While walking from house to house campaigning, Jim Gaughran kept hearing the same thing. “It seemed as if I kept meeting either a parent or a teacher, many times they were both, and they all wanted to know why our politicians didn’t seem to care about education,” he said.
Gaughran, a private practice lawyer, with experience in public ethics reform, is running as a Democrat for state Senate in the 5th District against 20-year Republican incumbent Senator Carl Marcellino. The 5th District includes Locust Valley, Bayville, Oyster Bay and the rest of the Town of Oyster Bay. It also includes the Town of Huntington and the City of Glen Cove.
Gaughran decided to do some research on his own. “I spoke to [New York State United Teachers], and got a general sense from school board elections what was going on,” Gaughran said.
He also listened to his wife Carol’s complaints. She’s a teacher in the Patchogue-Medford School District. Carol was concerned about new state mandates and cuts to public school funding, which she found puzzling, because charter school funding was increasing. Jim said it was at that point that he knew “the people in power think the future of education is privatization.”
Marcellino, who is the Senate education chairman, doesn’t agree. “There is absolutely no privatization of public education going on and it’s not going to happen,” he said with conviction. “The board of regents controls the state’s schools. I don’t know where my opponent would even get this idea. It’s utter nonsense.”
But Gaughran believes the issue is political.
“Republicans in the senate are heavily influenced by political action committees that are funded by charter schools,” he said. “Public education is a basic American right. It’s time our leadership started giving funding back to our public schools and not to charters.”
The state of public education continues to be hotly debated across the country. In May, newly appointed federal Secretary of Education, John King, proposed regulations that could possibly classify schools with high standardized test refusal rates as in need of state intervention.
King came under intense scrutiny back in 2014 when, as NYS Education Commissioner, he implemented a regulation that would penalize schools with less than 95 percent participation in state assessment tests. Schools with high refusal rates were threatened with the removal of their Title 1 funding, the funding that schools receive to help their most disadvantaged students. In 2015 many Long Island schools came in under the threshold, yet the state did not withhold any funding.
Education advocates feel that this latest push for new regulations is yet another attempt to penalize schools with high opt-out rates. For example, Senator Todd Kaminsky (D-9th District) recently penned a letter to King urging him to reconsider the proposals.
Both Marcellino and Gaughran disagree with King’s punitive measures, and say they understand why parents are choosing to have their children opt out. But they disagree on why parents are doing so.
According to Gaughran, King’s latest proposed regulations are just another step in the state’s move toward the privatization of public schools. Many parents are opting their children out of assessments, he says, to protest this movement. And the actual process is flawed.
“Tests should not be developed by scoring companies without feedback from teachers or parents, maybe even some of our older students,” Gaughran reasoned.
Marcellino believes that the problem lies with the current fundamentals of public education. “I believe that it’s because of the poorly rolled out common core standards and assessment tests that many parents got fed up and refused to have their youngsters take the tests,” he said. “John King continues to use fear and bullying tactics on parents and schools. I have no problem with parents exercising their individual rights to opt their children out of state tests that they feel are unfair or inappropriate.”
Marcellino said that Governor Cuomo appointed him to the Common Core Task Force to try to undo some of the damage caused by King’s missteps.
“I think everyone agrees that there is nothing wrong with the standards, in fact the standards need to be increased, but they need to be fair and cohesive and address the needs of all students,” Marcellino said.
The senator said that the task force recently created a new requirement for school superintendents to work with parents of special needs learners to create individualized graduation programs. “It should be the responsibility of the school districts to make sure that the children who cannot pass Regents exams get a diploma, not just a certificate,” Marcellino stated.
Under current state law students who do not pass Regents exams receive a Career Development and Occupational Studies certificate, but not a diploma.
Gaughran says that the state education system “needs a lot more than tweaking.” The current state assessment tests do not address the needs of all students with learning and language challenges, he added.
Gabrielle Harrington, the president of the Locust Valley School Employees Association, agreed that many students don’t fit into the state’s model of education. “There are students who are not special needs but simply don’t do well on state regents,” she explained. “The local diploma doesn’t exist anymore. How will those kids get a job without a high school diploma?”
Harrington believes that parents have a right to opt their children out of state assessment tests. “I’m not even sure what King’s proposing is even legal,” she said.
Opt out rates remained high on Long Island for 2016. The New York State Education Department reported a 22 percent opt out rate throughout the state, with Long Island leading the state with over 50 percent opting out in grades 3 through 8 state assessments.