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Brendan Gotham teaches 11th grade English in Lake Placid. Photo: Sarah Harris
Brendan Gotham teaches 11th grade English in Lake Placid. Photo: Sarah Harris

Teachers, unions picket Lake Placid pro-charter ed conference

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Two groups with different ideas about the future of education faced off in the Adirondacks yesterday. Education Reform Now, a Democratic policy group, is hosting a conference at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid. They're pro-charter school, pro-Common Core, pro-teacher evaluations, and in favor of a longer school day.

It cost $1,000 to attend the conference, which didn't sit well with teachers' unions and their allies. Cold, driving rain didn't stop hundreds of teachers from protesting; they came from all across New York state to picket outside Whiteface Lodge, clutching umbrellas, huddling under ponchos and carrying signs. Sarah Harris was there.

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Sarah Harris
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Photo: Sarah Harris
Photo: Sarah Harris
"Are you willing to fight for great neighborhood public schools?" yells Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"Yes!" the crowd answers.

"With music and with art and with you having the flexibility to do your curriculum any way you want?" Weingarten continues.

"Yes!" the crowd replies, cheering.

Brendan Gotham teaches 11th grade English in Lake Placid and is helping direct traffic. He's decked out in a neon yellow slicker, an orange vest, and a Picket in the Pines t-shirt.

"Public education is a right. It's a human right," Gotham says. "And it's being hijacked by special interests and money."

Gotham, along with the union leaders and teachers here, worries about Education Reform Now's agenda. He's concerned about state money going to fund charter schools while public schools aren't getting enough.

"I think the charter movement is something that could infiltrate the North Country if we don't stand up for public education now," he says. "I don't think it's that far off and we need to fight for our small schools and the continuing assault on schools like Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and their loss of budgets."

Education Reform Now is a non-profit Democratic policy group. They also have a political action committee, Democrats for Education Reform, which has given $67,000 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign fund since 2010. The group's board of directors includes hedge fund managers who are involved with charter schools, some of whom have given thousands of dollars to Cuomo individually.

Unions are worried that the group's deep pockets means it has a disproportionate influence on the education agenda in New York. Ashley Keegan is a twelfth grade teacher from Chatham. She says she wants to be part of the conversation inside the conference. "Why aren't we in there helping you decide what's best for public education," Keegan says. "It seems like teachers would be the ones to ask."

Joe Williams is executive director of Education Reform Now. He says there are teachers attending, along with elected officials, parents, analysts and activists from all over the country. Gov. Cuomo was listed as the event's honorary chairman. He ultimately did not attend.

Williams says the goal of the conference is "to create a cohort of policy makers who are all having these conversations in their individual communities to share information and to learn from each other." And Williams says he's glad for the debate the protestors provide. In fact, he thinks it needs to get broader.

"At the end of the day between the folks that we're going to have at our retreat and the folks that NYSUT'S going to have protesting, it is still a very small subset of the public. And we've got to get the public engaged."

Back at the protest, Kimberly Busch ducks under an umbrella. She teaches vocal music at Canton Central School, and says it's essential for teachers to determine public education's future. "We want to send a clear message not only to the governor but to those people who think that education should be run by a select few rather than all the community members who really know and love their children," Busch says.

Education's Reform Now's conference continues through Tuesday.

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