Teachers, school administrators and parents gathered in Port Jefferson Station on Saturday for a conference on what organizers described as threats to public education.
The event, which was hosted by the Suffolk County advocacy group Students Not Scores, attracted about 60 people to John F. Kennedy Middle School for a panel discussion and workshops that critically examined school privatization and standardized tests, while promoting union and parent organizing.
For many in attendance, the pending appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary infused the meeting with urgency.
“Public education is under attack,” said Jeanette Deutermann, a panelist at the event and the founder of Long Island Opt-Out, a group that opposes the state’s Common Core tests.
“Realizing that the worst of times could be ahead of us is daunting,” she said.
A Michigan billionaire and Republican donor, DeVos has been criticized for lacking any experience in the public school system.
DeVos, for her part, is an outspoken advocate of charter schools, arguing that parents should be entitled to alternatives if their children’s public schools are underperforming.
The possibility that she and other “school choice” activists could work to privatize elements of public education received the most scrutiny from panelists, who argued charter schools and school vouchers harm education and undermine democracy.
“Everything, in my estimation, rises and falls on public education when it comes to a democracy,” said Michael Hynes, the superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford school district. “We need to be ready when public education is looking to be privatized.”
Jia Lee, a public school teacher in New York City, said in a workshop that the introduction of certain forms of technology into primary education may impair traditional pedagogy by de-emphasizing teachers and even school buildings themselves.
To combat these perceived threats to public education, panelists called on the audience to get involved in local teachers unions and community organizations.
“The system is designed right now to keep us from organizing ourselves,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to a workshop filled with members of Long Island teachers unions.
In another workshop, Deutermann encouraged parents to feel a sense of ownership over their school districts.
“It’s your school,” she said. “The administrators are a guest.”
Deutermann’s presentation drew on her experience spearheading the opt-out movement, which has caused participation rates in the state’s Common Core exams to plummet in recent years.
Deutermann and others have argued the exams are not age-appropriate and should not be tied to teacher evaluations. Many in attendance sympathized with that view.
“There’s just too much importance being placed on these standardized tests,” said Tim Macdowall, 50, of Coram.
Macdowall’s two sons will opt out of the tests this year, he said.