Testimony of UFT Vice President for Special Education Carmen Alvarez before the New York City Council Committee on Education regarding the FY2018 education expense plan
Good afternoon. My name is Carmen Alvarez. I’m the Vice President for Special Education at the United Federation of Teachers. I'd like to begin by thanking Daniel Dromm and the Education Committee for holding this hearing and ensuring that important budget issues involving our neighborhood public schools get the attention they deserve. On behalf of the UFT, I also want to thank Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras and the entire City Council for its support and advocacy on behalf of our members and students.
My testimony today focuses on five programs that make a real difference to our students. We hope you will support these initiatives in the upcoming city budget.
Before I address specifics in the budget, it’s incumbent upon me to discuss the national scene. As you’re aware, we’re facing a huge change in the nation’s education policy, and we will need to take steps to protect our public schools and our students. The Trump administration has made it clear that it is not a friend of public schools. The destructive words emanating from the White House and its allies, which malign public education, immigrants, people of color and the LGBTQ community, are antithetical to every American principle.
Protect public education
Many Americans are appalled by the actions of the Trump administration, which is tearing apart immigrant families, rolling back the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, and threatening to take away health insurance from 24 million Americans. Our neighborhood public schools are now squarely in the right wing’s crosshairs, and the threats we face are very real.
Billionaire Betsy DeVos, now Secretary of Education, spent her career stripping tax dollars from Michigan’s public schools to finance for-profit charter schools. She has generously donated to political campaigns of those who support the diversion of 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.
President Donald Trump last week took the first step to gut funding for our public schools and to promote charters and private and religious schools. The Trump administration is seeking to cut $9.2 billion — or 13.5 percent — from the Education Department’s budget, a dramatic downsizing that would reduce or eliminate after-school programs and aid to low-income and first-generation college students. More than $1.2 billion alone would be cut from the federal government’s community schools initiative, called the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides enrichment, tutoring and other academic services to students before and after school.
Despite the steep cuts, the proposal would fulfill a major Trump campaign promise: an unprecedented federal investment in so-called "school choice," including the expansion of charter schools and publicly funded private and parochial school options. It includes a $168 million increase for Charter Schools Program grants, which fund the expansion of charter schools, boosting the program by about half. And it proposes a new $250 million private school choice program, which would likely allow families to use public funds to help pay for private schools. It would also increase a $15 billion allocation of Title I funds for poor students by $1 billion, encouraging school districts to adopt "student-based budgeting" systems that allow "federal, state and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice."
What’s more, the New York State Senate GOP has also taken a page out of the Trump/DeVos playbook by proposing a budget package that would divert millions from public schools, sending that taxpayer money to corporate charter operators instead. That's on top of their plan to eliminate the cap on charter schools, increase rent aid and give them more access to co-location space in city schools, all the while not proposing a single measure to hold charter schools accountable or require them to accept and keep all children. The Senate's actions would essentially create a Wild West of unregulated charter schools across the state.
We've run the numbers. New York City's public schools could lose as much as $140 million in federal funding under Trump's budget proposals, and an additional $243 million if the NYS Senate GOP gets its way. Those are losses that our public schools can’t afford. It's worth noting that the State Assembly’s one-house budget package takes the opposite approach and includes a plan to expand and enhance the millionaire’s tax, a fair-share proposal that would bring billions of dollars in additional revenue to the state – a plan the UFT wholeheartedly supports. Not only that, but the Assembly’s package also smartly includes significant accountability and transparency measures for charter schools, as well as a call for equitable enrollment.
With so much of what we believe in at risk, we cannot afford to stand by or idly watch. To keep our public schools well-funded and educationally sound, we need to prevent the Trump/DeVos privatization agenda from gaining a foothold in the state. The UFT stands firmly opposed to the Senate budget resolution, and our members have been calling and faxing Senate Republicans all week to voice their displeasure. Our members have also been on the front lines of demonstrations and social media campaigns against Trump's policies ever since he took office.
We ask that the Council stand with us and support policies that protect our students, our families and our professions. We must fight the redistribution of tax dollars from public schools to fund corporate charter special interests and school vouchers. We ask that you help us fight for legislation to protect public funds by increasing the transparency and accountability of charter schools, and for charter equity legislation that requires taxpayer-funded charters to accept and keep the same number of high-needs students as our district public schools. We must also ensure that our schools remain sanctuaries for our most vulnerable children including immigrants, children with special needs, homeless students and children who identify as LGBTQ.
