis. We need to generate new revenue streams by increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to ensure they are paying their fair share of educating our increasing population of vulnerable students.

Our message on charters has not changed – they must agree to a basic level of accountability for how they treat all students and how they use tax dollars, as do all public schools in the state. In NYC, we must also examine offsetting the increased aid charters receive through allowable rental costs.

Pay their fair share

Given the fiscal reality that our state is facing a severe budget deficit, the UFT understands the need to identify new sources of revenue.

The UFT supports the continuation and expansion of the millionaire’s tax, which has protected vital community services by generating more than $4.4 billion annually. The state has 73% more millionaires today than when the idea was adopted in 2009. New York could generate an additional $2.2 billion by increasing the top rate of this tax for those who make $5 million to $100 million a year.

We are now calling for a new billionaire wealth tax. New York City is still home to more billionaires than any other city in the country. With a 2% wealth tax, the state could generate upwards of $10 billion annually in new revenue.

Instead of asking the wealthiest to help fund the public services we deserve, the state budget has been kept on a starvation diet since the last recession due to the self-imposed 2% spending cap. We need to lift this artificial cap to help New Yorkers who struggle to pay rent, feed their families, and educate their children.

Hold charter schools accountable

We must level the playing field with charter schools and demand transparency and accountability from a sector that still enrolls and keeps far fewer high-needs students than traditional public schools, despite demanding an ever-larger share of public dollars.

New York charter schools boast they enroll their incoming students on a random basis and that once enrolled, they do not weed out students; however, this is far from the truth. For the 2018-19 school year, charters as a group enrolled half the citywide average of ELLs, significantly fewer students with disabilities – particularly those with the most challenging needs – and fewer students from the poorest families. State data also shows that charter schools have higher suspension rates than traditional public schools, often employed as a tactic to persuade students and their families to seek other school options.

The charter sector consistently claims superior student results while denying the effects of its exclusionary policies, particularly in the highest-scoring charter schools. Those misleading assertions have helped drive the sector’s expansion to the point that New York City as a whole diverted an estimated $2.3 billion to charter operations as of fiscal year 2020, and approximately 121 charter schools are now co-located in public school buildings, too often involving the loss of libraries, labs, music rooms and other facilities for the public school students involved. The NYC fiscal year 2021 preliminary budget released in January 2020 estimates that charter schools will cost New York City an additional $92 million.

To that end, in addition to keeping the charter school cap in place, we support the following package of legislation:

  1. S.4237/A.8030 (Hoylman/Benedetto) to require transparency and accountability of charter schools
  2. S.6043/A.8027 (Liu/Benedetto) to repeal charter school facilities aid
  3. S.5950/A.8029 (Mayer/Benedetto) to limit charter school grade level expansions
  4. S.4926/A.7766 (Liu/Benedetto) to permit the state comptroller to conduct financial audits of NYC charter schools
  5. S.2743/A.6934 (Addabbo/Nolan) to require charter schools to disclose financial information on contracts signed with Education Management Organizations to any authority that can audit charter schools
  6. S.4933/A.7237 (Liu/Ryan) to appoint an independent receiver upon the closing of a charter to perform financial audits and facilitate the return of public funds to the school district
  7. S.5978/A.8028 (Mayer/Benedetto) to include school districts and community school districts in the charter approval process in over-enrolled districts
  8. S.3334-A/A.3289-A (Jackson/Bichotte) to require charter school discipline codes match local school district discipline codes
  9. S.2168/A.3979 (Bailey/Hyndman) to prohibit the conversion of an existing public school to a charter school where a history of anti-union animus exists
  10. S.5734/A.7848 (Jackson/Bichotte) to remove SUNY as a charter school authorizer.

Fund schools based on need

The number of New York City students with special needs, who are English language learners (ELLs) and homeless students continues to grow. At the same time, as a school district, NYC continues its failure to provide these vulnerable populations the services they are entitled to receive.

NYC Department of Education data from November 2019 revealed that during the 2018-2019 school year 29,000 students with special needs went without 100% of the mandated services they are legally entitled to receive. Similarly, classrooms intended to be integrated spaces for ELLs have 32 students that are all ELLs across the different classifications, making the intent of being in an integrated space null and void. English as a New Language educators are expected to co-teach too many courses with content teachers and, as a result, proper co-planning fails to occur.

Likewise, it is estimated that 1 in 10 students in the New York City public school system is homeless — that is more than 114,000 students. In all, over the past decade, we’ve seen a rise of 70% in our homeless student population. Homeless students and those living in temporary housing have very unique needs. More specifically, students living in these circumstances need additional mental health and social-emotional support beyond those traditionally provided in a school. We need state funding to add more social workers, school psychologists and mental health professionals in our schools, in particular, those who are already familiar with the individual academic needs of students and can provide them with social-emotional support for needs that go beyond the classroom.

