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New York City’s teachers union says it’s time for ‘positive friction’ with city

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew
Stephanie Snyder

New York City’s teachers union wants to revamp its political approach and become a more forceful public presence than it has been over the last several years, its president Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday.

The United Federation of Teachers has worked with Mayor Bill de Blasio to successfully steer the city away from the aggressive education policies of his predecessor Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including promoting charter school growth and closing struggling schools. Now that they have accomplished many of their goals, Mulgrew says it’s time for the union to become more vocal about what comes next.

To do that, Mulgrew said he is willing to push the Department of Education beyond its comfort zone — an important shift, since the UFT has been a reliable ally for the mayor.

“We’re not going to get to the results we want unless there’s a lot of positive friction,” he told Chalkbeat.

“Nobody’s really talking about education right now,” Mulgrew said, adding that he wants the UFT “out front and center.”

Phase one of that effort will be sponsoring an education policy-focused conference on Nov. 16. Participants are set to discuss whether “corporate” school reform is dead and what it would take to desegregate schools — a touchy topic for the city.

The union’s shift appears to be more about how it presents itself than about any deep-seated disagreement with de Blasio. The union and the education department are allied in key ways, especially around support for its “community schools” initiative to provide struggling schools with health and social services.

Still, there have been signs over the past several months that Mulgrew is ready for a more combative political role. Recently, Mulgrew opposed de Blasio’s initiative to ban suspensions in kindergarten through second grade, and he took a particularly critical stance toward the state’s proposed Common Core revisions last week.

There are also political reasons why having a public opponent can be useful — namely, rallying members.

“As a union leader, it’s always great to have a foe,” Mulgrew said last year.

The UFT honed that strategy during the Bloomberg years. In the final years of his mayoral tenure, the union openly warred with Bloomberg, hosting regular rallies at City Hall and calling the mayor “lost in his own fantasy world of education.”

It’s now a quieter time. Many of the initiatives Mulgrew pushed for are now in full swing. He secured a long-term contract deal that raised teacher salaries, and the city’s “Renewal” turnaround program for struggling schools is in year three.

State officials are also in the middle of slowly redesigning New York’s learning standards, tests, teacher evaluation systems, and school ratings.

Any union policy proposals will likely face pushback from Families for Excellent Schools and other groups that have opposed the city and union. So what does Mulgrew plan to push for? A greater emphasis on teacher training, for one. (Under the new contract, teachers are already required to spend 80 minutes on professional development each week.)

Mulgrew also wants to wade into the city’s ongoing conversation about school integration. He wants to see the number of PROSE schools — which have permission to bend specific city and union-contract rules — with diversity plans double next year, he said.

That stance illustrates the fine line he is walking.

The city is “moving in a better direction on the issue,” Mulgrew said, “but probably not as fast as we would want.”

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