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.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”