race to the race to the top

City waiting for charter cap resolution before signing RttT bid

With just over a week until the state’s Race to the Top application is due, the city is playing a game of chicken with the state legislature to pressure lawmakers into raising the cap on charter schools.

Today was the deadline for school districts to sign onto the state’s Race to the Top application, signaling they will participate in the state’s reform plans and making them eligible for a slice of the federal funds.

But the Department of Education of New York City —the state’s (and country’s) largest school district — has not yet agreed to the plan, taking advantage of a last-minute state extension of the deadline.

“We’re awaiting action on the charter cap,” DOE spokesman David Cantor said.

The more school districts that sign onto a state’s application, the more points the state earns in the competition for grant funds.

If New York City refuses its buy-in to the state’s plan, it could potentially cripple New York’s bid for the grant, which could deprive the state of a badly-needed $700 million in funding. The governor is currently withholding nearly $600 million in school aid from districts around the state, a move he defends as an attempt to stave off state financial insolvency.

State education officials had originally given school districts until 5 p.m. today to sign a Memorandum of Understanding indicating that the district agrees to participate in the state’s Race to the Top reform efforts. This afternoon, the state education department had received MOUs from over 600 of New York’s 698 school districts, and others continued to arrive, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

Nevertheless, today state Education Commissioner David Steiner extended the deadline until next Wednesday.

“[S]ome of you have explained that, for very good reasons, you cannot meet the due date of today, January 8,” Steiner wrote in a statement to school districts. “We want to ensure that everyone is represented and that New York’s application demonstrates very strong local support.”

Along with refusing to sign onto the state’s plan, the DOE has not spoken to the city teachers union about whether it will agree to the plans. States also get points for having union support for their applications, but a spokesman for the UFT, Dick Riley, said the union hasn’t been shown the plans.

The city’s reluctance to move forward pending action on the charter cap issue will undoubtedly hang over Albany as the legislature prepares to take up the bill Governor David Paterson introduced yesterday, which would eliminate the cap altogether. The governor said he wants the bill passed by January 14, the day after the state education department’s new deadline for districts to sign onto the plan.

It’s still unclear how quickly the notoriously slow-moving legislature will move on the bill. Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson has announced his support for raising the cap (though not for eliminating it) and several other Senate leaders have done the same.

But so far Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been mum on whether he will support the cap lift. Many of the proposals included in the governor’s bill are radioactive issues for the powerful state and city teachers union, which oppose lifting the charter cap and moving up the expiration date for a provision that prohibits using student test data in teacher tenure decisions, another feature of the bill. Representatives from upstate districts, many of which have been more wary of the growth of charter schools than the city, may also be reluctant to lift the cap.

By contrast, from the city’s perspective, the governor’s legislation may not go far enough.

In November, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on Albany to enact a wide-ranging program of reforms that go well beyond what the governor has proposed. In addition to eliminating the charter cap, the mayor wants the state to mandate that school districts use student data to evaluate teachers, eliminate seniority regulations that govern the hiring and firing of teachers, and legally allow the city to lay off excessed teachers after they have spent a year without finding a teaching position.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today that it was possible the city would not agree to sign onto the state plan. But she said the success of the state application depends both on the city’s assent to the plan and the successful passage of legislation to bring state law in line with the grant program’s priorities.

But Tisch also said she was optimistic the legislature would pass a version of the reform bill.

“I believe everyone understands we’re at a critical juncture,” she said. “I am having a realistic attitude about the ability to move this in a time sensitive way…but I believe there is enough time.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”