teachers unite

A new union of teachers forms over happy hours and Facebook

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Sydney Morris (left) and Evan Stone (right), two teachers in the Bronx, founded Educators 4 Excellence to give teachers frustrated with how they're evaluated a voice in policy debates.

New York City’s teachers union likes to say that it speaks for all teachers. But two young teachers at a Bronx elementary school are starting an organization with a distinctly different point of view.

Both in their third year of teaching at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, Evan Stone and Sydney Morris started “Educators 4 Excellence” last month out of frustration with how their work is supported and evaluated.

One of their first battles will be against the state’s “last-in, first-out” law, which forces the city to lay off newer teachers in advance of their more experienced colleagues.

“We want it to be the ostensible solution to a lot of screaming on both sides,” said Stone, 25.

Only a few weeks old, the organization mainly exists though its website, which asks teachers to sign a petition in favor of repealing the last-in, first-out law. So far, the group has 520 fans on Facebook. The organization is  holding happy hour gatherings on Fridays, unconsciously modeling some of the United Federation of Teachers’ founders, who gathered for whiskey sours in Al Shanker’s one-bedroom apartment on Friday nights.

Educators 4 Excellence is also generating enthusiasm from more established advocates such as Democrats for Education Reform founder and board member Whitney Tilson.

Beyond advocating for the legislature to overturn the law — something Chancellor Joel Klein supports and the union strongly opposes — Stone and Morris said they want Educators 4 Excellence to become an independent think tank for teachers who want to overhaul how they’re evaluated and what’s done with that information. Part of that includes supporting merit pay and using students’ test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

For the moment, the organization is entirely unfunded and run by full-time teachers.

Stone and Morris, both of whom entered the classroom by way of Teach for America, said they spent their first two years catching their breath, and when their third year came around they felt settled and accomplished, but dissatisfied. Aside from getting a once-a-year rating of satisfactory or unsatisfactory, they didn’t know how well they were doing or how to improve, and they began to talk about leaving their school.

“Why are we thinking about leaving this job that we’re both pretty good at and is really rewarding for us?” said Stone. “We want to be pushed, we wanted to be evaluated, and we wanted someone to come into our classroom and tell us how to be better.”

One solution they discussed was going to work for a charter school, where they felt the likelihood of having a principal devoted to improving teaching would be higher, said Morris, 24. But that felt like a cop-out.

“I think charter schools are a necessary part of the solution, but for me to leave a traditional public school was almost in a way giving up on the students I’d been working with for the last three years,” Morris said.

Both maintain that the problem is not with their school’s administration or with the union as a whole, but with the policies dictated by state laws and teachers union contract.

“We’re not anti-union,” Stone said. “We’re big fans of the benefits that teachers get and we like the pensions and collective bargaining, but we also need to look out for the prestige of the profession.”

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.”