Category Archives: New York

Taxes: Political vs. Reality

It’s not every day the Working Families Party and the Manhattan Institute agree on a issue. But in the case of capping property taxes here in New York, they found a common cause.

Last week Governor Cuomo and Republican’s in the Senate agreed to cap property taxes by 2 percent for parts of Long Island, Westchester, and most of upstate New York (you’re welcome Westchester, I won’t bundle you in with the suburbs of Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo). There was no choice but to lower property taxes. Being that they were already one of the highest in the nation and many families were already tightening their belts as much as they could. But the problem was that the revenue was not made up from anywhere else.

Instead of raising taxes on the wealthy or corporations, New York’s legislature cut programs for education, the homeless, and safety. These cuts have had a disproportionate affect on the bigger counties and cities. While 93 percent of counties were able to pass education budgets, New York City’s Council is now debating the ways it can stop experienced teachers from being fired. Neither Syracuse, Buffalo, or Albany, figured out how to pass their budgets either.

One of the reasons for the bad employment data that came out today was because state governments cut their budgets. But raising taxes is never a popular move, especially in bad economic times. One of the problems with tax policy is that it’s so complicated. The federal code is longer than War and Peace, and it makes it hard in this thirty seconds or less media to explain the effects this compromise will have on the state.

But the fact remains people are willing to pay for the programs that benefit their families like public education and safety. Cuomo got the political victory for getting his agenda passed, but the reality is most New Yorker’s are facing the reality of those cuts.

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Filed under Long Island, Mayor Bloomberg, New York, Political Economy, Politics, property taxes, Public Policy, tax caps, taxes, Westchester

Teachers Take Tests Too

Last night, Superbowl Sunday, I went to my friends place to watch the game and hang out. I’m thinking we’ll order pizza, have a few beers, place a few dollar bets here and there, and hopefully watch Ben Roethlisberger lose. Both of the guys I watched it with are teachers, and as I found out, Sunday nights are work nights. This is the third year my friends are teaching, they started out through the Teach for America program and both of them had family members who were teachers. As it turned out, in your third year of teaching in New York City, teachers have to go through an assessment process to determine if they should be granted tenure or not. So instead of being able to watch football, one of them spent virtually all day yesterday, the weekend, and about three quarters of the game, building a portfolio based on the last two and half years of his teaching.

In all honesty I don’t think I’ve ever seen my friends work so hard. Both of them were the type of students who didn’t have to work hard to get an A in class. Yes, I hate those people too, but obviously I’ve digressed. The portfolio he put together was huge. It had graphs of their student’s performance, tests they administered, assessments by their principal, and their own take on the results. It was in a twelve inch three ring binder with barely any room left. What also took me by surprise was that out of the twelve teachers that were up for tenure at my friends school, only two of them were going to get it.

There has been a lot of pressure to change tenure systems in public schools. In New York City, a key administrator from the Department of Education warned that if the New York does not change how tenure is granted, it can be in serious jeopardy of not receiving money from the Race to the Top program, or the No Child Left Behind. States across the country are competing for these grants and any additional funds school districts can get would be a big help. While many states are considering to simply remove tenure for teachers, New York City has taken a different approach.

Before he left, School Chancellor Joel Klein wrote a open letter to the teachers and described the problem as “a loose tenure system isn’t good for anyone—it hurts students, it disrespects successful teachers, and it leaves those who are not up to the difficult job to struggle.” It makes sense. There is no possible way that all teachers will be as good as we would like for our students, and in most cases, some will be better at one aspect of it then the other. In 2010, New York rated teachers on their effectiveness, and only if they were deemed effective or highly effective would they even be considered for tenure.

I liked the assessment my friend put together for three reasons. First, it didn’t just focus on standardized tests. Instead, it looked at the overall picture and took into consideration other important aspects of teaching that standardized tests don’t. Those aspects include experience (the amount of years a teacher has been in the classroom), where the teacher was teaching (looked into demographics, what kind of school the teacher is in), and tests delivered in the class room.

Quick Tangent: Standardized tests and tests delivered by teachers are very different. Standardized state tests only gauge what students should know, and only tells us which classes/teachers did better than others. The tests administered by teachers tell us the same information, but also allows for something to be done about it. Standardized tests are given at the end of the year where by that time the students have either learned the information or not. But teachers who give their own tests can give them early on or in the middle of the year to determine which of their students needs help. The teacher tests are also created in conjunction with the principal to make sure they are acceptable.

Second, it keeps teachers on edge. My friend wants tenure, who wouldn’t? You don’t have to worry about losing your job (unless you do something really bad), in New York you get all the Jewish holidays off(which most school districts in the country don’t), your salary usually increases as the years go by, and most importantly, you get out around 2:30pm leaving you the rest of the day to get errands done. Tenure is a great carrot to hold over teachers heads to make sure they don’t lose focus and give them something to achieve. Critics always worry about the teachers who are slacking off, but if they know they can get canned when they don’t have tenure and are forced to prove they are doing work (work that most teachers want to do), it makes everyone happy.

