state of the union

In retirees, UFT leadership finds loyal — and unusual — support

UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks at the union’s annual retiree luncheon in Florida last week. (Photo: UFT)

At a synagogue in Surfside, Fla., last month, about 40 former teachers gathered for cupcakes, cheesecake, and a PowerPoint presentation by a pair of union representatives from New York. The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, and the representatives had been sent by the UFT and New York State United Teachers to pass along information about budget counseling, Medicare, and pet insurance.

Ken Goodman, the UFT Florida retiree chapter leader, called the meeting to order by announcing updates about the following month’s annual retiree luncheon. Buses would pick the members up from Surfside and ferry them to the event in Boca Raton, where UFT President Michael Mulgrew would deliver the keynote address just weeks before his re-election bid.

Despite being out of the classroom — in many cases, for decades — retirees make up a large portion of Mulgrew’s constituency. And because the UFT is one of the only unions in the country to allow retirees to vote in leadership elections, they are powerful. Even when they live far from New York City, the UFT’s 60,000 retiree members staunchly defend the union they helped shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and they volunteer in droves when the union mobilizes its members to support candidates or lobby on education or healthcare.

“We provide a service for those kind[s] of issues for the union, and the union helps us too on the issues we care about,” said Tom Murphy, the head of the UFT’s retiree chapter. He added that, after seeing how engaged UFT retirees remain, the American Federation of Teachers was considering allowing retirees in other locals to vote in union elections as well.

Retired teachers can choose to remain part of the UFT, spending a small portion of their pension on dues. Almost all do. Of the UFT’s 200,000 total members, nearly 60,000 are retirees, and about 8,000 of them live in Florida for at least part of the year. The UFT’s New York office devotes the entire 17th floor of its downtown skyscraper to retiree services. The chapter also has sections in Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Israel.

In Florida, the retiree chapter’s Boca Raton office buzzes with activity. (The union spent $162,538 on rent for the office in 2012.) The staff—most of them retirees themselves—fields phone calls and emails about pensions and health coverage. They reach out to members, alerting them to programming such as beginning French classes.

“We’re constantly giving them information,” Goodman said. “For the most part, our members like to be involved.”

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The union and Democratic politicians also rely on Florida retirees to help them get out the vote. In last year’s U.S. presidential election, UFT members in Florida were active phone bankers, officials say, both for President Barack Obama and Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated incumbent Allen West, a Republican, in Florida’s 18th Congressional district. (Murphy also got an assist from West himself, who made a series of inflammatory statements that lost him local support.)

The retirees are sometimes called the “daytime union,” according to Murphy. “We’re available when our in-service working members are not,” he said. “If they need some of us to testify someplace or populate a hearing … many of us are able to do that.”

In addition to helping Obama win Florida last year, retirees contributed to Mulgrew’s 91 percent victory in 2010. Mulgrew would have won easily without their support, however, which suggests that—for now at least—there’s no schism between how retirees and current teachers vote.

But retirees may be among the most inclined to keep the union on its current track.

Once members retire, “the priorities change,” Goodman said. “We want to make sure our benefits are maintained.”

Many of the retirees at the Miami-Dade area meeting in Surfside, happy with those benefits, say they plan on voting again for Mulgrew, who is running as part of the Unity slate. Unity first took power in the 1960s, when many of the current retirees were in the classroom.

“I generally vote Unity … if I like the status quo,” said retiree Gloria Taft, 66, who taught math at I.S. 75 in Staten Island. She said she didn’t know much about the other candidates.

Two groups — Movement of Rank-and-File Educators and New Action — are running slates of candidates to challenge Unity, although only MORE is aiming to unseat Mulgrew. While the two minority parties are likely to gain some seats, they face an uphill battle to win spots in the union’s central leadership.

One reason is that retirees vote at significantly higher rates than active teachers. Nearly half of them voted in 2010, while less than a quarter of active teachers did so. But the number of votes that retirees can contribute is capped, meaning that each vote tends to count for something less than one. Retiree votes were initially capped at 18,000, but the UFT delegate assembly increased that to 23,500 last year in response to growth in both total union membership and the retiree chapter.

The shift drew criticism for reducing the influence of current teachers — who will be more directly affected by policies that the union supports or opposes.

“Should all other voter turnout stay the same, it’s possible that in this election the retirees will account for 50 percent” of the vote, said Sydney Morris, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence. The group encourages its members to become more involved in the union, including pushing them to vote in union elections. It opposed raising the retiree vote cap, arguing that current teachers should have a larger voice than retirees in the elections.

Retired high-school teacher Adrianne Brum “absolutely” will vote this year; she does so in every election. “I pay for that,” she said. She, and many of her peers, praised the UFT for securing good benefits for them and keeping them well-informed about the benefits. Brum and others said those protections are a priority when they vote.

“The union worked very hard to give us the kind of security we do have,” Brum said, adding that critics of teachers unions “think we’re getting away with murder.”

“We put up with much lower pay so we can have these perks,” she said.

Murphy said he also sees retired members concerned about what’s happening in the classroom — particularly the push to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Simon Schlanger, 74, who has been a UFT member for 50 years, also said he was planning to vote for Mulgrew. But though Schlanger, who was a social studies teacher and guidance counselor in the Bronx, cares about how teachers are treated, he said his primary concern was not about his own security.  “It’s making sure the kids get a good education,” he said.

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.