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.”

 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

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.