MORE CORE

Teachers union faction wants to shake up electoral status quo

Longtime teachers union members Norm Scott (left) and Michael Fiorillo give a brief history lesson to potential MORE members Thursday.

Factions from various corners of the city’s educational activism scene are coming together to challenge the Unity Caucus’s political might.

Calling themselves MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators, members of the fledgling group held their first public meeting in a Lower East Side Bar on Thursday evening. There, they discussed the history of the United Federation of Teachers and floated plans for  a minority caucus they hope could wrest some power from the union’s political majority.

The meeting was led by Norm Scott, Michael Fiorillo, Gloria Brandman and Sam Coleman, retired and current teachers who have been active in union politics for years. Attendees also included a mix of union chapter leaders, Occupy the Department of Education organizers, some of the teachers union’s younger members, and retirees.

As they introduced themselves, many described their disillusionment with a teachers union almost entirely controlled by Unity. Unity has dominated union politics for decades and supported Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew in their bids for the union’s presidency. Both won their elections by huge majorities.

Close to forty teachers turned out to the bar, which also hosts meetings of the New Teacher Underground, an activism off-shoot of the New York Coalition of Radical Educators. Mike Schirtzer, a teacher at Leon M. Goldstein High School who introduced himself as the caretaker of MORE’s Twitter account, said one way MORE will set itself apart from other union caucuses will be by using social media to organize teachers.

“We are not going to wait for Unity to organize actions,” he said.

Some MORE members said they hoped to inspire younger teachers who do not participate in union elections. Voter turnout to union elections is typically low (30 percent), and a large portion of those votes come from retired members. Union officials have speculated that this is because younger members are less interested in the union’s governing process.

Unity’s members, “Are aging out,” Kelly Wolcott, an Occupy organizer, said. “They’re dying for new members. But I said, I’m not giving you my $25. It’s not the Occupy spirit, I’m sorry.”

Schirtzer told me his first brush with activism came in 2010, when he and other teachers organized protests around their concerns that citywide budget cuts would spell the end of the Brooklyn school’s after school clubs.

“I’m an organizer at my school now, but I’m the least radical person you’d ever meet,” he said. “This is all kind of new to me.”

“The thing that will be different about us is that we will go into schools and neighborhoods and educate our members,” Coleman said, on topics ranging from race to charter schools.

Opposition caucuses have struggled to gain a foothold in the United Federation of Teachers. the Independent Coalition of Educators, or ICE, one prominent caucus, unsuccessfully supported James Eterno in a run against Mulgrew in 2010. Meanwhile, New Action, another caucus, managed to capture several seats on the union’s board by agreeing to cross-endorse candidates with Unity.

Peter Goodman, a longtime teachers union member who is not involved with MORE, said these caucuses have had a tough time attracting members because many union members consider Mulgrew to be the only person up for the task of fighting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most controversial school policies.

“The Unity Caucus certainly dominates everything now, but I think that’s simply a function of the fact that Bloomberg is the enemy of everyone. If you don’t support Mulgrew, you’re really supporting Bloomberg,” he said. “And with the union’s recent victories, the members see Mulgrew as fighting the mayor and winning.”

Goodman predicted that greater factions could divide the union over education policies once Bloomberg’s final term ends next year. The teachers union has won several key face-offs against the Bloomberg administration in recent years over plans to shutter schools.

Scott said MORE has yet to decide its stance on educational policies, but he noted that there were many points of contention between its members and current union leaders, particularly around school closures and charter school co-locations.

“We think the UFT has aided in the closing of schools, and the UFT supports charters,” he said. “We are absolutely opposed to closing schools; we are absolutely opposed to the teacher data reports; we absolutely oppose mayoral control, whereas the UFT hedges its bets.”

Many of the evening’s attendees brought other ideas for how MORE could get involved in city activism, a la such mainstays as the Grassroots Education Movement, an advocacy group to which some of them also belong. One man passed around petitions opposing the creation of the teacher evaluation system. A handful of teachers described joining Con Edison strikers last week to show solidarity, and others said they were planning a trip to a vigil for a young man in the Bronx who was shot and killed by a police officer in February.

Several attendees talked about the example the Chicago Teachers Union Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) has set in Chicago by engaging community members, as GEM does, to keep public opinion somewhat favorable even as members voted to authorize a strike.

“We should be supporting them,” Coleman said.

One of the biggest challenges, Coleman added, will be attracting members and election candidates to create momentum and a necessary show of support before next year’s union elections. MORE leaders are planning their first fundraising event on September 29.

“We need many, many people, hundreds,” Coleman said. “It doesn’t cost anything, maybe show up to a meeting at your school, get some signatures. Anyone who thinks the UFT should be different, please consider running on the MORE ticket in the spring.”

Leo Casey, the teachers union’s vice president for high schools, said MORE could be poised to generate more substantive policy debates within the union. But he is skeptical that it will have much success opposing Unity, which supported his election.

“In so far as MORE seems to be running on a slate or on a platform that says Muglrew and the leadership of the UFT haven’t fought strongly for the members, I just think that that’s not going to be taken seriously,” said Casey, who is leaving his post in September to head the Albert Shanker Institute. “Of the people they’re bringing together, some of them are good at making principled political criticisms, but with some of them it’s just a steady stream of personal attacks. I don’t think that would have much resonance.”

Earlier this year Casey accused GEM teacher activists of attacking the union after they disagreed on how best to protest a winter Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

Scott said MORE hopes to bring together teachers who supported ICE, and members of GEM and NYCORE, with those who have been uninvolved in union politics or city social justice issues.

“All the groups are coming together in one organization, plus a lot of people who have not been involved before,” he said. “Last night, I didn’t know a lot of people.”

Scott said the similarities between MORE and CORE will hopefully go beyond their names. “CORE wasn’t even a group four years ago, and two years later they won the election [in Chicago],” he said. “It is unlikely that we’d win the election in two years, but the inspiration is how they organized, got into the grassroots, found teachers who were never active before and got them to become active. My hope is to get people who really want to do something different, and need a place to go.”

 

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.