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.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news