Main Street Early Education Program teacher Phil Cleary was selected to represent all of New York state’s educators last week at a gathering at the White House to discuss the American Jobs Act and the Obama administration’s efforts to put people back to work.
Cleary was one of about 100 teachers, laborers, activists and White House staffers to take part in a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 1. At that meeting, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and their staffs solicited comments from those in attendance about the unemployment crisis.
“The White House staff, the president and the vice president all spoke,” Cleary said. “They talked about the initiatives they felt reflected the needs of the American people, but they also encouraged the group to make comments and ask questions that helped them. I think it’s an initiative that’s been ongoing at the White House where they’re, on a regular basis, asking different groups of people on all kinds of topics, even beyond what I was there for. They’re bringing in people from all over the country and trying to understand what’s going on in people’s daily lives.”
Cleary said he emphasized the critical role of education in addressing the unemployment issue.
“Education is an investment that pays for itself many times over,” he said. “If we want our economy to perk up, we’ve got to invest in education and get people back to work. We need educated students, and we’re not going to get anywhere with fewer teachers and crumbling schools. Schools need to be repaired or replaced.”
As an advocate for New York’s schools, Cleary pointed out that this state has been hit particularly hard by the recent economic downturn, and that’s particularly evident in the education sector.
“It was my job to represent New York and remind them that right here, in New York state, in the last three years, we’ve lost close to 20,000 teachers,” he said. “In Central New York, we’ve lost 3,000 or more jobs. In the North Syracuse school district where I work, in the last five years, we’ve lost close to 200 teachers. With the budget horizon and the difficulty in getting funds for education, we’re looking at probably laying off more in the future. And it comes at a particularly terrible time because social pressures are making it harder for kids and harder for schools, and there are increasing forces saying that schools have to perform at higher standards, yet the funds for doing that have been cut, teachers have been laid off, kids have less access to their teachers, larger class sizes. That’s not something that helps us move forward.”
Cleary said he was selected to attend the meeting through the American Federation of Teachers, who found him through the New York State United Teachers. He said it wasn’t clear why he was chosen over another teacher from the state, though he suspects it has to do with his out-of-classroom activities.
“My work outside of my classroom, which is my primary job, of course, does involve getting people to register to vote, encouraging people to support initiatives that are pro-education, pro-schools, pro-student,” he said. “It’s been something I’ve been doing for a while.”
Regardless of why he personally was picked, Cleary said he was honored by the selection.
“It’s really humbling, and it’s a tremendous responsibility knowing that you’re going not for yourself, but to represent all of your colleagues in New York state and all of New York’s schoolchildren,” he said. “It’s a tremendous honor and a tremendous responsibility.”
Cleary also said he gained tremendous respect for those working in government after the experience.
“You meet people who work their whole lives in government, not necessarily just elected officials, but who labor every day for the public,” he said. “You find people who are tremendously motivated and very proud of the work they do to help people. Government takes a lot of shots, but the people who work in it want nothing more than to be of service and to make our country a better place. It makes you feel very, very proud.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.