the loyal opposition

Opposition groups name their 2010 candidate for UFT president

James Eterno, a member of ICE, is running for president of the UFT. (<em>Photo via GothamSchools' Flickr</em>)

For months now, outgoing UFT president Randi Weingarten has made it clear whom she would like to see succeed her — chief operating officer Michael Mulgrew. But the seeming inevitability of Mulgrew’s election has not stopped two small opposition groups within the union from promoting their own candidate, James Eterno.

Eterno’s name didn’t make the list today, when the UFT’s executive board met to nominate candidates for interim president. Weingarten nominated Mulgrew and no one on the board offered any other names. Non-board members weren’t permitted to make nominations. Eterno’s party, the Independent Community of Educators, commonly known as ICE, as well as the Teachers for a Just Contract, do not have any members on the board, which is dominated by the UFT’s ruling party, the Unity caucus. At the end of the month the board will reconvene to vote in Mulgrew (according to the constitution, there have to be two separate meetings even if there’s only one candidate). But not being chosen won’t preclude Eterno from running for president in 2010, when all union members will vote.

Eterno is keenly aware of his role as the underdog. “It’s a long shot,” he said of his 2010 candidacy, which he and fellow ICE members are funding. “If you were making betting odds, you wouldn’t favor us.”

Eterno, 48, has been a social studies teacher at Jamaica High School for 23 years, and he served on the union’s executive board from 1997 to 2007. He left his party, the New Action caucus, when it made a deal with Unity to back Weingarten’s reelection, something Eterno vehemently opposed.

Still, he says he’s not running on an anti-Weingarten campaign, so much as an anti-Unity campaign. It’s how the union works rather than who’s at the helm that bothers him.

“My biggest gripe is that you have one political party that since the early ’60s has been running this union,” he said. The UFT “needs to run like a bottom up labor organization where the membership is really in control.”

If you want to put Eterno in a frenzy (but don’t, his wife, who is also a teacher, is due to give birth to their first child this weekend), ask him about the 2005 contract Weingarten negotiated with Chancellor Joel Klein, or the side deal she brokered a few weeks ago that creates a new pension tier in exchange for a later start date for teachers.

“The city has once again taken the UFT to the cleaners,” he wrote on ICE’s blog in reaction to the recent deal. “When you are enjoying those extra days off on September 3 and 4, just call them the billion dollar days. That’s roughly the amount that each day will end up costing us in the long run. For that kind of gift, couldn’t we get back just a little bit more of our professional dignity?”

He says the changes he wants to see in the way the union works would also change the way teachers do their jobs.

Eterno wants a contract that doesn’t oblige teachers to do hall patrol duty or run tutoring sessions if they don’t want to. He’d like some of the “nonfinancial sweeteners” back, he said, and less of an emphasis on test scores. “We’ve given them the grand enchilada,” he told me, referring not just to the pension plan that will require newer teachers to contribute more, but also to the many work rules that disappeared in the 2005 contract.

“I don’t expect much except cosmetic changes under Mulgrew,” he said.

The son of a Catholic school teacher — his mother taught the second grade in Flushing, Queens for 31 years — Eterno grew up on her small salary. “She made garbage,” he said, “It made me realize the absolute necessity for a union, a strong union.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.