Educators need resources and support to address the depth of this need. The UFT therefore calls for a $2.1 billion statewide increase in education funding this budget cycle with a commitment to fully phase in the foundation aid formula over the course of the next two to three years. It is time for the state to meet its Campaign for Fiscal Equity obligation and fully fund the foundation aid formula. According to the NYC Department of Education, New York City public school students are owed $1.1 billion in foundation aid in the current 2019-2020 fiscal year alone. This funding level will enable the state to shift more funds to the schools with the highest numbers of students in need.

Bolster Teacher Centers

The UFT’s nationally-recognized Teacher Center and teacher centers across the state provide educators with relevant, hands-on, research-based professional learning. The UFT Teacher Center mentors and strengthens new teachers; helps experienced professionals deepen their knowledge and skills; and identifies educational leaders across diverse communities and empowers them to share their expertise with colleagues.

New York State’s investment allows the UFT to operate the Teacher Center program in 115 schools in all five boroughs. Each is staffed with experts who work with educators at their sites and surrounding schools. Through this network, the UFT provided over 127,000 hours of professional learning to teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, school staff and parents in New York City last school year.

Teacher centers are designed to meet the specific needs of school communities. A typical example is the newest site opened with state funds in Washington Heights during the 2018-2019 academic year to help educators meet the needs of English language learners, 28% of the neighborhood’s student population. Using these state funds, the Teacher Center program and the UFT are working with educators across Washington Heights to support students who may have social language skills in English but need to acquire fluency in academic English to succeed in school.

We seek a full restoration of funding for the program through a combined $40 million investment from the Assembly, Senate and Gov. Cuomo to preserve and expand teacher centers in New York City and across the state.

Enhance United Community Schools

The UFT began its United Community Schools (UCS) in 2012 to overcome student barriers to learning by providing vital health and human services where they would have the greatest impact on children — inside schools.

With help from the state and city, the UFT now provides additional high-quality academic enrichment, health and mental health programs, and services for parents to more than 20,000 students and their families in 32 schools, roughly the size of the Syracuse school district. The UFT leverages this funding by providing each UCS school with a community school director whose sole job is to bring in needed services. The $100,000 in salary and benefits generates, on average, more than $600,000 in new resources. The impact on students is clear: increased academic performance, better attendance, decreased long-term absenteeism, a healthier school climate and increased parent engagement.

With city and state support, the UFT opened two full-service vision centers inside existing school-based health centers. With state help, the UFT is breaking down bureaucratic barriers to allow these two vision centers to serve students in surrounding schools as well as their own. We look forward to working with the NYS Department of Health and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to expand the scope and reach of this cost-saving, effective health care model which will provide primary care, mental health and dental services to these and other schools and school districts.

The UFT is sharing its UCS expertise through a new project — providing technical support and assistance to schools and districts across New York State seeking to replicate the UFT’s model of United Community Schools. It will begin providing supports to various schools in the City School District of Albany in the 2020 school year.

We seek $5 million for the UFT’s United Community Schools. We ask that this funding and the additional funds proposed for community schools statewide be distributed outside the foundation formula, so the Assembly, Senate and governor can better track the results of this investment.

Improve school climate

Recognizing the need to re-think “school discipline,” the UFT and the city’s Department of Education created a program to end schools’ over-reliance on suspensions while building a safe, positive school environment for all children. The Positive Learning Collaborative uses an approach that is both holistic and data-driven to ensure that every adult in a given school has the skills and tools they need to guide the successful development and learning of all children.

PLC started in the 2012-13 school year, supports 25 elementary schools and is expanding to 50 middle schools this winter. Suspensions in the PLC schools that have been participating for at least three years have fallen nearly 54% compared to a New York City decrease of 31%. Equally important — the violent incidents that can lead to suspension have fallen 44%.

PLC provides intensive training in de-escalation techniques to all school-based staff members and classroom consultation to assist in the implementation of therapeutic crisis intervention; positive behavior interventions and support; social-emotional learning skills; and restorative practices. Support also includes strategies to prevent biased-based bullying and promote gender-inclusive schools. PLC has expanded its offerings to empower parents though conversations in these same topics. And as the school climate improved in these schools, so did the academics: increases in test scores in these schools met or exceeded New York City gains in ELA and math.

Making this kind of lasting change takes hard work and resources. Legislation that simply eliminates suspensions without providing ongoing, schoolwide training and resources is not the solution. PLC and other similar programs are in a position to share best practices and successful techniques with schools across the state. We look forward to hearing more about the governor’s proposed grant program for schools seeking to train educators in trauma-informed care and therapeutic crisis intervention. We are also seeking $1.5 million so that we can continue to expand the UFT’s PLC program to support additional schools and enhance the direct support for families and communities in New York City.

Provide affordable child care

There are over 6,000 New York City home-based child care providers who allow thousands of low-income New Yorkers to work because they provide high-quality affordable care for children. The more than 12,000 home-based child care providers statewide provide tangible economic outcomes and employment stability to New York’s economy. The UFT supports increasing the number of child care slots available to families to provide affordable and accessible childcare to 61% of New Yorkers who live in a child care desert, and is in favor of the state providing resources to pay for federal mandates. Our providers deserve additional compensation for the vital work they do.