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A union skeptic, converted by Steve Barr, befriends the UFT

Steve Barr argues that education activists need to move from campaigning to governing.
Steve Barr argues that education activists need to move from campaigning to governing.

When Gideon Stein first picked up the 2009 New Yorker profile of California charter school leader Steve Barr, he put the article down without finishing it. The story was all about Barr’s decision to work with the teachers union rather than fight it.

“I was like, eh, how great can his schools be?” Stein, an entrepreneur and real estate developer based in Manhattan, recalled in an interview this week.

A board member of at one of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network schools, where teachers are determinedly not unionized, Stein didn’t believe that anyone working with a teachers union had a shot at turning a school around.

But at the urging of his family, he finished the piece and was so impressed that he asked Moskowitz to broker an introduction. Soon he flew to Los Angeles to visit Locke High School, the school that Barr’s group, Green Dot, took over in 2008. The trip was “transformative,” Stein said.

In Barr, he saw the solution to the problem that troubles many education philanthropists: Successful transformations urban and rural schools are too rare. They have not achieved “scale.”

“While I love my work with Eva, and I think Eva is just an unbelievable educator and advocate for children,” Stein said, “if you really want scale, I think you’re going to have to make some compromises.”

He asked Barr how he could help Green Dot’s mission of re-making schools in partnership with labor.

Now Stein is the president of Barr’s national organization, which changed its name today from Green Dot America to Future Is Now Schools. And he’s rejiggered his social calendar. “I’ve now had dinner and drinks with Randi 10 times in the last eight months,” he said, referring to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Winning the Future
Future is Now, whose name is a play on President Barack Obama’s charge to “win the future,” aims to spread the principles that have governed Barr’s schools in California and New York around the country. Those principles include a simplified teachers contract that trades higher pay for tenure and sets only class size, the length of the school day and year, salary and benefits. Barr said that he also aims to transform the learning experience through technology.

Stein and Barr want to start by expanding in New York City, where they are working with the United Federation of Teachers and the Department of Education on a plan to take over two struggling Bronx schools starting next year. The plan would test a model that has not yet been tried here: removing the schools’ principals and half their teaching staffs.

Barr argues that the path forward has to be endorsed by all sides in the education debate. In a sit-down interview with GothamSchools this week, he repeatedly declared his desire to “gather the tribes.” “We’re not going to solve this with this tribal warfare,” Barr said. “Not only is it boring — we’re not reaching kids.”

The challenge is to bring the positive changes that a small number of schools serving urban and rural students have achieved to the rest of the country. “You can’t go into a 100 percent unionized industry with non-union labor,” he said.

Organizing parents to support his efforts is also central to the expansion, Barr said. For the two turnaround projects in the Bronx, Barr has promised to knock on every door in the communities where he is taking over schools in an effort to build parent support. He’ll lean on a veteran community organizer he and Stein have hired away from the SEIU for the effort, Mike Dolan.

But it’s far from clear that Barr’s attempt to replace the principal and half the staff of two schools won’t provoke an outcry similar to that sparked when the city has closed schools. Questions linger about the sustainability of Barr’s model, which has proven to be expensive in California. And already critics have grumbled that Barr, the city, and the union are proceeding with their negotiations without identifying the schools they are targeting to their staffs and parents.

(In our interview, Barr and Stein indicated that they had a high school in mind but wouldn’t name it.)

Working Together

The city’s teachers union, however, says it is committed to working with the organization. The two groups, along with the DOE, are already working to find common ground in an area where the city and the union have been stalled for months — a new evaluation system for the schools’ teachers.

Formal negotiations on the evaluations began just this week, but the Barr and UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said that there has been progress, although a new evaluation plan has not yet been vetted by lawyers to ensure it conforms to state education law.

“There is absolutely a willingness on our part and on Green Dot’s part to do this,” Mendel said.

Barr and Stein described a close friendship that has formed between Barr and UFT President Michael Mulgrew — and also between Stein, Mendel, and Leo Casey, the union’s resident big thinker and vice president.

“We met for breakfast and we ended up almost going to lunch,” Barr said of his first meeting with Mulgrew three months ago. He said that he found Mulgrew to be extremely thoughtful about the future of the teaching profession. The two spoke about how to reconfigure schools for a changing workforce, he said.

“I think a lot of this is just the lost art of trust,” Barr said. “Randi and I and Mike Mulgrew and I — we don’t agree on everything. … How do you find the 80% we all agree on?”

With the two sides are committed to moving forward, part of the ease may also be due to the fact that the negotiations don’t have to address one of the sticking points between the city and union on evaluations more generally: how to handle teachers who are rated ineffective this year.

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