Andrew Pallotta isn't a congressman or state legislator, but he has more than 600,000 constituents counting on him to represent their interests.
Pallotta was elected president of New York State United Teachers in April. The labor union represents public school teachers, college and university staff, nurses and health care workers. On education issues, the organization is one of the most powerful stakeholders in the state.
During a phone interview with The Citizen last week, Pallotta outlined his vision for NYSUT and addressed some of the important issues affecting his members, including teacher shortages across the state and the upcoming vote on a possible constitutional convention.
"I think the key piece here is that NYSUT continues to have a strong voice for the professions that we represent," Pallotta said. "We're involved in a lot of people's lives and we want to make sure we're a strong voice and a leading voice for the labor movement in general."
Pallotta is a product of public schools and was an elementary school teacher in the Bronx for 24 years. He previously served as NYSUT's executive vice president before being elected president last spring.
With his public school experience, one issue he highlighted was the need for more resources. He said schools are owed $3.5 billion after a state Court of Appeals ruling in 2006 that determined the state was violating the constitution by not providing enough education aid.
Schools were slated to receive $5.5 billion in aid over a four-year period, but that was before the recession wreaked havoc on the economy and the state's finances.
"We saw what it was like with the budget cuts — mid-year cuts — and how the entire system was in flux because of the amount of layoffs that were done," he said. "We've come back a long way from that, but of course there's still a long way to go. That can never be made up. We have to ensure that there's a steady stream of sound financial backing for these schools."
Aside from state aid, another challenge is the number of teachers in schools. A report released over the summer by the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government found that a major teaching shortage looms across the country.
The report cited a few factors for the potential shortage, including declining enrollment in teaching programs, the "demonization" of the profession and fewer teachers with necessary certifications for subject areas.
To address the shortfall, Pallotta said teaching should be respected. He noted that there has been "disrespect for educators" over the past couple of years. He also believes teachers have been frustrated by high-stakes testing.
"What made me go into it: the idea that I could make a difference and after 24 years, I felt I did," Pallotta said. "Going into teaching changes lives. It's not all about giving kids tests."
Respect for teachers and public schools has been raised as an issue after President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary.
DeVos doesn't have an educational background, but she comes from a wealthy family and is an advocate for charter schools. One concern for Pallotta and other teacher union leaders is that resources intended for public schools will be diverted to support "privatization" — the expansion of charter schools.
"We don't need that here in New York and we certainly don't want to see the entire country go that route," Pallotta said.
While dealing with DeVos will be a long-term challenge, NYSUT is focused on a key state vote for the next two months.
In November, voters will head to the polls to determine whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. The constitutional convention vote is mandated every 20 years and was last held in 1997.
Supporters believe a constitutional convention could secure significant reforms, such as stricter ethics policies for lawmakers and possibly term limits for state officials. But critics say the constitutional convention could threaten pensions for public employees, including teachers.
NYSUT opposes the constitutional convention and is part of a coalition urging New Yorkers to vote "no" on Nov. 7.
Pallotta said collective bargaining rights are one of NYSUT's concerns. But there is another — that a constitutional convention would be costly.
"It's very expensive. It could be hundreds of millions of dollars," he said. "The state could spend that much more wisely."
In Pallotta's view, NYSUT is in a good position. He has discussions with federal and state officials about the need for more education funding. He wants teachers to be respected, whether it's by the top education official in the country or the state government tasked with financially supporting schools.
NYSUT has scored some victories on these issues over the years. Pallotta is looking for more during his tenure. His next target: the constitutional convention vote.
"We're in a good place," he said. "We hope to have some more successes coming up and especially on Nov. 7."