Karen Magee: The Politics Of Receivership

Oct 29, 2015

In an impoverished section of Albany, the Philip Schuyler Achievement Academy is an oasis.

There, caring and dedicated Albany teachers provide a safe, nurturing learning environment for 300 or so students — 90 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.

One-quarter of Schuyler’s students have learning disabilities and about 10 percent are new to this country and learning to speak English.  

Schuyler is a public school where teaching is deeply valued, and where children and learning are cherished.

I visited Schuyler recently with my friend Alan Chartock, and others from W-A-M-C Northeast Public Radio. 

WAMC, its generous listeners and the union I lead — New York State United Teachers — partnered this summer to provide free backpacks, books and school supplies for the needy students who attend Schuyler.

The opportunity to help Schuyler students and their families was an honor for all of us.  It meant Schuyler students could start school ready to learn.  And, it meant that parents could spend more of their limited incomes on food, clothing and other necessities.

At Schuyler, I visited with the school’s dynamic principal, John Murphy, who was hired to “turn around” Schuyler — which has been deemed a “struggling school” and is facing state receivership.

Receivership means that if Schuyler does not show “demonstrable improvement,” it can be shut down and turned over to an outside organization selected by the state.

This outside receiver can ignore parents’ or voters’ wishes, tossing aside local control.

The receiver can ignore collective bargaining agreements.  It can fire half of Schuyler’s staff.   

Principal Murphy told me he is perplexed.  He was brought to Albany to turn around a struggling  school.

Yet, he said he has never worked with a better staff.  He said Schuyler is on the right track.  It does not need turning around.

That’s no surprise.  The problem at Schuyler isn’t the school or the teachers, but deep-seeded poverty.  It is at the root of an achievement gap that persists despite our efforts.

Receivership and its test-and-punish mentality is a distraction.

Receivership wrongly and falsely labels public schools.  It shifts the blame and scapegoats dedicated, highly skilled teachers instead of addressing poverty and social ills that are the true causes of chronic under-achievement.

Let’s be clear:  I believe that all students can achieve and poverty should never be an excuse.

But, threatening public schools like Schuyler with state takeover when the state has NOT provided the necessary funding and support does everyone a disservice.

There is nothing in the receivership law that acknowledges the state has failed to provide more than $37 million in funding owed to Albany city schools.

Nor has any new state money been invested in Schuyler now that it faces receivership.

Many of the support services that students and their families need — 90 percent of whom are poor — are not readily available.

At a state Assembly hearing on receivership, held, ironically, just after my visit, experienced educators and sociologists also testified that it takes more than a year or two to break the cycle of poverty and truly help students climb the ladder of success out of poverty and into the middle class.

As I read a book to a kindergartner that day, I could only imagine what gains could be made at Schuyler if, instead of threats and punishments, the state provided help and support to students, parents and educators.

What would happen if lawmakers actually enacted policies that provided realistic timelines and research-based solutions?  What would happen if the state delivered on its rhetoric and funded its schools properly?

I know the answer:  Philip Schuyler wouldn’t be falsely labeled a struggling school and facing state takeover.  It would be celebrated for being the sanctuary of teaching and learning that it really is.

Karen Magee, a former elementary and special education teacher in Harrison, is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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