The Trump/DeVos supporters are once again trying to label all of our public schools as failing. It is past time we say, “Nonsense!” and stop letting proponents of privatization frame the discussion. We know miracles happen every day in our classrooms, thanks to the hard work of our dedicated UFT members and many others. We document these stories in our union newspaper, as does the NYC media. You visit your schools as well and I know you see successes all the time.
Do we have work to do in some of our schools? Of course! Poverty, social inequalities and newcomers to our shores create challenges for our educators. But we have met these challenges for decades and we have more tools in our toolkits than ever before. We will never give up on our children, and neither will you.
This winter, we have been telling public school success stories as part of our #PublicSchoolProud campaign, and I’m happy to say that the campaign has gone national. We invite all of you to join us and participate in the campaign by continuing to visit and support the schools in your district, and showing your pride on social media. Let’s make sure the country knows just how amazing our neighborhood public schools really are.
Support Teachers Choice
Our union prides itself on the selflessness of our members. We work hard on behalf of our students, often going beyond our job descriptions. That commitment includes spending our own money — hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars — on materials for our classrooms.
When I was a teacher, a week didn’t go by without having to buy something for my students. On average, our members spend upwards of $500 a year on supplies; some tell us they spend $1,000 or more. Often, we pay for basic supplies including paper, pencils, poster boards, disinfecting wipes and trash bags. We also have members who pay the cost of science projects, musical instruments, computer software and sports equipment. Last year, one teacher told us he stocked the shop class, while another paid for field trips.
It’s also a sad but true that some of our students are so poor, they come to school without a winter jacket or appropriate footwear. Others are in old, worn-out clothing. Many of my colleagues and I have bought jackets, gloves, shirts, sweaters and boots for our students. We do it because we want our students to have every opportunity to succeed, and they can’t focus on their classwork if they’re cold or embarrassed about their clothes.
There’s an old joke that says teachers are among the only professionals who steal supplies from their homes to bring to work. It would be funny if it weren’t also true. It’s an expensive proposition, frankly. Buying supplies for our classrooms is a burden unique to our profession, and it amounts to a whole lot more than pocket change.
We’re grateful the City Council has long supported New York City’s public school educators through a program called “Teachers Choice”, which provides teachers with spending money for their classrooms. It’s a wonderful show of commitment to our members, and we are grateful for the Council’s ongoing support. We respectfully ask the Council to fund Teacher’s Choice next year at a level of $20 million.
Invest in community schools
The link between our public schools and their neighborhoods is vital. Schools do not exist in isolation; they serve a community, and the strongest of our schools are considered community hubs, offering activities, programs and services for students during the day and many of the neighborhood’s constituents during the evenings and on weekends.
The growing community schools movement has its philosophical roots in the symbiotic relationship between a school and the surrounding 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 now partners with 28 schools in the five boroughs. It works with some of the highest-needs schools, not just in the city, but in the state. At the center of the UFT’s initiative are the Community School Directors who work fulltime in each of the buildings. These key people are responsible for developing a coordinated plan to build public/private partnerships and integrate the resulting 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.
A 2016 study comparing the percentage of students meeting or exceeding English Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency standards from the 2012-13 to the 2015-16 school years revealed that Community Learning Schools outpaced schools in the rest of the city and the state in terms of growth in ELA and math scores.
Of the 20 Community Learning Schools that administered the state test in ELA, 16 — or 80 percent — exceeded city or state gains in student achievement. The math story is equally compelling. Of the 20 Community Learning Schools that administered the state math test, 10 — or 50 percent — exceeded city or state gains.
Additionally, the data reveals that the longer a school has been a CLS, the better its results. Three of four schools from the first cohort experienced gains of more than 10 percentage points; while four of the seven elementary and middle schools in the second cohort experienced gains ranging from more than seven to almost 14 percentage points. It’s also worth noting that community schools aim to provide important and missing services in some of our highest-need communities. For example, community schools are trying to secure funds to build school-based health centers, dental and vision services and mental health programs, all of which are desperately needed by their student populations.
