Before I ran for office and before I entered journalism, I wanted to be a teacher. I relished being in the classroom, sharing with students my love of the written and spoken word. As an undergraduate at Stony Brook University, I majored in English education and obtained my certification to teach in New York high schools. I felt the calling.
Teachers can be heroes. The best can inspire children to reach their potential and make a profound difference during their most crucial years. In America, we don’t treat our teachers well enough. We allow a “reform” movement to denigrate their work. We engineer a system of nonstop standardized tests that is destroying classroom morale. With few exceptions, we don’t pay them nearly enough.
When I was 22, after a stint student teaching at Central Islip High School in Suffolk County, I became a substitute teacher at Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge. It was 2011, three years after the economic crash, and most public schools were not hiring full-time teachers. In the late fall, I found out my job application at a local newspaper in Queens had been accepted. I was going to be a journalist. I was going to live another dream.
I never forgot where I came from, so to speak. Education remained at the forefront of my mind, even as I rose through the ranks of the journalism world. I’m a product of local public and private schools — I’ve traveled both worlds. I attended P.S. 185. I graduated from Poly Prep, a private prep school, and Stony Brook, a state university. I’ve played baseball with kids with Hamptons homes and kids on the brink of poverty.
I recently released the education platform for my State Senate campaign, a platform that is an embodiment of my values and also a living, breathing document. As I campaign this winter, spring, summer, and fall — yeah, these elections are really long — I will be talking to many parents, educators, and kids about what works and what doesn’t. I’m always learning. We all are.
At the core of my philosophy is my belief that we need to increase funding for our public schools, equitably fund them, and recruit the best and brightest to teacher our children. Teachers must be paid more so the most talented remain in the system. They must be paid more sooner to stave off attrition. We must mirror other high-achieving nations by making teaching an elite profession. For our education system to succeed, our top college graduates must be attracting to teaching — like they are in European countries — instead of other more lucrative, less crucial fields.
Without further ado, here are the planks of my education platform.
Stop Overcrowding of Our Schools
School overcrowding is out of control. Class size plays a large role in educational outcomes, yet as recently as 2016 80 percent of city students were in classrooms that exceeded state standards for size limits. While some steps have been taken to do more to alleviate overcrowding, the city and state education departments haven’t done nearly enough. In grades K-8 in Districts 20 and 21, average class size is just above 27 students. In District 22, average class size is 26. Far more funding is needed to build new schools to guarantee our children have the space they need to grow and learn. If elected, I will fight to ensure each school district within the Senate District adds at least one new school.
Stop Privatization of Public Schools
Time and time and time again we have seen that charter schools in New York City are simply not the shining beacons they claim to be. Yet politicians in Albany, especially Republicans like Marty Golden who are beholden to the hedge fund lobby that boost charters, force more of them on New York City. Charter school expansion must come to a halt. Instead of co-locating charters in overcrowded public school buildings, we need to open more public schools. Instead of providing over a billion dollars in funding to charters, that money should be poured into struggling public schools and used to fund the construction of new schools to alleviate overcrowding. And instead of supporting a fractured system where public schools provide an education to all our children while charters provide an education to those they don’t target for suspension and removal, we need one system that works for all students.
Fairly Fund Our Schools
In 2006 the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was not providing students with the classroom resources they needed to ensure they received a “sound basic education.” Twelve years later, the State of New York still isn’t paying its fair share. Across the board, the state has effectively decided to ignore the courts and shirk its responsibility to its children by continuing to withhold funding related to the settlement. New York City alone is estimated to be owed nearly $2 billion. Major schools in Senate District 22, including Fort Hamilton High School, New Utrecht High School, and Leon Goldstein High School are owed collectively more than $10 million, according to the Alliance for Quality Education.
This influx of funding could help teachers pay for supplies, get students new materials, and provide our system with funding that is desperately needed to increase capacity. The Governor and the Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled State Senate, have been embarrassingly silent on this issue for too long, and our children should not bear the brunt of another round of funding cuts in the face of increasing economic uncertainty.
End High Stakes Testing Culture
Finland has one of the most successful school systems in the world by any measure. Public schools are treated as national treasures, teaching is a cherished profession, and there are no standardized tests. None.
It is impossible in this climate to eliminate standardized testing as we know it, especially in the wake of the terribly misguided initiatives that came out of the Bush and Obama administrations, but we in New York can move away from the militant regime of testing that demoralizes students, teachers, and parents alike. Last year, New York State announced the annual tests taken in elementary and middle schools would be reduced from three days per subject to two. This was a welcome development, but doesn’t go nearly far enough — testing per subject should consume no more than one day and be phased out over time completely.
I believe in actual education reform — a holistic approach to education that focuses on more than just teaching to the test. An emphasis must be placed on clubs, electives, and hands-on learning to ensure students are well-rounded and can think critically as opposed to being able to regurgitate answers. Rote-learning doesn’t prepare children for the real world.
Recruit the Best Teachers
Teaching is an elite, highly-valued profession in most successful public school systems worldwide. Again, Finland can point the way. The best college graduates in the country enter the teaching profession. Programs are highly selective, like Ivy League schools here — except they’re free, of course.
In New York, we treat teachers better than some other states, but we still fail to attract and retain the best talent to educate our children. Demonizing teachers and weakening union protections doesn’t work. Teachers unions in high-achieving nations are robust.
We must pay new teachers more in New York City and ensure they reach pay scales comparable with well-funded school districts in the suburbs. While the starting salary of a public school teacher with a master’s degree is about $60,000 — on par with other urban areas nationwide — pay doesn’t increase fast enough to retain the most talented teachers who are eventually lured away by higher-paying professions. Increasing starting pay by at least 10%, phasing in raises more quickly, and ensuring teacher training programs at public universities become more academically rigorous and selective will ensure a stronger crop of teachers enter our public schools.
End School Segregation
Despite our reputation as a diverse and tolerant city, we have one of the most segregated school systems in America. This seemingly intractable problem dates back decades and has long gone unaddressed by Democrats and Republicans alike. We know that historically underserved communities and populations have suffered for decades from inequitable investment. We know that when children are underserved throughout their entire academic career before grade 8 they face steep uphill climbs when their acceptance to a specialized high school hinges on a single exam.
When a high school requires a portfolio of work from prior grades to be presented, it is difficult to provide one when a child is coming from a part of the school system that has failed them for a decade. This is why we need to scale back or do away with zoning completely, break with the overreliance on entrance exams, and ensure equitable services are provided in all public schools. This is not a problem that will be solved overnight, but it’s one we must confront — segregation is a stain on this otherwise great city.
We must focus especially on reducing segregation and overtesting in middle schools rather than eliminating the SHSAT. I am opposed to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal because it won’t solve the segregation crisis in our schools and pits communities against each other.
Free NYC Schools from Albany’s Clutches
It’s time to stop playing politics with New York City’s schoolchildren. We must have permanent control over our school system, and not have to repeatedly beg suburban and upstate Republicans in the State Senate for permission to do what we choose. The status quo has allowed Marty Golden and his cronies to cut deals to grow hedge fund-backed charter schools in the city.
Yes, politicians who have no constituents within a hundred miles of our city can impose their will by forcing an expansion of charters. Threatening to throw our school system into chaos in order to push a right-wing vision for education is appalling. I will fight to ensure that the only people who have control over the education debate in this city are the people who live in it.