ALBANY- Democrat Jim Gaughran is working to make education policy a key issue in his State Senate campaign against Republican Carl Marcellino, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Gaughran, the Suffolk County Water Authority chairman, is hosting listening tours on community education concerns and is calling out Marcellino, who has represented the 5th District since 1995.
"I firmly believe that elected officials should provide support to our state's educators and have a responsibility to listen and be respectful of parents and public education stakeholders," Gaughran said in a news release provided to POLITICO New York.
He further claimed Marcellino, who was on the education committee as the state rolled out the Common Core learning standards, has "refused" to address issues being faced by public schools, adding that his "apathy for our students and hostility to public school parents and educators is inappropriate."
Marcellino, in response, told POLITICO New York that Gaughran's claims were inaccurate. "I will take a back seat to no one on education issues," he said, describing his experience as an educator and administrator for 20 years in the New York City school system.
"To imply that I don't meet with people and that I'm not representing people is just flat out nonsense," said Marcellino.
The seat is one of several being targeted by Democrats as they aim to re-take the New York State Senate in November.
The district is an appealing target for Democrats, who have an enrollment edge in the area of over 4,000 voters. Marcellino, however, has the advantage of incumbency, and he's beaten his past two Democratic challengers each by more than 16,000 ballots. Marcellino also has a significant fundraising advantage, reporting $281K in his campaign account in July compared to Gaughran's $82K.
Education could become a focal point in the race for the Long Island district seat, which includes portions of Nassau and Suffolk County and falls in the heart of the state test refusal movement. This year, more than 21 percent of the state's eligible third- through eighth-graders opted out of the state standardized, Common Core aligned math and English language arts exams.
The opt-out movement has played a role in school board races across the state, and earlier this year caused a major shakeup on the Board of Regents, the state's education policy-making body, with long-serving members ousted amid the contention.
And some parents in the district are voicing concerns about Marcellino.
"His voting record really shows a lack of understanding about what issues our public education system currently is facing," Lissa Harris, a Bayville public school parent and Locust Valley school board trustee, told POLITICO New York, adding that her views do not reflect that of the school board.
Harris said she felt Gaughran is making education a priority, and she said that will be a deciding factor when she heads to the polls.
"We can't really vote partisan any more. We have to vote issue," Harris said. "I'm a registered Democrat...but if Jim was a Republican, I would vote for him because I know that he understands what issues are crucial and critical right now and need to be changed."
Jeff Bernstein, a high school teacher in the Great Neck district, told POLITICO New York he felt like Marcellino has done "very little for education," adding that he's "not somebody who I think listens."
"I think that we're kind of at a tipping point right now," he said of the push-back from parents on testing mandates and high-stakes testing. "I see Carl Marcellino as part of the status quo and I think we're at a point now where all we need is more legislators who understand, who are receptive, and then I think we'll begin to see change."
Marcellino took issue with the suggestion that he is not listening to parents' concerns, telling POLITICO New York that he meets with teaching and parent groups, visits schools and has met with state education leaders and that he will keep doing so.
"My record on education issues is second to none," said Marcellino, who has been on the education committee since 1995. Under his tenure, the Legislature has increased aid to all school districts in the state, including Long Island, he said.
"People in political situations have a tendency to make claims and statements," Marcellino said of the criticisms about his tenure. "Just because they say it doesn't mean it is true."
--additional reporting by Bill Mahoney