Thursday, January 22, 2015

Governor’s State of the State Address/Budget Proposal

On Wednesday, Governor Cuomo gave his State of the State Address in combination with his Budget Proposal. It is important to note that while the Governor offered broad budget statements, he will not release details of school aid proposals until the legislature acts on a broad range of proposed education reforms. We are extremely concerned about this and are working on a detailed response that we plan to release in the next several days. 

Here is a summary of some key points associated with the Governor’s education reform proposals:

·         Teacher Evaluation System (APPR)
o   The Governor believes the current system cannot be correct if 39.1% of high school students are college ready, but 98.7% of high school teachers are rated effective or better. He recommends that 50% of APPR be based on State tests, 15% based on observation by a local principal or administrator and 35% be based on observation by an outside observer appointed by the State Education Department.
o   NYS PTA reflected in our recent letter to the governor’s office that less emphasis should be placed on tests with more on observations. We have concerns with the heavy emphasis on testing and the way the Governor proposes to structure observations.

·         Teacher Tenure
o   The Governor proposes that tenure be granted after 5 continuous years of effective ratings. He states that non-tenured teachers should be subject to dismissal at any time for any reason.
o   NYS PTA has questioned whether five years is needed to assess effectiveness.

·         Removal of Ineffective Teachers
o   The Governor would make it easier to remove a teacher after two ineffective ratings, unless the rating is shown to be fraudulent.
o   NYS PTA reflected in our recent letter to the governor’s office to put an emphasis on quality of information presented at hearings and the time necessary to select hearing officers in the process.

·         Charter Schools
o   The Governor would like to see the current cap raised from 460 to 560 which would be across the state, not with an update/downstate split in the cap. There would be an emphasis on “anti-creaming” to make sure that the same cross section of students accepted into the public school system would also be allowed into the charter school system.
o   NYS PTA has been supportive of the charter school concept with the proviso that charter school funding not detract from the State’s obligation to fund public schools and that charters be accountable to local school boards. Funding as proposed would divert support from funding traditional public schools.

·         Struggling/Failing Schools
o   The Governor shared that 178 schools are currently failing in NYS and 77 have been failing for a decade. He proposes using a recommendation from SED to use the Massachusetts model in our state. If a school fails for 3 years, a non-for-profit can takeover, usually in a community school format.
o   NYS PTA has promoted standards for meaningful two-way family and community engagement in the education process in the form of recommendations to the Board of Regents, legislators, community organizations and other child advocates. The family and community engagement process using SED’s Diagnostic Tool for School and District Effectiveness (DTSDE) shows promise and should be considered as a basis for building a final action prior to considering a school closing. Closing schools is a drastic step. 

·         Mayoral Control              
o   The Governor sees the NYC model as working and could see it used in other cities.
o   NYS PTA pointed out in our response to the governor - How does mayoral control differ from the fiscal dependence of our five largest school districts on their city governments? Aren’t these schools already subject to substantial mayoral control?

·        Funding and Budget Issue Connect to Education Reforms
   When announcing the amount of money to be budgeted for education, it was proposed as two options.
o   Option 1 – The legislature adopts all of the proposed reforms – 4.8% increase of $1.06B
o   Option 2 – The legislature does not adopt all of the proposed reforms - 1.7% increase of $377M

NYS PTA is concerned that a budget without detail puts school districts and children in a very tenuous planning position that will detract from learning rather than enhance it.

Please keep in mind that the Educational Conference Board (ECB) recommended $1.9B and NYSED recommended $2.0B. Even if the reforms were adopted, it still is not close to what is needed to ensure an equitable education for all children.

·        Investment Tax Credit/Dream Act 
o   The Governor is proposing a tax credit at an annual cost of $100 million, that we do not support. Further, the Governor would link support of a “dream act” which we do support to the adoption of tax credits. We will be sharing more information about this in a separate publication.

·        Age of Criminality
o   One positive item to come out of the address was his support of Raising the Age of Criminality to 18 from the current age of 16, which is in sync with current positions taken by National PTA, and which NYS PTA is working on educating and advocating for.

