state of the union

As UFT elections get underway, dissenters face an uphill climb

Julie Cavanagh, speaking to UFT members at Murry Bergtraum High School last week, is running against union President Michael Mulgrew in this spring's election.
P.S. 15 teacher Julie Cavanagh, speaking to teachers at Murry Bergtraum High School last week, is running against UFT President Michael Mulgrew in this year’s union elections.

It’s been nearly three years since Michael Mulgrew was elected to his first full term at the helm of the United Federation of Teachers, which means election season has arrived for the city’s teachers union.

As would-be candidates work to meet Wednesday’s deadline to collect the signatures they need to get on the ballots in April, we’ll be keeping you up to date on Mulgrew’s re-election bid and about what to expect from the changing union landscape.

What is clear is that there won’t be much suspense in the race for UFT president, as Mulgrew will almost certainly coast to a second full term. He’s backed by the union’s longtime dominant party, Unity, whose presidential candidate typically wins by a landslide. Three years ago, Mulgrew received 91 percent of the vote.

The unified support that the union’s leadership typically receives is one of many ways that the union has remained powerful in the face of threats. In other ways, too, the elections are about more than Mulgrew. There will be hundreds of positions on the ballot, including 90 executive board positions and delegates to the national and state unions, many with significant ability to impact decision-making. The vote totals also offer an opportunity to gauge dissent within the union — and this year, the dissenters are working hard to harness their power.

Two groups are lining up against Unity’s slate of candidates this year. New Action, a longstanding faction that often opposes Unity positions but supports Mulgrew for president, is nominating a full slate of candidates. They’re counting on members’ knowledge of New Action’s positions — which include opposing the use of test scores in teacher evaluations and supporting limits on mayoral control — to earn them votes, according to caucus co-chair Jonathan Halabi.

Halabi compared the group to the Working Families Party, which usually endorses Democratic candidates but sometimes puts forth candidates of its own. “We support the leadership when they’re right and we don’t when they’re wrong,” he said. “It’s kind of an easy sell.”

Another group, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, is nominating a slate of candidates who have staked out positions on teacher evaluations and charter schools that differ dramatically from Unity’s. MORE bills itself as “the social justice caucus” and takes inspiration from the group that won leadership of Chicago’s teachers union in 2010. The caucus wants less standardized testing, union opposition to school closures and co-locations, and a new contract that includes retroactive pay raises, among other changes.

stateoftheunionlogoMORE came together last May, uniting a number of opposition groups within the UFT and taking the reins for the Independent Coalition of Educators and Teachers for a Just Contract, which together earned a small percentage of votes in the last election. Unlike New Action, MORE is shooting for the top by nominating Julie Cavanaugh, a chapter leader at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, as a presidential candidate.

MORE’s relatively recent genesis is likely to make a citywide campaign difficult, though. A recent after-school appearance by Cavanaugh at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan, where chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana is a MORE member, attracted just 14 union members. Elfrank-Dana (whose writing GothamSchools has published before) said last-minute publicity and other school events that afternoon had cut into attendance, but he admitted he was disappointed at the turnout, which he estimated at one-fifth of his own members.

“There’s just so much apathy,” he said.

Unlike Halabi, who said he expects New Action to retain significant clout on the union’s executive board, Cavanaugh downplayed her hopes for specific election victories. MORE’s focus is on uniting opposition within the union and increasing voter turnout generally, she said, since turnout among active teachers has been less than 25 percent in the last two elections.

As usual, the Unity caucus will face no formal challenge from the right. Educators 4 Excellence, the advocacy group of teachers that has opposed the union leadership on teacher pay and evaluations, will not be jumping into the fray. Its executive director, Jonathan Schliefer, said the group encourages teachers to become leaders in their schools, including as union chapter leaders, but is focusing its efforts on policy lobbying.

Certain to make an impact are retirees, whose votes go overwhelmingly to Unity. It’s worth watching how big that impact turns out to be, since those votes have gained influence through a rule change made by the UFT this January. The total number of retirees’ votes counted had been capped at 18,000 since 1989, which meant that an individual retiree’s vote counted for less than an active member’s vote — about seven-tenths of a vote in 2010. The union raised that cap to 23,500 retiree votes in January, and because a high percentage of retirees vote, Mulgrew could potentially receive an even higher share of the votes than in 2010.

What’s happening now? Petitions to get on the ballot, which require anywhere from 100 signatures for delegate and executive board positions to 900 signatures for officer positions, are due Wednesday. Ballots will be mailed to union members on April 3, and members will have three weeks to fill out their ballots, which must be returned by April 24. They’ll be able to select a candidate for each of the hundreds of open positions — or they can vote for a caucus’s entire slate.

The votes will be publicly counted on April 25, about two weeks later than they were counted in 2010. UFT Secretary Michael Mendel attributed the delay to Hurricane Sandy. “It moved the whole calendar back for every single thing,” he said, pointing to the teacher evaluation negotiations with the city that Sandy also put on hold. The election calendar is approved by a bipartisan committee that includes members from MORE and New Action, he added.

Much of the electioneering will take place in teachers’ school mailboxes, which the Department of Education has said can be used to distribute union campaign literature. But after weeks of requests from individual union members, including Elfrank-Dana, representatives of the Unity Caucus have agreed to schedule debates with other candidates. Leroy Barr, the union’s staff director, today told the chapter leader of Brooklyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School — Marian Swerdlow, a founding member of Teachers for a Just Contract — that a union official would participate in a debate in early April.

Barr said the debate at FDR was the first the caucus had agreed to, but he said it might not be the last.

The debate joins the leaflets and a trip to Florida by Mulgrew this week to speak at an annual retirees’ luncheon as visible evidence of the campaign. But for the most part, election season doesn’t disrupt the union’s regular activities, including the annual lobby day in Albany that will take place tomorrow, according to Mendel.

“It’s business as usual,” he said.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.