It is September and another school year begins! As millions of New York children all over our state return to school, we ask a multitude of questions.
Are their schools overcrowded? Are they out-dated? Are their parents active? Is there the right education for special needs children? Are the sports facilities adequate and it there physical education? Is there Arts education? Are the basics well taught? Is there too much testing? Too little? Is there a fair distribution of resources?
As we examine these and the many other questions, we realize that in the answers we see the future for New York.
The Assembly Education Committee reviews almost 600 bills during each two-year legislative term. These bills deal with a wide range of issues - school funding, class size, pre-k and early childhood education, testing, special education, transportation, breakfast and nutrition, health care services, construction and maintenance of school buildings, charter schools, continued issues of mayoral, community and other “controls” of the 700 school districts in our state and so much more. There are many “stakeholders,” all with suggestions and opinions. It takes persistence for the Assembly Committee on Education to establish good public policy.
Speaker Sheldon Silver appointed me to chair the Assembly Education Committee in February of 2006. Our responsibility is great. Together, with the more than 30 colleagues from both political parties, representing communities throughout New York State, we have made some important strides during the legislative session.
This year, in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Governor Eliot Spitzer and the legislature dedicated hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to education in a revised formula which made high needs children the state’s priority. New York City will benefit greatly from this new approach.
A priority of mine will be to make sure that English language learners are treated fairly under the federal No Child Left Behind policy. In addition, in response to concerns from parents of special needs children, I sponsored legislation, now law, to make sure that hearings about special education were fair.
Schools need to work for our children. My responsibility as committee chair is to try to achieve that goal. I approach the leadership of this committee as a graduate of Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens - a long over-crowded and woefully underserved New York City high school. This high school once served 6,000 students in a school built for 3,000! Sadly, little has changed in thirty years. High schools throughout New York City continue to be very overcrowded with large class sizes.
I am also the parent of a New York City public school student who is entering fourth grade this year. Like many city parents, I am anxious and concerned about the up-coming middle school years because the city and its Department of Education (DOE) have not made much progress in this area despite years of mayoral control and the increased state tax dollars, which the city school system receives.
The problems of class size, lack of focus on middle schools and violence top the list of concerns cited by my constituents and fellow parents. As a long-term member of the state legislature, I pledge my own efforts to deal with these issues, and hope that New York City will try to reach out more to the state legislature as the city “reorganizes” yet again. There is little communication and I know how frustrated parents can be at the lack of any real support and input in the city public schools.
Education policy relies on collaboration. I have enjoyed working with New York City Councilmember Robert Jackson, attending several of his important hearings. I have also attended meeting of the Board of Regents, to both learn more about state education policy and review the important work of leaders like Regents Merryl Tisch and Geraldine Chapey. I was very honored this year to receive a John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers, speak with the Council of Supervisors and Administrators and meet with the unions, which represent the support and professional staff in New York schools.
Everyone needs to be at the policy-making table - parents, teachers, principals, administrators, professionals at the State Education Department, the bureaucracy at “Tweed,” and the students themselves. All contribute to the development and implementation of good programs and services for our children. For example, it was a conversation with parents, which first focused my attention on class size and its relevance to proper learning.
Leaders including Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez of the Hispanic Federation and Hazel Dukes of the NAACP together with many of my Assembly colleagues, particularly Rory Lancman from Queens, and others successfully advocated for language in the state budget to make sure that small class sizes, common in private schools, are part of the requirements for the Contract for Excellence.
The Contract for Excellence is a critical initiative launched by Governor Spitzer that requires low performing school districts like New York City’s DOE to meet specific measures of accountability and performance.
New York and its schools will face many challenges in the years ahead. The lasting impact of education and the proper policies, legislation and funding are responsibilities that I take with utmost seriousness of purpose. I am optimistic that we will address problems in a comprehensive and ultimately successful way and look forward to working with all New Yorkers to do just that.
Assemblymember Catherine Nolan is the New York State Assembly Education Chair.