Overall, I wish we could say this was a surprise. The fact that the budget recommendation is tied to the governor’s education reform proposals is extremely disappointing. We definitely have our work cut out for us in the coming year.  


NYS PTA® President
Communicate to Advocate

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Topics of Interest

As a follow-up to my last post to The Voice of NYS PTA, below are some topics of interest that include a link to our letter to the Governor's office addressing many different issues that we believe will be included later this week in the Governor's State of the State address. 

Topics of Interest:
  • NYS PTA Letter to the Governor’s Office: This week we finalized our letter to the governor’s office addressing issues raised in the letter they sent in mid-December to the Board of Regents and State Education Department.
    • Click here to read the letter from the Governor's office we are responding to.
    • To read the response letter from NYS PTA that addresses all of the items from that letter, click here.
    • If you are interested in reading the response letter from NYSED/Board of Regents, please click here.
  • The Education Conference Board (ECB) Makes Commissioner Recommendations: ECB sent out a letter this week to Vice Chancellor Bottar with our combined recommendation for selection of the next Commissioner. Please click here to read that letter. We are also in the final stages of preparing a letter from NYS PTA with our recommendations, and we will share that with you in an upcoming posting.
  • Mark your calendars for the Governor Cuomo’s State of the State is scheduled for this Wednesday, January 21 at 1:30 p.m. As it will be later this year, the Budget announcement will be combined with this presentation.
  • Letter Supporting National Core Arts Standards: A representative of NYSED requested a letter of support from NYS PTA regarding the potential adoption or adoption with amendments of the National Core Arts Standards. Unlike the Common Core Standards, these voluntary standards were drafted with input from all the major Arts discipline organizations like the National Association of Music Educators, which included teachers and administrators. Theses core arts standards attempt to structure process and content knowledge to assist educators in developing not only performance skills, but lifelong appreciation and participation in the Arts. The standards and the grade-by-grade matrix can be found at: nationalartsstandards.orgYou can read our letter by clicking here.
Should be an interesting week ahead...

Bonnie M. Russell

NYS PTA® President
Communicate to Advocate

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A New Year Full of Challenges and Promise

As 2015 begins, we look forward to a year of challenges in education from many different fronts, along with a promise that we will work in collaboration with our stakeholders to stand up for the children of New York. A few weeks ago, the Cuomo Administration sent a letter to the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education ( with a series of questions that exposed their intention to use the state budget to put forward education reforms.

On December 23, I was honored to be interviewed by Susan Arbetter of Capitol Pressroom where I was given the opportunity to respond to questions from that letter. The broadcast was a combination of interviews with reactions from many stakeholders: including Senator John Flanagan (R – Smithtown), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Education; Dr. Rick Timbs of the Statewide School Finance Consortium; Bob Lowry, Deputy Director at NYS Council of School Superintendents and Billy Easton the Executive Director of the Alliance for Quality Education of New York.

To hear the interview just click on this link:, and my portion is about 10 minutes into the broadcast. This links to the interview with all of the stakeholders listed above, and if you have time, I do recommend that you listen to all of the opinions.

This interview is just a brief snapshot of our opinions and concerns with issues brought about in the letter. We are working on a letter to the governors' office from NYS PTA that will go into more detail. As soon as it is finalized, we will share that here in this blog.

Looking forward to an interesting year...

Bonnie M. Russell
NYS PTA® President
Communicate to Advocate

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Communicate to Advocate!

First, I would like to share how excited and honored I am to be the new President of this great association. I look forward to working with our members throughout the state as we Communicate to Advocate! 

Communication is an important part of my life. From my professional position as a School Information Officer in an upstate school district in the Central Region, to promoting Communications within PTAs at a unit level, council, region and the state level.

On a daily basis my job as a communications officer exposes me to administrators, teachers, students and parents. It places me in classrooms at elementary and secondary levels where it is a joy to see our public education system in action. In that capacity, I am a witness to the great progress being made as a result of the many changes occurring in education.

Communication can be defined as, "the two-way process of reaching mutual understanding, in which participants not only exchange information, news, ideas and feelings but also create and share meaning". In general, communication is a means of connecting people or places.

