On the frosty morning of Feb. 7, residents of Syosset, Jericho and Plainview packed themselves into the cafeteria of Syosset’s Harry B. Thompson Elementary School to break bread with local politicians while airing concerns and opinions in regards to the state of education in New York today.
Theresa Gordon, Syosset Council PTA President, helped co-organize the third annual Legislative Breakfast along with representatives from the Plainview and Jericho school districts. She said that the event, previously held the last two years in Plainview, provides an open and direct channel of communication between residents and their elected representatives in government.
“We started this event amidst concerns from the parents of the community with regards to education and taxes,” she said. “We sent a letter to the officials inviting them to come, and they were very receptive. This is been a very effective way for the public to communicate their grievances, and we feel that the members of government that attend listen and do their best to help.”
The Legislative Breakfast saw several elected officials present—including Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Roger Tilles of the New York State Board of Regents—enjoying bagels and coffee with their constituents while discussing a variety of hot-button topics. The Thompson cafeteria was packed to capacity, and Gordon praised those present for their civic-mindedness.
“The turnout is amazing…we had 200 people RSVP and we’ve also had a great many walk-ins as well,” she said. “It’s a large crowd…obviously, you can see that the community cares about their children and their education.”
Laura Miller of Woodbury was among the many parents packed in to the Thompson cafeteria that morning. Like many residents there that morning, she said that she was angry about the increased importance and frequency that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to place on testing centered on the evaluation of teacher performance.
“I attended this breakfast last year, and I felt it was very productive…I was able to voice my opinions, ask questions, and actually get responses. I felt like I was taken seriously,” she said. “Like many people, I feel that the direction of public education in New York State had gone downhill. Governor Cuomo is a bully, he’s tyrannical, and my biggest concern is his constant teacher evaluation testing…kids will be spending so much time preparing for tests that they won’t spend any time actually learning. We want kids to learn to love learning, and you’ve only got one shot at that.”
After breakfast was served, the event kicked off with a brief presentation from the elected officials present on the subject of education, with the discussion centered on the state-mandated evaluation testing of the teachers and students in New York school districts. These tests, in theory, are supposed to weed out which districts that are not succeeding; however, according to Lavine, this approach is not beneficial to anyone involved for a variety of reasons.
“It’s pretty obvious that the districts represented here today are not only succeeding, but they’re producing students that can compete very well on a worldwide basis,” he said. “Do, do we need to subject our students, who are at the very top of educational ability, to more and more testing? The obvious answer is no, and the more people we gather at these events, the more we are able to prove to the state educational department that the direction we’re going in is not right.”
Jacobs said that she was ready and able to take the viewpoints of the members of her district—particularly those having to do with the controversial ad unpopular Common Core learning standards, which many opponents claim are removing creativity from education—and deliver those messages to the lawmakers in Albany.
“I am fortunate enough to represent three of the best school districts in the Nassau County Legislature…Plainview-Old Bethpage, Syosset and Jericho. When they invite me to events like this, I go” she said. “I think that’s it’s wonderful that these excellent school districts are sharing their views, their problems, their accomplishments…for elected officials to have opportunities such as this to communicate directly with their constituents is a great thing, and even though we ourselves are not responsible for the Common Core, we can act as emissaries to the ones that do.”
Israel said that he was a staunch advocate of educational reform, and that his attendance at last year’s legislative breakfast had inspired him to act on behalf of the children of New York.
“I have a very large Congressional district, but no matter where I go and who I talk to, one thing remains constant…we need major testing reform in New York State,” he said. “At this very event last year, I was given the idea to introduce new legislation hat would completely reform the testing process…we need to test our kids less and enrich them more.”
Tilles has attended many such community events, and said that they can be a valuable way of ushering in real change as long as the communication between residents and officials is a two-way street. Arguing, he said, accomplishes very little, especially when everyone present is on the same page.
“I’m with the parents here today…the Common Core standards themselves are sound, but they way that they’ve been implemented by the state has been horrendous. I don’t blame parents for being outraged,” he said. “The whole system was supposed to be designed for testing to be diagnostic, but when the Governor got a hold of it, it became punitive instead of diagnostic, and once that happened, the whole basis of why we test went out the window.”
The Legislative Breakfast was a civil event, yet some parents were nonetheless quite passionate when it came to voicing their opinions. But in the end, Woodbury resident Wendy Levitt praised how local government seemed to be taking the issues of parents to heart.
“I think this is fantastic…our Nassau and State officials have been very respectful of us, and they’re great in donating their time in coming here and listening to the concerns of the community,” she said. “I’ve had lots of conversations with virtually everyone on today’s panel, and they all seem to be of the same mind…that the way education is being reformed is not in the best interests of the children. We need to get this message to the people who don’t show up here, such as Governor Cuomo’s office.”