CLS was made possible, in part, by the strong support of the City Council, and we respectfully ask the Council to again support us. An investment of $1.5 million would allow us to provide mental health resources to a select group of schools, as well as professional development and technical assistance to our entire network.
Fund the Positive Learning Collaborative
As we learn more about how a child develops, teaching becomes an increasingly complex task but we also gain tools for reaching children in different ways. One thing we have learned is we must focus on the whole child. The UFT’s Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC) is helping 16 of our schools do just that, and helping schools create and maintain a positive school culture and climate.
Many students come into our classrooms with what we call barriers to learning: personal or societal problems that hinder success in a classroom. These include health problems, mental health issues, learning disabilities, severe family problems, extreme poverty and homelessness. These barriers can manifest themselves in immature and thoughtless behaviors, and sometimes they lead to far more disruptive and serious infractions.
The Positive Learning Collaborative is a specialized, comprehensive approach to help schools manage student behavior. 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 custodians and school safety officers all the way to the principal. The six schools that started in PLC two years ago have already seen a reduction in suspensions and violent incidents as well as a dramatic improvement in school climate.
We aim to help schools reduce the number of incidents and suspensions without resorting immediately to punitive measures. We help create systems that address student misconduct in ways that strengthen relationships between students, students and teachers, and students and the administration.
PLC teaches techniques to identify and proactively defuse potential situations as well as strategies to handle situations when they do occur. Part of that work includes restorative justice practices, which promote trust and respect throughout the school community and help students develop self-discipline and communication skills to handle issues in a constructive manner.
The PLC program helps a school create a caring and supportive environment where everyone is valued and everyone is heard. It makes sense that students learn more in a calmer building. PLC teaches students to think about how their actions affect others, how their actions have consequences and how to re-think how they react to other people. PLC gives real-life solutions in how to manage conflict and teaches children, some with few role-models, to develop healthy relationships.
With your help, we know we can make an even greater impact. Sixteen schools are participating in PLC program this year, but dozens are on the waiting list. With $750,000, we could increase our support to 30 schools.
On any given afternoon after school, more than three dozen educators answer the phones at the UFT’s Dial-a-Teacher. Every week, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students and parents call about homework assignments. One of the few programs of this kind, it’s hugely successful, with more than 68,000 calls last year alone and we’re on track to match that number this year.
Our program reflects the city’s diversity; our Dial-a-Teacher team speaks 10 languagesincluding Chinese, Russian and Bengali. The team works with students on any subject matter from any grade.
While the program has maintained a state-of-the-art approach to the latest curriculum, we’ve been unable to keep up with the latest technology, and that’s where we hope the Council can help. For a modest $65,000 investment, we can upgrade our phone and internet service and position Dial-A-Teacher for years to come.
Support the BRAVE anti-bullying hotline
Throughout the presidential campaign and election, our members saw an uptick in bullying in our schools and online through social media. It continues to be a problem. Immigrants and LGBTQ students have been particularly hard hit as evidenced by an increase in calls to our BRAVE anti-bullying hotline. Each day, a team of experts fields calls from students and parents who are dealing with bullying.
The program also offers an array of resources and tools to help educators make a difference in their schools including a series of workshops for UFT members. We want to make sure students know they have allies in their schools. The BRAVE program is respectfully requesting $100,000 to provide call facilitators and mental health specialists to help students, parents and teachers.
Provide free and healthy school lunch for all
In addition to the five UFT programs I’ve just spoken about, the UFT also supports the “Lunch4Learning” campaign in its quest to provide every public school student with a free school lunch in the 2017-18 school years.
The need for universal free school lunch is clear: One child in four in this city lives in a home that doesn’t have enough food. Hungry children cannot effectively learn anything. Besides the humane virtue of ensuring our children are not hungry, free school meals are a critical tool in fighting educational inequality.
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 taking place in our neighborhood public schools.
We are incredibly proud of the programs I’ve just told you about, and we cordially invite you to visit our Community Schools, our PLC schools and even Dial-A-Teacher so you can see for yourself the value of these important initiatives.
Thank you again for this opportunity to testify before you today. We face real challenges in the months ahead. Your continued help and support will help us in our fight to make sure schools provide a quality education for all.