departures

Top UFT official to leave for union's Washington, D.C. think tank

United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey at a public hearing about Opportunity Charter School's charter renewal in November.

A top United Federation of Teachers official who has been the union’s leading intellectual voice in recent years is heading south.

But he won’t be going as far as Florida, a common destination for union members who retire. Instead, Leo Casey, the vice president of academic high schools since 2007, said today that is taking a new position this fall as the director of the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. The institute is a research arm of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union to which the UFT belongs.

In his role at the UFT, Casey has been both an intellectual and a seasoned activist. He has represented the union on various panels, forums, and debates on education policy and blogged prolifically for the union’s news and opinion site, Edwize. But he has been just as comfortable protesting at public hearings, where he was known to deliver fiery speeches against school closures, co-locations, and other policies that the union opposed.

In moving to the Albert Shanker Institute, a progressive think tank focused on education and labor policies, he will focus on research. Casey, a city teacher for 27 years, said that he hoped his legacy at the UFT would be of pushing against school reform that is driven by non-educators.

“I think one of the most important things that has driven my time at the UFT is to provide a voice for classroom teachers and that far too much of education policy making today is in the hands of folks who don’t understand what it’s like to teach,” Casey said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, a close friend and former colleague who helped hire him as a board member on the Shanker Institute, called Casey “an exquisite choice.”

“I could not be more pleased that someone who has been a teacher and a union activist and a leader in the UFT all these years would agree to take over this very important think tank,” said Weingarten, who worked and co-taught with Casey when she was president of the UFT.

People who have worked closely with Casey over the years said today that his departure would leave a major hole in the union and that he would be difficult to replace.

“Leo’s very, very bright. He’s very much a public intellectual,” said education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, who sits on the Shanker Institute’s board.  “I think there should be somebody who can kind of be the intellectual and policy face of the union.”

Casey has also been one of the UFT’s staunchest defenders. In February, Casey used Edwize to take on Ravitch and Carol Burris after they criticized the union for endorsing a teacher evaluation deal that they believed counted test scores too heavily. Casey challenged their grasp of the complex issue and believe their public writings on the subject were misguided.

“Unfortunately, complexity has provided a fertile ground for commentaries on the New York teacher evaluation framework that reach alarmist conclusions, with arguments built on a foundation of misinformation and groundless speculation,” he wrote.

Casey also butted heads with activists who were traditionally aligned with the union. At a Panel for Educational Policy meeting earlier this year, Casey drew heat from Occupy the DOE protesters who wanted the union to join them in a united rally.

Yet even traditional enemies of the union said they respected him.

“This is a big loss for the UFT,” said Gideon Stein, a vice chair of Success Academy Charter Schools. “Leo is their leading intellectual and probably best writer.”

Stein, president of Future is Now Schools, was also on the other side of the negotiating table when Green Dot Charter High School teachers recently signed an updated union contract.

“I really liked working with Leo and while we certainly have don’t see eye to eye on a lot of issues, he’s a very decent guy,” Stein added.

Casey currently teaches global studies at Manhattan’s Bard High School Early College. Previously, he taught at Clara Barton High School, including a stint when he co-taught with Weingarten.

“For me, it’s all the same movement,” Casey said of his decision to leave the UFT. “It’s the same purpose. I’m just doing it in a different place.”

He added, “I have something important to add on the policy side and to really speak with some authority. I think in some ways it’s a job that I am particularly well-prepared for.”

Below: Watch a video of Casey arguing with Brian Jones, a teacher who is active in the Grassroots Education Movement, about protest tactics for a PEP meeting where school closures were on the table.

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.”