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Candidates vie for UFT support, with varying degrees of success

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn fought hard to distance herself from the Bloomberg administration during a mayoral debate hosted by the teachers union on Saturday, but she could not escape being the only candidate to be booed by union members angry at the mayor’s education policies.

When UFT officials asked the mayoral candidates at the teachers union’s spring conference whether they believed the next chancellor needs to be an educator, Quinn’s answer stood out from the chorus of “yes” responses.

“Not necessarily,” she said.

It was not a new stance for Quinn, who has said for months that she believes a qualified non-educator could successfully lead the school system. But when she cited as someone who fit the bill U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agenda overlaps with Bloomberg’s, she drew loud boos from the crowd.

It was a major misstep for Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner, as she worked to hit the right notes during the United Federation of Teachers’ mayoral debate, which came a month before the union — one of the city’s most powerful political forces — plans to endorse a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2001.

Like the other candidates who attended — the rest of the leading Democratic candidates and one independent, Adolfo Carrion, Jr. — she pledged to take the city’s schools in a new direction as mayor. But the challenge was greatest for Quinn, who as the head of the City Council under Bloomberg rarely challenged the mayor’s most divisive education policies.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has characterized education under Bloomberg “a decade of disaster.” In a speech at the conference, he called for a “truth commission” to scrutinize Bloomberg’s claims of education success, which he said had been dramatically inflated.

After the debate, Mulgrew said he thought all of the candidates who attended had gotten the union’s message.

“It was clear that all these candidates have made the position that what has gone on is wrong, and that we need to make significant changes,” he said. “We heard very positive responses and things that would probably be favorable with just about all of us.”

Quinn won points with the union when she said she would reduce the weight of test scores in calculating schools’ annual grades and allow a “sunset clause” into the city’s teacher evaluation system. Bloomberg said he spiked a deal with the UFT on evaluations late last year over the union’s demand for an expiration date.

She also joined the other candidates in criticizing Bloomberg’s strategy of closing low-performing schools, in saying that the state does not need to give permission for more charter schools to open, and in criticizing charter school operator Eva Moskowitz. Quinn said Moskowitz, who once headed the City Council’s education committee, had “ripped us apart” with her fierce criticism of the union.

But she and Carrión stood apart from the other candidates when asked whether they would continue to use Bloomberg’s letter grading system for schools. When asked to explain her decision to maintain the evaluation system, Quinn said she would revise the system by making sure standardized testing didn’t account for such a large percentage of the grades. Carrión agreed, saying, “At the end of the day, we need to give an honest assessment to parents of the school they’re sending their children to.”

Other candidates landed closer to union positions when they said charter schools should not be able to open in public school space without community approval and that the city school board should be altered to provide a more substantive check on the mayor’s power. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who ran against Bloomberg in 2009, became the first candidate to say he would cede the majority on the board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy.

All of the candidates highlighted their commitment to the union and the educators it represents. Quinn, who mentioned that her father was in a union, said union contract negotiations would not be public and she would stay in a room with the UFT “until we get a fair contract.” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said the union “saved us in the 1970s” and now in Mulgrew, “we have another great leader here who’s going to help us out of this crisis.” Former city councilman Sal Albanese reiterated his 11 years as a public school teacher and dues-paying UFT member, while Carrion also highlighted his experience as a public school teacher, and Liu pointed out that he is a public school parent.

Mulgrew also asked candidates how they would restore workers’ job security after the school bus strike, which he said Bloomberg had forced. Comptroller John Liu said Bloomberg’s administration thinks all workers, whether they are bus drivers or teachers, are “commodity items,” which drew cheers from the crowd. Thompson went even further and said the strike was “a great example of this administration union busting.”

When audience members were given the chance to ask questions, two different teachers asked how the candidates would support the community schools pilot program that the UFT launched last year. (All the candidates said they would expand the program). Championed by Mulgrew as the ideal school model, community schools offer children and parents access to healthcare, tutoring, counseling, and social services. The four Democratic frontrunners — Liu, Quinn, Thompson and de Blasio — have all accompanied Mulgrew on trips to visit a community school in Cincinnati, while Bloomberg’s administration hasn’t shown much interest in the idea.

The debate did not leave the hundreds of educators who attended the union’s spring conference with a clear picture of which candidate would be best for city teachers.

Mavis Yon, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn, said she was most concerned about how the next mayor would handle the curriculum teachers need to teach the new Common Core standards. She said she hasn’t decided which candidate she’ll support yet, but “I think that they all in their own way understand that what we have is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

Evelyn Negron, a special education teacher in Queens, said she liked what she heard from de Blasio. “We have a lot of senior teachers who feel like they’re getting the shaft,” she said. “The way he’s been talking, it really seems like he’ll be supporting our teachers the way we need to be supported.”

For Cynthia Dowdy, a counselor at a Brooklyn elementary school, Liu and Thompson are her two favorites so far. “I don’t know about Quinn … there’s too much of a connection with Bloomberg,” she said.

Vandeen Campbell and Geri Ryan, two Queens teachers, said they enjoyed hearing Albanese and Thompson speak but they haven’t decided who they’re voting for yet.

“They all know what they should say because they’re talking to a group of teachers and they know what the controversies are,” Ryan said. “But I think anybody would be better than Mayor Bloomberg.”

Campbell jumped in, “Well, not anybody. I think Quinn would be continuing what Bloomberg did.”

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