Senator Al Coppola, the Democrat running for State Senate against Republican Chris Jacobs, is disgusted with the way that today’s political discourse has wrongly bashed teachers in the media, often using hard working career professionals as political scapegoats — for purposes that often have little to do with education and more to do with privatizing public services and school district dollars, he says.
“It is deeply offensive that politicians and real estate developers use teachers as political punching bags for their own self interests. When I hear it, it instinctively disgusts me,” says Coppola. “I know how hard the vast majority of teachers work — I’ve seen it my entire life.”
Coppola’s late wife, Carol, was a teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools for over 30 years. Coppola, who graduated from Lafayette High School and now resides in North Buffalo, says he is “a staunch and proud advocate for public education.”
“If you have a classroom full of children who have newly arrived in America and cannot speak English, does it make sense to punish that teacher with poor performance evaluations? Or does it make more sense to give these children the resources and programs to first learn English?” Coppola asks.
Republican County Clerk Chris Jacobs is nervous following sweeping losses for the school board’s ‘reform coalition’ earlier this month. Jacobs has been a chief architect of the reform coalition for years, and is said to be shaken by such staggering losses at the ballot box. He is running for State Senate in the Republican Primary against Kevin Stocker and is said to be worried that he may have misjudged the political climate.
Take the North District, for instance. Jay McCarthy was a popular and non-controversial incumbent with strong name recognition who was elected to represent the district twice. His fundraising was robust and he enjoyed the backing of a well organized community of charter and private school parents. Despite those advantages, he was defeated soundly by a political novice with little name recognition — but with the monied backing of NYSUT.
Jacobs’ natural political base is similar to McCarthy’s and he will need those same Elmwood Village and North Buffalo centrists to turn out if Jacobs is to overcome the district’s Democrat enrollment advantage.
Compounding the political conundrum is Stocker’s support of public schools and NYSUT support of Stocker’s candidacy in the 2012 election cycle. If NYSUT is to retain control of the seat (as they currently enjoy with the one-term Senator Marc Panepinto), they will have to defeat Jacobs in the primary — because his moderate style and centrist views might make him unstoppable in a general election.
In 2012, NYSUT spent over $400,000 to defeat former Senator Mark Grisanti in the primary. If Jacobs is to take the 60th District, he will have to drastically remake the regional narrative around education reform — because, it seems, the issue is not going away and the political tide may (or may not) be receding.
“Of course, we all support accountability and performance reviews, but what we do has to make sense and has to have legitimate, deliberate, productive outcomes. If we are simply rewarding teachers who are lucky enough to have great students from good families, then we’re creating a lot of perverse disincentives,” he explains.
“When you tell people their jobs are on the line based on some metric that doesn’t fully get at what’s going on in a classroom, then you invite a culture of cheating and deception. We’ve seen in other states massive cheating scandals on standardized tests for precisely this reason.”
“We need to build a performance review system that creates the behaviors that we are trying to encourage,” he concludes. “As a management principle, I believe in positive reinforcement, because managing by negative reinforcement is just bullying, which is how teachers are treated, frankly.”
Coppola supports a performance review system that is rooted in faculty mentorship programs and peer-to-peer evaluations rather than strictly on the basis of standardized testing.
The former Senator, who retired after serving in the State Senate a single term, is remembered widely for his humility, honesty, and unassuming style — which still stand in stark contrast to the narcissistic and self-aggrandizing political culture as of late. Coppola represented North Buffalo on the Common Council in the 1990s and is a longtime fixture in Buffalo’s activist communities — especially on environmental and energy issues.