As we were creating the logo and pin for this theme, it was decided to use a megaphone as a base as it is used to amplify a voice and direct it in a given direction. We use our VOICE to ADVOCATE for all children.

From a low tech perspective, when you place a megaphone at your ear it symbolizes how it can also amplify and direct what others are saying to us. This two-way communication will allow us to actively interact at the region, unit and grassroots level.

As public education continues to come under fire and we anticipate more battles ahead, it is more important than ever that we:
  • continue to represent the interests of children and youth to the educational and legislative communities; and
  • continue to address such hot topics as: equitable school aid; charter school funding – not at the expense of public school funding, multiple pathways to graduation, standards, high-stakes testing, teacher tenure, unaccompanied minors, and many other important and relevant topics.
Moving Forward: 
  • We will address the challenge to ensure that PTA is relevant to our current and future parents. To accomplish this, we need to continue to strengthen and expand our communication between the state, the regions/units and grassroots member--continue to listen and collaborate together
  • We will recognize that we cannot do many things the way they were always done if we want to meet the needs of today’s volunteer. We have been working hard to utilize today’s technology and anticipate the technology of tomorrow to address these changes. The introduction of our new Mobile Phone app is just the beginning of that effort. (Please go to your app store and search on NYS PTA to download the free app to your phone and/or tablet!)
  • We will identify the needs of our grassroots to deliver what is needed for and to members at all levels to advocate for children is crucial to our meeting our mission.
  • We will continue to look at how we deliver services to our members as the majority of our technology moves to our hands (smart phones and tablets).  
Participating in conversations about these issues is the best avenue to ensure equitable educational opportunities for ALL children. Therefore, our energy and efforts needs to be focused on the fight for what we know to be in the best interests of all children. Our visibility in Albany has grown and our opinions sought on many important issues…this will continue.

As we build on our VOICE and STAND UP campaigns from last year, we will keep that voice heard in Albany and throughout the state. At the same time, we will expand our communication to identify and clarify what our members concerns are in order to address them through collaboration at all levels to ensure that ALL children receive the best education available to them.

Going forward, my intent is to post shorter updates to The Voice of NYS PTA, more often. We have been very busy with advocacy the past few weeks, so I look forward to posting about those experiences in the coming weeks.

Bonnie M. Russell
NYS PTA ® President 
Communicate to Advocate

Friday, September 19, 2014

Unaccompanied Minor Children: Where Do We Go? What Can We Do?

The surge in numbers of unaccompanied minor children (predominantly from Central America) crossing southwestern U.S. borders has drawn much national attention. Compelled by poverty, socio-economic inequities, and high incidence of violence from gangs and drug cartels, parents seek passage to the U.S. for their daughters and sons. These children cross our borders carrying something more precious than their belongings -- they carry hope, the hope that they will escape harm and that they will live a better life.

But the journey may be dangerous. It often relies on unscrupulous human smuggling networks that expose them to harm, exploitation and abuse. And if they survive the journey, once on US soil these children wait to be reunited with relatives already living in the US. Notes are pinned to the clothing of some as young as four years old to help identify and locate relatives. While they still carry hope, they must also wonder: Where do I go? Where do I belong?

The plight of these children presents an enormous challenge. Political posturing abounds. Blame is hurled at laws and policies established by current and previous presidential Administrations’ and failed immigration reform proposals. Congressional stalemates on requests for funding to address the large increase of children abound. But all this is irrelevant to the children. What we have is a humanitarian crisis. Federal law says minors cannot be held at a Border Patrol facility for more than 72 hours. They must be processed, then either sent to live with a relative or released to a shelter operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (Department of Health and Human Services). The refugee office operates only about 150 permanent shelters for unaccompanied minors and they are filled to capacity. So, again where do they go? 