Third, and I think the most important one, it makes teachers evaluate themselves. Believe it or not, teachers work weekends. My friends get up at five in the morning to get to school on time, and trust me, as a twenty-four year old that’s no easy task! They are usually exhausted and don’t have the energy to think about the classroom (that is unless you go out to drinks with a bunch of teachers. You will, without question, hear some great stories.). As much as I hate to give my friends more work to do, they should be looking to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can improve.

Even if you have tenure, assessments are always a good thing. There’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be looking to improve their work. In the classroom, assessments are the teacher’s responsibility. They can’t argue someone else is telling them how to do their job, or that the tests are bad. If their own assessments show they’re not doing a good job, proper steps can be taken to help them, or it will show they are just not cut out to be a teacher.

These teacher assessments can be combined with programs that are already being designed to help teachers. There are plenty of growing websites and blogs that are working to devise ways that help teachers teach. Combining them with assessments will give all teachers a fair shot for them and their students to succeed.

The debate to determine how to hold teachers accountable won’t stop, and it shouldn’t. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in this country, and those who do it shouldn’t be demeaned. But it is important to know which ones are doing well so we can acknowledge them for it. Standardized testing became popular because it’s the easiest way to assess teachers, and the easiest way for states to qualify for federal grants. Students deserve better, and figuring out ways (like self assessments) to make schools better is the least we can do.

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Filed under Education, NCLB, New York, New York City, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers

Stop Fracking Around

When local news stations are only a half hour, and their’s maybe a five minute segment on government issues, it’s sometimes hard to remember that all politics are local. In New York, a big ruckus is taking place over whether a type of drilling called hydraulic fracturing (or better known as fracking) should be allowed to take place near the Catskill Mountains. The goal here is to use get the natural gas beneath the surface. Local residents, including actor Mark Ruffalo, visited areas of Pennsylvania where fracturing is occurring and became afraid that the same environmental damage will occur where they live.

At an event organized by Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century (DL21C), Ruffalo, Kate Sinding Senior Attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC); and Susan Zimet, a Representative from Ulster County; expressed their fears about what might happen if fracturing is allowed in New York. Ruffalo visited Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania where the environmental damage has been enormous. Ruffalo said people living in the commonwealth had to arrange for over 200 gallons of water be delivered to people’s homes every day, because the water coming out of their sinks was black.

Experts consider fracking as a bumper option while the nation moves to other technologies, such as solar and wind, to curb our use of greenhouse gases. To reach the natural gas, drills are used to dig deep underground to where the natural gas is located. Once the gas is reached, a mixture of chemicals and water are used to push the gas up where it can be collected. The problem is that the chemicals used are carcinogens such as naphthalene and benzene. Those chemicals also get into the water supply making it unsafe to use. Only adding to the danger, the drills dig deep enough to areas where there are high concentrations of radiation that people living in the surrounding area can be exposed to.

While researching for this post, it took me less than two minutes to find this video of a Pennsylvania native lighting her water on fire because of all the chemicals that entered her water supply because of fracking.

Fracking technology is new, and it turns out (surprise, surprise) Halliburton is the company that invented the equipment. The powerful energy company has been lobbying state and federal officials to allow them to drill. And for two years, the EPA has been trying to get Halliburton to come out with the formula they use to push the gas up from the pipes. So far, Halliburton has only released the chemicals they use, but not the amount that has been pumped into the ground, or the exact concentration of each chemical being used in the overall solution. Two important facts needed to understand the safety concerns that are plaguing local residents.

Before he left office, Governor Patterson signed a moratorium on fracking, which Governor Cuomo extended until June. But it is unlikely that the report will be ready by then. The Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for writing the report, and Cuomo tapped Joe Martens to lead the agency. Kate Sinding told me that NRDC likes the new Commissioner “and believe the new analysis will be completed fairly.” But between the budget cuts and the senior staff that needs to be appointed, it will be a while before the report is released.

The facts are clear. But with the lack of current media attention, keeping the pressure on Albany is a must. When the report is released, there is a time period required by law which allows public comments on the report to take place. If there is an overwhelming amount of people against the fracking, Governor Cuomo won’t have a choice but to stop any plans to drill in the future. There are so many other ways to get cheaper and cleaner energy that can be applied now. There is no point of using a bumper inbetween. The technology is there, wind turbines and solar panels are already being built. Not to forget Indian Point Nuclear Facility in Buchanan. So whenever the report finally does come out, tell Albany to stop fracking around.

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Filed under Clean Energy, Energy, Fracking, global warming, Governor Cuomo, hydraulic fracturing, New York, New York City, NY