state of the union

Teachers union election: a look at caucuses and candidates

In part two of a rough guide to the upcoming teachers union elections, here’s a look at the union’s internal party system and who’s running for major positions.

Part of the reason why UFT ballots have the heft of a college acceptance package is that they’re filled with a dizzying number of names. This year, 1,485 candidates are running for about 900 positions.

Most of those positions are for delegates to the conventions held by the national and state union branches, as well as the country’s largest teachers union, the National Eduction Association. But others have a direct influence on how the union is run and where it stands on issues like merit pay, charter schools, and how difficult it is to fire a teacher.

Along with voting for a union president, UFT members also cast their votes for ten officer positions and 78 executive board positions. The executive board, which meets once a month and votes on resolutions, breaks down into 42 “at large” positions held by any UFT member, and 36 positions that are parceled out among elementary (11), middle (5), and high school teachers (6), as well as “functional” employees (14) such as guidance counselors.

Of all the positions on the ballot, the high school seats on the executive board are the most contested and always have been.

The teachers union is made up of caucuses, which are like political parties within the union. Rather than checking off 900 boxes, most people vote by caucus, meaning they’ll check the slate for Unity, New Action, or Independent Community of Educators/Teachers for a Just Contract (known as ICE/TJC).

Unity is the union’s dominant caucus. Every UFT president has been a Unity member since the days of Al Shanker who, according to Richard Kahlenberg’s biography, is largely responsible for Unity’s grip on the UFT’s reins. Kahlenberg writes:

In the spring of 1970, at Shanker’s urging, the Unity Caucus adopted a rule under which Unity members were free to fight out positions within the caucus, but once the caucus took a position, members had to support it publicly outside the caucus or risk expulsion. By 1970, the Unity Caucus had grown so powerful that expulsion from Unity was tantamount to expulsion from power within the union.

Many teachers, especially those new to the city’s schools, aren’t aware that there are alternatives to Unity. Unless their school’s chapter leader or delegate is an opposition party member, or they’re especially curious about how the union works, chances that they’ll know who’s running are slim. Norm Scott, a member of the opposition group ICE, writes on his blog that when he asks teachers whether their chapter leaders are Unity members, they often have no idea.

That makes life more difficult for the union’s two opposition groups: New Action and ICE/TJC.

New Action has been around for longer than ICE/TJC and is better known among some retirees (who make up a large percentage of voters), but it is no longer wholly independent of Unity. In 2004, New Action’s leaders decided the caucus would endorse then-president Randi Weingarten’s run for re-election rather than put up a candidate to run against her, as they had done in the past. Unhappy with this decision, some New Action members left and formed ICE, a group that would challenge Unity from the outside rather than partnering with them.

New Action doesn’t always agree with Unity’s decisions. Last year, when the UFT decided to stay out of the city’s mayoral race, New Action endorsed Mayor Bloomberg’s democratic challenger Bill Thompson.

Since 2007, New Action has cross endorsed Unity’s candidates for president and Unity has cross endorsed New Action’s candidates for the only competitive race: the high school executive board seats, making it significantly more difficult for ICE to win any of these positions.

That hasn’t stopped ICE from trying. Its supporters place flyers in teachers’ school mailboxes and Teachers Unite, a nonprofit organization that’s backing ICE/TJC in this election, has done phone banking on their behalf. ICE’s candidate for president, James Eterno, a teacher at Jamaica High School, has received some press attention for speaking out against Jamaica’s closure. But as with any challenger, it’s hard for Eterno to get the exposure that current UFT president Michael Mulgrew gets in the city’s newspapers, at delegate assemblies, and when he travels to places like Florida to meet retired union members.

Aside from putting flyers in mailboxes, Unity has done little to promote Mulgrew, likely calculating that it doesn’t need to. When I asked a UFT spokesman why there hadn’t been a debate among presidential candidates, he said that the opposition groups hadn’t asked for one.

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.