As the influx of unaccompanied minor children is most-recognized in the southwest, many of our states are experiencing increasing numbers with no immediate end in sight. New York places second only to Texas with the number of children released to sponsors, with over 4,000 children released to our state from January through July this year. Federal law requires that unaccompanied children arriving from non-bordering countries be given a removal hearing in court. While awaiting proceedings (which could take months or even years) unaccompanied children go through a two-step process: first, federal shelter until placed with a sponsor; second, release to “approved” sponsor, usually a family member or friend, to await disposition hearing. 

When children are released to their sponsor, they are eligible to enroll in the local school district. Under Federal law, states and local educational agencies are obligated to provide all children – regardless of immigration status – equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level. This has resulted in schools across the nation, including our NY schools, experiencing a sharp rise in numbers of immigrant students. Districts receiving them are in need of resources, i.e. funding, staff and services, to assist supporting these students and families. So, where can we go? 

National PTA has received inquiries from state leaders and membership asking the questions, “Where can WE go?” and “How can WE Help?” To find out, click on the links to documents below. We are the most committed, most powerful child advocacy group in the nation. Together we must find innovative ways PTAs can welcome and support these children, their families and sponsors as we are all neighbors sharing our homes, schools and communities:  

Unaccompanied Children in the U.S.: Fact Sheet and Resources

Answers to common questions about the increase of unaccompanied children entering the United States from Central America including federal and state responsibilities, the anticipated impact on public schools and federal resources available to address this impact, and the federal response to date.

Connecting with Children & Families who Recently Immigrated: Putting PTA's National Standards for Family-School Partnerships into Action

Using PTA’s National Standards for Family-School Partnerships as a guide, here are some ways local PTAs can welcome and support all children, families and sponsors of children who recently immigrated to the United States. This resource also contains national and community resources that can provide PTAs with valuable supports and services to engage families and sponsors.

National PTA’s Position statement and talking points:

  • National PTA’s position statement Services for Undocumented Children
  • Talking Points for PTAs: Services for Unaccompanied Children 

Policy Briefing: Increase of Unaccompanied Children Entering the United States

A webinar for state and local PTA leadership on the recent increase of unaccompanied children entering the United States. This resource provides an overview of the issue including relevant federal laws, federal and state impact, PTA positions, and available PTA resources. The slides are available here and the recording is available here.

Please distribute these resources widely to your membership. These resources, as well as future resources on this matter, can be accessed at

Lana Ajemian, President
Reflect the past, Transform today, Inspire tomorrow!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Teacher Tenure, Retention, and Evaluation

We are hearing a great deal about teachers and tenure; last-in, first-out (retention); APPR and so on. As if the politicization of Common Core hasn’t been contentious enough, we are now confronted by a new challenge: competent delivery of classroom instruction.  It is only natural that parents want assurance that the person spending upwards of 900 hours each school year with their child is qualified, competent and compassionate.  PTA has long recognized the vital role that teachers and administrators play in the lives of their students, not only in their academic development but also in their social, emotional and civic development.

In light of today’s challenges to the education profession exploring the relationship in context of who we are as an association is crucial for our mutual understanding and future advocacy. One of the objects of PTA is to bring into closer relation the home and the school. That parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the education of children and youth.

Parents and teachers are partners with a common mission: to ensure every child the opportunity to reach his/her potential. They are interdependent and deeply respectful of their individual and shared roles. For this reason, and to assist you with understanding our NYS PTA positions I would like to share the following talking points:

  • As far back as the early 1970’s, NYS PTA’s Legislative Program called for:  
    • NY’s tenure law to include periodic review of tenure and provisions to protect the integrity of teachers, i.e. teachers should be able to freely speak up on behalf of their students without fear of punishment
  • The teacher-student-family relationship is complex and can be emotionally charged and susceptible to conflict. There are also well-documented incidents of teacher-administrator conflict where an incompatibility exists leading to greater vulnerability to reprimand or dismissal based on bias or reactionary behavior. For this reason:

    • NYS PTA has long-supported measures, i.e. “due process”, to safeguard teachers and administrators from arbitrary or capricious employment decisions.

