Interviews & Profiles

Restoring education cuts is critical for career and technical education

A Q&A with Shelley Mayer, chair of the state Senate Education Committee.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer chairs the Education Committee.

State Sen. Shelley Mayer chairs the Education Committee. State Senate Photography

State Sen. Shelley Mayer chairs the Education Committee, which involves ensuring that New York schools are adequately funded and children get a quality education – and that educators are fairly compensated as well. Mayer spoke with City & State about reversing proposed education cuts, boosting career and technical education and the expanding role public schools play in combating poverty.

What are your top legislative priorities this year that have to do with labor and the workforce, specifically within New York schools?

Because the governor proposed substantial cuts in all schools, some net cuts and some significantly less than they anticipated in the Foundation Aid formula, my focus has been on restoring those cuts. Within that context, career and technical education is so critical to workforce development. I’ve pushed for changes to career and technical reimbursements. Whether it leads to a certificate community college or a four-year apprenticeship, it still continues to be an undervalued part of our world. It’s kids who want to learn a skill and learn a job.

We’re fighting to increase the salary that’s addable under state law to (career and technical education) instructors to $60,000 over the next three school years. The current cap doesn’t allow you to hire a retired master plumber above $30,000 and we can’t get the quality we need to get above that reimbursable ceiling. And ninth grade isn’t above that. We have in my district a blue-ribbon school, one of the top (career and technical education) schools, that has ninth grade but it’s not reimbursable.

The second thing besides the reimbursement, these early college programs statewide both are on a trajectory of giving students skills to give them mentoring to get into the job market. PTECH, which is in 25 schools, and early college high school, where kids get college credit while still in high school. PTECH has been successful in getting kids into good-paying jobs, with a mentor with support. We want to continue those programs and help them be financially sustainable. Also, I’m a believer in union apprenticeship programs, which get people on a path after high school and into a union.

What’s happening this year with pension tier reform, a top priority of labor unions?

I think we need serious Tier 6 reform. We have too many places where the majority of municipal employees are Tier 6, they don’t have a significant incentive to stay and if there are people who are still there who have more generous benefits for retirement, it creates morale problems. We need to incentivize people to work in government, and Tier 6 is a disincentive. I talk to people in uniformed services, police and fire. At one of the fire unions in my district, about 70% of employees firefighters are in Tier 6, the vast majority. So 36% of members of Teacher Retirement and they have to work until 63 – up to 40 years of service. Tier 4 allows 55 (years old) up to 40 years of service – 40 years for a teacher, I wouldn’t last that long, particularly for teachers who perform valuable skills. And that’s just in the school space. I worry about that.

I think we need to change Tier 6. In the education space, there’s pressure but it applies in uniformed too and across the board in the public sector. They’re not going to be able to keep employees. It’s just not what public service should be. You agree to do these jobs with certain benefits. That was an incentive to get quality people to stay. I’m very much for revisions. There’s more organized advocacy about Tier 6 than we’ve seen in prior years.

What specifically would you change?

We haven’t had a chance as a conference to discuss that together but (state Sen. Robert) Jackson as chair of that committee is a very strong proponent. He wants to change to 3% (from 6%) over the course of the service. He’ll be the point person but many of us will weigh in strongly.

What impact does poverty have in the schools, and what are lawmakers looking at doing on this front? 

I just completed a tour of 11 school districts in the state to deal with post-COVID-19 learning loss, and what was striking was the proactive approach in the more successful schools … was to deal with family poverty on the front end, whether it’s reaching out before a child starts coming to school, or several schools have clothing and laundromats on site. Many of these schools are providing clothing they sent to students on the weekend. One school was reaching out to families. This is very connected to poverty there and almost everywhere we went, there’s a much more proactive role for schools. It’s a phenomenon that came after COVID-19, whether waiting for the situation to get worse or whether the teacher is feeding kids out of their pocket, you work on the front end.

We want to expand the school meals program, that’s part of this priority. It’s not only about hunger, it's about creating a unified school community, everyone eats together, everyone is entitled to the same thing, and minimizes the status differences in a school based on wealth. We want to support these affirmative efforts to reach families. 

And we’re supporting additional community schools. This wraparound to support family poverty, schools are taking on this function. That’s part of this challenge of providing a sound basic education now is much more of an affirmative wraparound service. We believe there should be afterschool programs for every child. Parents aren’t finished working at 3 p.m. Schools should be open later for a range of services. These all address poverty and the related social isolation and improving school performance. We want tangible results. We want our kids to come out of school prepared and we’re not doing well enough.

Are you revisiting noncompete agreements after the governor vetoed a ban? 

We haven’t discussed it as a conference but I believe we should absolutely revisit it.

Is there any discussion or debate over expanding charter schools this session? Or is that issue likely on the back burner this year, given the deal to reassign 22 so-called zombie charters?

We’re not proposing expanding charters and I have a number of bills that require greater transparency that deal with charter saturation in our upstate cities to make the process a better process. A proposal to expand charters is not on the list.