A substantial increase in state funding for New York City public schools topped the agenda for the more than a thousand UFT members and public school parents who traveled to Albany on March 18 to meet with their state representatives for the UFT’s annual Lobby Day.
The day’s participants got up before dawn to board union buses and pored over fact sheets during the three-hour ride to the state capital. They were making the trip to ask lawmakers to increase school aid statewide and to invest in three vital union education initiatives: UFT United Community Schools, teacher centers and the Positive Learning Collaborative, an initiative to improve school culture and climate. The UFT’s call for a $2.2 billion statewide increase in funding moved the debate as both the Assembly and the Senate pushed for upward of $1.6 billion in the state budget that is due by April 1.
“We had a chance to meet with our representatives to make a difference in the lives of our students,” said Seth Wiznitzer, a UFT delegate who teaches English language learners at Kingsbridge International HS in the Bronx.
Speaking to the member lobbyists at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center before they fanned out for visits with their local state representatives, UFT President Michael Mulgrew told attendees their message for Albany’s elected officials was simple: “You want what we want, which is for education to be the best it’s ever been. And we need your help to make it happen.”
In addition to a large increase in overall state aid targeting high-need districts, educators and parents asked their representatives to stand firm on the $24.1 million they proposed to invest in teacher centers statewide, provide $5 million to support the UFT’s 31 United Community Schools in low-income parts of the city and allocate $1.5 million to expand the Positive Learning Collaborative program to more schools.
The member lobbyists told lawmakers that funding for these initiatives should come from extending the state millionaire’s tax and expanding the top rates for the wealthiest New Yorkers. The union also supports imposing a new tax on second homes valued at $5 million or higher owned by out-of-state residents.
“We want the millionaires and billionaires to pay so we can have the proper services the state needs,” said Wiznitzer, who was participating in Lobby Day for the fourth time.
The need for more revenue is due partly to the tax overhaul passed by the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and signed by President Trump in 2017. The law capped state and local tax deductions, which cost New York State more than $2.3 billion, according to the governor.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, who also spoke at the Convention Center, reminded the member lobbyists that they were part of a national movement to safeguard education funding from those politicians who want to cut public services to make the rich richer.
“Many of you are social studies teachers — remember the Gilded Age?” Weingarten asked. “This is the Gilded Age 2.”
She said they needed to let lawmakers know that “kids, not billionaires, should come first.”
UFT members posted about their experiences during the day to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
State Sen. Shelley Mayer, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee, said the time was ripe for increasing education funding since Democrats now control both houses of the state Legislature this year, thanks to the work of the UFT and others.
“Don’t take no for an answer; take yes for an answer,” said Mayer, who represents portions of Westchester County. “Yes for public education, yes for foundation aid, yes for the parents of New York City, yes for the children in our schools.”
It was the first time at Lobby Day for Lisa LaMagra, a UFT chapter leader and 3rd-grade teacher at PS 131 in Queens, who was “amazed” by the willingness of elected officials to hear what she had to say.
“They were listening, asking really great questions,” said LaMagra. “I felt like our voices were heard.”
She says the UFT’s efforts to organize and educate its members made the difference.
“Being prepared was the key,” she said. “The union had us completely prepared.”
For April Rose, also a UFT chapter leader and a 4th-grade teacher at PS 132 in Queens, Lobby Day was just the beginning.
“I’m not just going to come back to work and that’s it,” she said. “I can continue the conversation.”