breaking (updated)

City, union declare impasse in teacher evaluation negotiations

The city and teachers union won’t meet this week’s deadline to hammer out a new teacher evaluation system — and it doesn’t look like they will reach an agreement any time soon.

State Education Commisioner John King this week issued a strict ultimatum to New York and nine other districts: Agree on new teacher evaluations in a subset of low-performing schools by Dec. 31 or lose special federal funds for those schools. The city is receiving about $60 million in the funds, called School Improvement Grants, for 33 schools.

In July, the city and union agreed to roll out new evaluations in the schools, but they still had some details to finalize. They were locked in negotiations until today but threw in the towel this morning, citing irreconcilable ideological differences, particularly around due process protections for teachers who receive low ratings.

The impasse has potentially far-ranging consequences. The first is that the 33 struggling schools will stop receiving funds midyear, leaving them in the lurch to pay for programs, personnel, and nonprofit partners that are already in place.

“I am left with no choice but to suspend SIG funding” to New York City, King said in a statement this afternoon, hours after city officials essentially petitioned him to consider awarding the funds despite the impasse.

The high-profile breakdown in negotiations also bodes ill for another deadline, June 30, by which new teacher evaluations are supposed to be in place for all schools, in accordance with a state law passed in 2010 to help the state win Race to the Top funds.

The city has also canceled negotiations with the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators over new evaluations for principals. Today would have been the third day for those talks, according to CSA President Ernest Logan, who urged the department to return to the table.

That seems unlikely, according to a letter Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent King this morning explaining the impasse and suggesting that the city and state try to move forward on creating a new evaluation system without the union’s approval.

“This disagreement — regarding both policy and principles — leads me to conclude that we will not be able to come to an agreement on a fair and progressive teacher evaluation system,” Walcott wrote.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew union negotiators alerted him around 11 a.m. that two deputy chancellors had declared negotiations over and exited the room. Shortly afterwards, Mulgrew said, he received a copy of Walcott’s letter to King.

“I got the sense that the department never really wanted to get this done to begin with,” Mulgrew told GothamSchools.

The main sticking points appeared to be whether outside arbitrators would hear appeals of teachers who receive low ratings and, more broadly, whether the new evaluations are meant to usher weak teachers out of the system or identify struggling teachers so they can be helped to get better.

“We are hoping that we can have a system that will help teachers improve, because that’s the spirit of the legislation,” Mulgrew told GothamSchools yesterday. “The DOE, I don’t think they look at it the same way we do.”

In his letter to King, Walcott said the union was trying “to protect the very worst performing teachers” by insisting on outside review for teachers who received either an “ineffective” or “developing” rating under the new system. He also said the union has also thrown up roadblocks to dismissal proceedings for teachers the city is trying to fire, a separate issue from the new evaluations.

“Almost every step of the way, the UFT has insisted on conditions that I believe would undercut real accountability,” Walcott said in the letter.

But union officials said they had asked only for arbitrators to hear the cases of teachers who received the lowest rating and could lose their jobs as a result. Such a protection would guard against capricious and arbitrary low ratings by principals, they said.

Mulgrew said the city had not accepted the union’s suggestion that a third-party negotiator step in on sticking points.

In his letter, Walcott suggested to King that a solution might be found without the union’s consent.

“The city stands ready to continue discussions on this matter directly with the state, and I hope that you will consider the seriousness with which we are approaching this matter as a sign of our commitment to creating a meaningful teacher evaluation system for our schools,” he said.

City officials said they were discussing the possibility of recouping some expenditures or directing different funds to pay for others at the schools.

Walcott’s complete letter to King is below:

And here’s Mulgrew’s explanation of the impasse:

Discussions with the New York City Department of Education have reached an impasse.

Despite numerous negotiating sessions, we have been unable to reach agreement on key points.  Because the DOE refused to bargain in a meaningful way, we have offered to engage in binding arbitration over the remaining issues, leaving it up to an impartial third party to resolve these differences. (letter attached)

The DOE has refused our offer.

The UFT is seeking an agreement that meets the spirit of the teacher evaluation legislation in two important ways:

1)      The agreement must focus on creating a process to help teachers improve their performance by providing them with feedback on the specific classroom issues that need to be addressed, recommended strategies to address these issues and specific assistance from supervisors and other school personnel in implementing the recommended strategies.

2)      for teachers rated ineffective — an impartial outside review by a qualified and mutually-agreed-upon third party.

Teachers look forward to the opportunity to improve their practice.  If the DOE’s major focus is on penalizing its employees for their perceived shortcomings, rather than to devise a process that will help all teachers improve, it is doing a disservice to the schools and the children they serve.

In addition, the DOE’s position in these talks has been that principals’ judgment is always right and that they should be able to wield unfettered power over their employees.  Yet its own investigative arm has documented an instance of a principal urging her deputies to target teachers for dismissal even without observing their work (Fordham HS of the Arts);  another teacher had to go to court to get an “unsatisfactory” rating overturned after an independent investigator found that he and other teachers had been harassed by the principal (Bronx Science); and repeated allegations that teachers have been pressured by administrators to pass students who had not mastered course material or who barely attended classes (Herbert Lehman, A. Phillip Randolph).

It staggers the imagination to think that, given these facts, the DOE can continue to insist that no principal’s judgment can be questioned, and that no checks or balances are needed on their powers to destroy a teacher’s career.

And here’s what State Commissioner John King said this afternoon:

Sadly, the adults in charge of the City’s schools have let the students down.  SIG schools need to be fixed, and the best way to make that happen is to make sure there’s a quality teacher in front of every classroom and a quality principal at the head of every school.

A rigorous, transparent evaluation system grounded in evidence of effective practice and student learning is critical to providing quality professional development, identifying models of excellence, and raising student achievement.  Fair, sound teacher and principal evaluations are good for educators and vital for students.

The failure to reach agreements on evaluations leaves thousands of students mired in the same educational morass.  Until the grown-ups in charge start acting that way, it won’t be a very happy New Year for the students at the SIG schools in the City.

This is beyond disappointing.  The City and the unions have known about this deadline for many months, but there’s no evidence of any real progress. The New York City Department of Education must immediately cease obligating SIG funds in its Transformation and Restart model schools.  I am left with no choice but to suspend SIG funding for Transformation and Restart model schools in the City.

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”