During the last year, Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly accused the United Federation of Teachers of trying to prevent a new teacher evaluation system from being adopted. At the same time, the union repeatedly questioned whether Bloomberg himself was committed to making a deal on evaluations.

Who was right? As the union and city prepare to emerge from the negotiating room for the last time, we don’t yet know. But what is clear is that each side has strong reasons to make a deal — and strong reasons to let negotiations fail. And our analysis of the incentives at play at the bargaining table suggests that Department of Education officials and the mayor might not always see eye to eye on evaluations.

Here’s why it would make sense for the UFT to leave a deal on the table:

  • Fears about some elements of the evaluation system, particularly its use of volatile “value-added” measures, and perceived abuses by the Department of Education have conspired to turn many teachers off of new evaluations. Some of them are so distressed that they are questioning whether the union’s leadership is making choices that are good for teachers. Union leaders rejected a call by a minority party for a resolution that would require all members to ratify any deal that the UFT struck, but especially with his own election set for just a few months from now, UFT President Michael Mulgrew knows he has to recognize the criticism. His refusal to negotiate until the city hashed out an implementation plan and the union’s call for a mediator this week could appease angry union members, but declining to make a deal at all might satisfy them more.
  • Bloomberg has made no bones about wanting to sign off on an evaluation system that allows weak teachers to be fired. Negotiators working for a mayor with a softer attitude about teachers might push for a different evaluation system. The city is likely to get such a mayor in just a year — and the union’s position would be even stronger if the candidate it endorses occupies City Hall when a new evaluation system is adopted.
  • Another reason to wait until 2014 is that it makes sense for the union to negotiate a deal in conjunction with a new contract, the first time that new evaluations legally must be adopted. A broader set of negotiations could allow the union to extract concessions from the city in exchange for linking test scores to teacher ratings and putting more pressure on teachers to improve. The city said the union has already asked for a limit on school closures and for “economic credits” toward a new contract, but it has argued that those requests are illegal outside of contract negotiations.
  • No one really knows what will happen under a new evaluation system. More teachers could get low ratings, leading to poor public opinion of teachers and forcing the union into defending teachers who score low under a system the union itself agreed to.

On the other hand, the union has many, many reasons to make a deal:

  • The current evaluation system is also completely arbitrary: Principals can issue unsatisfactory ratings for a wide array of reasons and show only minimal evidence. A new system would be more clear, understandable, and transparent — making retaliatory ratings less likely and inappropriately low ratings easier to contest.
  • And uncertainty about the impact of a new evaluation system could cut the other way, too: An untested system — particularly one that the union helped create — could result in good reviews for more teachers.
  • The union knows that most teachers want to be good at their jobs. The current evaluation system does not include any mechanism for helping teachers get better, and principals aren’t held accountable for providing support. Those features have to be built into the new system.
  • Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the union also understands that teachers would be better off, on balance, if some weak teachers are ushered out of the classroom. The union would have more cover for making unpopular concessions if it strikes a deal under Bloomberg than under a future mayor who might be more union-friendly.
  • It’s also possible, though not probable, that the next mayor could be even less willing to play nice with the union. Now that Joe Lhota is on the scene, the prospect of a Democratic mayor in 2014 is less certain than it was a month ago. Even though insiders and polls both see him as a long shot, Lhota could push rhetoric in the race for City Hall rightward and harden other candidates’ lines toward the union.
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo really, really wants every school district to adopt new teacher evaluations by the deadline he set — and almost all have. Blocking an evaluation deal in New York City would anger Cuomo just in time for the start of the legislative and budget season, when the union has its own agenda it would like to see supported.
  • If the governor makes good on his threat to withhold school aid from districts without evaluation systems, the city could face an education budget gap larger than in almost any other year since the economic recession started. Last-minute budget deals have averted teacher layoffs in the past, but there’s no assurance that the same thing would happen this time, particularly if there’s a perception that the shortfall is the teachers’ fault.
  • And attacks on the union until now would pale in comparison to those sure to be unleashed if teacher evaluation negotiations fail again.
  • Finally, union officials are shrewd, and they know that officials at the Department of Education have an incentive to reach a deal now, while Bloomberg is still in office. More on this in the next section.

