New teachers union president wants to increase union's political potency

Apr 8, 2014

There’s a big change in the New York State United Teachers union, as members elected new leadership after months of unrest. The state’s largest teachers union has a new president, Karen Magee, the first woman to run the organization.

The shakeup comes over concerns with the state’s flawed implementation of the new Common Core learning standards. Teachers are complaining that they were not adequately prepared to teach to the new standards, and that the test results should not be used to evaluate their performance.

Magee said in a speech to delegates over the weekend that she intends to be more vocal and more politically involved than the union’s been in the past.

“It is time for NYSUT to exert itself as a powerful political force once again,” she said, to applause.

During an interview, Magee said teachers are unhappy over the state Education Department's flawed Common Core roll out, and state budget decisions by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature, including a property tax cap and new rebate program, that have led to less funding for schools. She says the mood of New York’s teachers right now isn’t great.

“They are upset, they’re frustrated, they feel disrespected,” Magee said.

The governor and legislature recently agreed to delay the effects of the Common Core tests on students for two more years. Teachers had wanted to be included in the moratorium, but were left out.

Cuomo had been opposed to extending the moratorium to teachers. But right after the budget was passed, he said he wanted to revisit the issue.

“That is an issue we have not addressed, and we need to address before the end of session, in my opinion,” Cuomo said.  

Magee says she hopes to meet with Cuomo, and says he could benefit from hearing their perspective.

It will be several months before the union decides on endorsements for the 2014 elections, but Magee says her members are not inclined right now to endorse Cuomo for reelection.

“There’s not an outcry to go and endorse the governor, quite the opposite at this point in time,” Magee said. “But there’s a lot of time between April and August.”

The union will meet later this summer to make those decisions.

Magee taught at a public school in Westchester County, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino is county executive.

Astorino did not permit his children to take the most recent Common Core exams, joining thousands of parents statewide who chose to have their children opt out. He explained why he made that decision.

“It’s the experiment of all experiments in education,” Astorino said in a recent visit to the Capitol. “Meanwhile, our children are going to be the lab mice in this."

Magee refused to condemn Astorino’s decision.

“It’s a personal decision as a parent that he made,” she said. “How that impacts this election is to be seen.”

The new NYSUT president says she doesn’t know much about Astorino’s education policy. County executives normally don’t have one.

But candidate Astorino has called for an end to the Common Core and is circulating a petition. He says he wants to raise student standards, but says the Common Core path is untested and would rather accomplish that goal locally.