Catherine Nolan Leads New York State Assembly’s Committee on Education in the Right Direction

February 14, 2008

When I was appointed to Chair the New York State Assembly Committee on Education, I immediately began to draw on the varied experiences I have had with the public education system. I am grateful to Speaker Sheldon Silver for appointing me as the first Majority woman to chair the committee and to all my colleagues for their confidence in me.

I approach the leadership of New York State Assembly Committee on Education as a graduate of Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens, a parent of a public school student, and as an experienced legislator. I believe that education policy must rely on collaboration between policy makers and those we serve in order to achieve the most effective results, and the business community is an important stakeholder in this equation.

The Assembly Education Committee reviews almost 600 bills during each two-year legislative term. The Committee deals with a wide range of issues, including school funding, class size, pre-k and early childhood education, testing, special education, transportation, breakfast and nutrition, health care services, construction and maintenance of school buildings, charter schools, continued issues of mayoral, community and other “controls” of the 700 school districts in our state and so much more. As the Committee Chair my goal is to establish optimal public policy on these issues.

Governor Spitzer and the New York State legislature’s final state budget for 2007 made an historic investment in New York’s education system, providing an unprecedented $1.7 billion increase, of which New York City received $7,516,726,801. This funding made it possible for the New York City Department of Education (DOE) to focus on complying with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit by reducing class size within five years in specified grade ranges and class size reduction for low performing and overcrowded schools. Budgetary provisions were also set in place for expanding early childhood education and raising standards in our schools through the Governor’s Contracts for Excellence.

The Contracts for Excellence give the legislature and the governor a much needed increase in their powers of oversight regarding the use of tax payer dollars in education. Schools are required to detail exactly how they plan to use excess funding to improve student performance by focusing on class size reduction, teacher and principal training, middle school and high school restructuring, full-time kindergarten or pre-kindergarten, or a combination of these measures. As Chair of the Education Committee I worked hard to address overcrowding in New York City public schools, and as a result sixty percent of the Contracts for Excellence funds are tied to class size reduction.

Last year the Education Committee passed protections for children with special needs, including a bill empowering parents to advocate on their child’s behalf for the best education possible. In a 2005 Supreme Court case, Shaffer v. Weast, the burden of proof was shifted from schools to parents, effectively overriding a longstanding New York State policy that gave schools the legal and financial responsibility in such cases. The Burden of Proof law ensures that when a parent disagrees with a school regarding services and requests an Individual Education Plan (IEP) hearing, the school must prove that its services provide an adequate education for the child.

As we enter 2008, the committee will work to retain funding for education and ensure that the neediest schools receive the resources they need to help students succeed. I will continue my commitment to reducing class size. The Committee will review some exciting new legislation this year that has the potential to transform all areas of education. The Museum Education Act would expand cultural education by launching a partnership between museums and schools. Healthy Schools legislation, first proposed in 2007, which encompasses a host of measures aimed at improving eating habits, health education, and raising consciousness, will also remain on the table for discussion in 2008.

Most recently, the Committee held a hearing to examine if schools were complying with state law or ignoring guidelines for physical education instruction at each grade level. The Committee listened to testimony from teachers, principals, education advocates, The New York City DOE and the New York State Department of Education. As the legislative session continues we will look at outside-the-box solutions to address issues of space and overcrowding. Some of ideas that have been forwarded include the use of public playgrounds, a shift in focus from competitive sports to fitness classes and even a unique jump rope program.

On a local level Queens is increasingly faced with overcrowding in our schools. We must initiate measures that reflect our responsibility to invest in the infrastructure of our community. Building new schools to accommodate growth is crucial at this juncture.

New York and its schools will face many challenges in the years ahead. As Chair of the Assembly Committee on Education, I like to ask the difficult questions in the spirit of discovering the proper policies, legislation and funding that will have a lasting positive impact on education. I am optimistic about the future for our public schools and the students, families and communities they serve.