The Department of Education? Isn’t that the same as City Hall?

Yes and no. While Bloomberg controls the Department of Education right now, it will continue to exist after he leaves office. That gives officials there a slightly different set of incentives around teacher evaluation talks.

  • When a new mayor takes over the department a year from now, his or her first act is likely to be installing new leadership to push department policy in a new direction. The most obvious reason for department officials to want an agreement is that this might well be their last chance to influence teacher evaluations in the city.
  • But reaching a deal could also prove a lifeline for remaining in the position. As the end of Bloomberg’s term nears, officials in the department are expected to depart for other districts or the private sector. But all signs suggest that some near the top are angling to stay on, throwing themselves into less confrontational policies that are unlikely to yield benefits during the rest of Bloomberg’s term and could even cause a short-term dip in test scores and graduation rates. If the officials show that they can play well with the UFT, a new mayor might be willing to keep them around and let them see the policy changes through.
  • And officials who want to stay on have an added incentive to get a deal done. If a system isn’t adopted now, it will be under a new administration when the city and union negotiate a new contract. A system crafted under those circumstances, again, is likely to be softer than one agreed upon now, so if the officials really want the teacher evaluations they’ve been touting, this is their chance to get them.

Department officials have little incentive to let talks fall through:

  • If there’s any reason for them to walk away without an agreement, it’s that the training, supervision, and development that various components of an evaluation system would take are daunting. The city has not sent principals to state trainings on assessing teachers in non-tested grades and subjects the way other districts have, for example. But the department has invested time, energy, and money in preparing for other elements of new evaluations, and it’s hard to imagine officials being happy to shut or slow that all down.

Bloomberg might not be as bothered by a failure at the bargaining table:

  • The mayor has never kept his disdain for the state’s teacher evaluation law a secret. He sought a more aggressive strategy last year because he said the new law would not lead to more teachers getting fired, and he redoubled that strategy even after he agreed to an appeals process for new evaluations, seemingly resolving a major point of contention between the city and union. He has said repeatedly — even today, just before the state’s deadline —that he will not sign off on an evaluation plan that is not “really evaluate,” or show that some teachers are low-performing.
  • No matter how stringent the agreed-upon evaluation system is, no teacher will be fired because of it under Bloomberg’s watch. Knowing that could make him less interested in being part of putting a new teacher evaluation system on the books.
  • There’s also one big upside to letting a deal fall through: The mayor would get to renew his campaign against the UFT, which he has sometimes seemed to take pleasure in characterizing as a special interest group that does not put children first.
  • And in the last month, for tragic reasons, it has become likely that gun control will be Bloomberg’s enduring legacy. That makes an education win less crucial in his last year as mayor.

But the reasons for Bloomberg to make a deal are powerful, too:

  • After campaigning to be an education mayor, Bloomberg’s education legacy is still not settled, and the specter of lower test scores this spring poses a new threat. Nailing down a new teacher evaluation system would be a coup and allow Bloomberg to leave office with the city firmly at the vanguard of education reform.
  • It could also help him after he leaves office in other ways. Making a deal could put Bloomberg in favor with Cuomo, a potentially significant thing since they both have ambitions beyond their current office.
  • And finally, $250 million is a heck of a lot of money. Bloomberg might be on his way out, but he still has to balance one more budget. Filling an enormous gap would be logistically difficult and politically unpleasant, because some services would almost certainly be cut in the process.

So what’s the bottom line? The union has a lot of reasons to make a deal, but the costs could be high. And Bloomberg has more reasons to let the deadline pass, but the incentives he does have are mighty. We’ll know in the next 24 hours which ideas will win out.