  • Abolishment and/or “excessing” of educator positions is often the consequence of tough economic times, reductions in school aid and imposed spending caps.
    • For more than 40 years, NYS PTA has urged the adoption of legislation allowing school boards to consider both certification and seniority in determining whose services should be terminated or retained upon abolishment of or excessing a teaching position in order to maintain quality education in the classroom.
    • NYS PTA supports, and with certain exceptions federal law requires, the placement of highly qualified (appropriately certified) personnel in ALL teaching positions.

  • NYS PTA believes well -executed evaluations lead directly to improvement of classroom instruction by teachers as well as improved supervisory skills by administrators.
    • NYS PTA long-advocated for the NYS Education Department to establish regulations to require a system of regular observation and annual evaluation for both teachers and administrators and observation and evaluation guidelines.
    • NYS PTA has encouraged requirements for local school boards to establish advisory committees (administrators, teachers, chairmen, parents and students) to define and refine the evaluation system appropriate to individual school district needs.
    • NYS PTA believes in a balanced teacher/principal accountability system that employs multiple measures to improve academic achievement for all students. The evolving policy of Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) is generally consistent with PTA positions. However, greater attention should be given to the 60% observation component -- with training for skillful use of rubrics, concerns regarding subjectivity can be minimized. Once fully and appropriately implemented, APPR coupled with fair and efficient safeguards through due process, will assure that our children’s teachers and teacher leaders are qualified, competent and effective partners for boosting student achievement.

As we look ahead to a new school year, lets’ keep in mind that effective instruction and family-school collaboration are essential components of student academic success and, most importantly, that in our shared mission we are all one community working  together to improve the lives of children.
Lana Ajemian, President
Reflect the past, Transform today, Inspire tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summertime Reflection

Wow, July is here…and the hammock beckons! Where DID the year go? For someone loathe to ride the Cyclone, this year has surely been a heart-stopping roller coaster ride with plans made, plans thwarted; challenges met with success, those met with defeat; knowing where we stand, wondering where we stand – surely a year of unprecedented highs and lows. But I look back at what we have learned and what we have accomplished and feel reassured, proud. We held to our mission and influenced change, we reached new heights of visibility, and we lifted more NYS PTA voices in advocacy.  And so, it’s been a good year.

We cannot deny that differing views, competing ideas and flawed education reform remain hurdles to clear. Yet, they also stimulate creativity and innovation to find solutions. Throughout the summer, NYS PTA will continue to press forward for seeking both an independent review of assessment and accountability policies, and the suspension of the link between standardized assessment outcomes and high stakes decisions for students, teachers or principals. 

However, in the shadow of education reform, APPR, and high stakes testing is a membership challenge that threatens. As we combine reform controversies with targeted efforts of certain groups to undermine PTA’s mission for children, I cannot overemphasize the pride I feel in our local PTA leaders -- you have held steady and strong in your efforts to build membership throughout a year that has challenged your resolve.  For this I am deeply grateful to each and every one of you – extraordinary effort in an extraordinary time!  

But membership decline is not just a state or local issue, it is a national issue. We know there are ever-growing demands on the time of parents and families; we know so many are full-time in the workplace yet need to be that helping hand at home; and we know that you are being pulled in different directions by competing interests, always with our children’s future at the center of each effort.

But we also know we are the only parent group consistently at the table with decision makers representing the needs of New York’s children. PTA’s VOICE matters. PTA’s advocacy voice, your voice, has value. It is what has brought us to the table to influence change – whether the issue is one of education reform, or access to healthy foods and safe environments, or to assure a child’s mistake is not punished in the same manner as an adult’s. We do not put membership dollars ahead of mission. However, no matter what or how many positions we take to safeguard children and youth, they are meaningless without members to take them to action.

With the talent and commitment inherent in our NYS PTA membership, I know we can and will build our chorus. Your hard work throughout this year has surely earned you time to kick back and relax; take a swing in that hammock. But, as you do, please consider this request: reflect upon what has been accomplished through 118 years of advocacy for children by this remarkable association. Then ask how your voice, your influence CAN make a child’s dream become reality. Wishing you warm, reflective, transformative and inspirational summer days!

Lana Ajemian, President
Reflect the past, Transform today, Inspire tomorrow!