ALBANY — Test refusal forces have taken an interest in the race for the state's 5th Senate District, and they’re using the organizing tools that have been effective in driving New York's test opt-out movement to try to oust longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Carl Marcellino.
“We’re using all of our skills that we’ve learned over the last four years and we’re applying that to helping candidates who are going to advocate for us,” Jeanette Deutermann, administrator of Long Island Opt Out and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education, told POLITICO New York.
Story Continued Below
With the help of NYSAPE, an anti-Common Core coalition of parent groups from across the state, last spring more than 21 percent of the state’s approximately 1.1 million eligible third- through eighth-grade students refused to take the state standardized, Common Core-aligned math and English language arts exams.
The 5th Senate District, which includes portions of Nassau and Suffolk County, falls in the heart of the test refusal movement.
About 55 percent of public school students in Suffolk County opted out of exams in spring 2016, making the state’s eastern most corner a test refusal hot spot. About 43 percent of students opted out in Nassau County during that period.
Marcellino, who first won his seat in 1995, is the current head of the Senate Education Committee. His opponent, Democrat Jim Gaughran, has turned that position against Marcellino, running a campaign largely focused on education, setting it apart from most other races in the state.
Gaughran, the Suffolk County Water Authority chairman, has hosted listening tours on community education concerns throughout the district. Gaughran is announcing the end of his tour Wednesday, which included 25 events, at least one in each of the 17 public school districts in the Senate district, according to a news release provided to POLITICO New York.
Marcellino told POLITICO New York he, too, has been touring the district, as well as schools statewide as committee chairman.
But the test refusal advocates have taken notice of Gaughran.
The Long Island Opt Out group — which is part of NYSAPE and includes approximately 180 steering committee members representing parents from area school districts — is helping the Democrat with his campaign.
The group is backing Senate Democratic candidates throughout the state, and a mixture of Republican and Democratic candidates for the Assembly, Deutermann said. “If they don’t start listening, we’ll vote them out.”
Though she said the groups are not providing monetary support to candidates, many parents and teachers have been running social media campaigns through Twitter and Facebook, as well as going door-to-door and making phone calls on behalf of candidates, including Gaughran.
Leslie Rose, a third-grade teacher and member of the Long Island Opt Out group, lives in Sen. Todd Kaminsky’s district, but, as she did for Kaminsky in the recent special election, is now helping on Gaughran’s campaign.
Rose said she learned the best strategies for a social media campaign, such as when to post and how to post, through the test refusal movement, though she said you have to be more careful with politics. “You don’t want to offend anyone,” she said.
“I think that with the opt out movement, we feel so passionately that our children have been wronged,” she said. “We see these as avenues to try and correct the system.”
The opt-out activists and Gaughran have been focusing on the funding for New York City charter schools Senate Republicans pushed last session, and, in the case of the 5th Senate District, on Marcellino’s role in the state's Common Core rollout.
The parent groups have also taken issue with Marcellino’s role in the Senate when teacher evaluations were linked to school aid and the system was changed to more heavily rely on students’ scores on state tests. Critics also argue the senator hasn't listened to their concerns — which Marcellino takes issue with.
“I will not take second place to anybody with my background on education,” Marcellino said. “I listen to people, I listen to superintendents, I listen to parents all over the district.”
“Are there people who are unhappy? Sure, I understand that, that’s politics, that’s an election season,” Marcellino added.
As the longtime incumbent, Marcellino has the advantage in the race and has won several high profile endorsements, including from 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. He’s also been the beneficiary of well more than half a million from an independent expenditure committee led by charter school advocates.
He did not, though, secure the support of New York State United Teachers; the union has not weighed in in the race.
“Education is really one of the major defining issues…of this campaign, and the fact that [Marcellino] chairs the Education Committee and the teachers would not endorse him is indicative of how frustrated people are with the current system,” Gaughran told POLITICO New York.
Gaughran said he has been campaigning on several issues he’s heard come up during his listening tours, including the demand for increased and equitable state aid to Long Island schools, rather then increased spending on New York City charter schools.
If elected, Gaughran said he will partner with Kaminsky on legislation to repeal language in the teacher evaluation law that increased the weight of students’ test scores on teacher evaluations. He also said he would work to increase transparency.
“We’ve got to get the parents to buy into this, and the only way we’re going to get them to buy into it… is by working with them, working with the educators and coming up with changes so that actually work,” he told POLITICO New York.
Senate Democrats are looking to take advantage of unrest around the Common Core standards, testing and teacher evaluations as they aim to regain the Senate majority in next week’s elections — a fight for which Marcellino’s seat is being closely watched.
Swing voters like Bob Martorana, a long island teacher and father of two, could help the Democrats' cause.
Martorana, a registered Republican, and his wife, also a teacher, have been active in the opt out movement and plan to vote for Gaughran.
Education "is a big part of our lives especially here on Long Island," he said. "It’s why people move to the island,” said Martorana, who has helped with Gaughran’s campaign efforts, making calls when he can. “When you see something as bad as this that’s affecting not just our kids, but all of our children (and you have a) Republican that’s not responsive to us, then it’s time to vote them out."
Marcellino maintains that he’s listened to the community, and that his campaign is on the right track.
“They’re going to use anything they can. When you don’t have issues, you make them up and that’s what my opponent has been doing, quite frankly,” he said. “I’ve got the endorsements and I’ve got the people saying, ‘Yes, Marcellino’s been doing a good job and we want to keep you there.’”