Selling the Contract

Making his case, Mulgrew says new contract draws battle lines in "war with the reformers"

PHOTO: Twitter/UFT
Members of the UFT's Delegate Assembly voting to send the proposed contract to the full union membership.

In a candid speech to teachers on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew offered a behind-the-scenes account of the recent contract negotiations with the city and argued that the resulting deal was the union’s best chance at winning a “war with the reformers.”

In an hour-long presentation followed by 40 minutes of questions and answers, Mulgrew promoted the terms of the agreement to the union’s Delegate Assembly, a 3,400-member group of elected teacher representatives. Following a short debate period, where one critic of the plan had his microphone shut off, the assembly agreed to send the proposed contract to the UFT’s more than 100,000 members for a ratification vote.

Speaking in blunt terms, Mulgrew also admitted that the union’s position last year on one controversial part of the new teacher evaluation system was designed to “gum up the works” when it was rolled out this year.

The proposed contract contains several changes to the evaluation system, which the state education commissioner imposed last summer after a long city-union clash over the details. Under the new agreement, teachers would be rated on a rubric of just eight items, down from 22.

A teacher pointed out during the question portion that the union lobbied last year for teachers to be rated on all 22 rubric components rather than just a handful, as the city wanted. At the time, many assumed the union opted for more components because it would give teachers more points to contest if they received poor ratings.

Mulgrew acknowledged as much Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Members of the press were not allowed into the meeting, which was held in a banquet hall at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

“It was a strategy decision to gum up the works because we knew what their lawyers were trying to do,” Mulgrew said, referring to city officials. “That’s things I don’t get to say in public when I’m doing them, because we knew they had a plan to use the new evaluation system to go after people.”

Mulgrew said Wednesday that the union began to seek changes to the evaluations as soon as de Blasio took office.

“We had a goal that this year would be the first and only year you would work under the new evaluation system,” he told the teachers.

He also defended a part of the deal that would free some schools from certain contract provisions so they can experiment with different schedules or other changes — a plan some union members have criticized as a way to make traditional schools resemble charter schools. But Mulgrew argued that, in fact, the plan is a way to prove that traditional schools can execute innovative ideas that outmatch those of the education “reformers” who typically back charter schools.

“We are at war with the reformers,” he said. He added later, “Their ideas will absolutely destroy — forget about public education — they will destroy education in our country.”

Earlier in the speech, he singled out former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had sought to improve the city school system by increasing choice and competition, opening new schools and charter schools, and tying consequences to student test scores. Mulgrew said Bloomberg had falsely suggested the city could not afford to increase teachers’ pay, but that Mayor Bill de Blasio had worked with the union to find a way to afford the raises.

“By working with this mayor,” Mulgrew said, “we have come up with a creative way to one more time wink at Bloomberg and say, ‘Gotcha.'”

Mulgrew made clear that the union’s top priority in the contract negotiations was securing retroactive raises for its members, who have gone nearly five years without a contract and missed pay increases that most other city labor groups received.

“It is our position — it is not our God-given right, but it is our position — that we deserve those wages. And that’s what we were negotiating for first and foremost,” Mulgrew said.

Officials have insisted that the city can afford the nearly 20 percent pay bump that the proposed contract promises teachers by 2018 only because the union agreed to find significant healthcare cost savings.

So far, little has been said about how the reductions would be achieved. But Mulgrew said Wednesday that one strategy will be an audit to root out ex-spouses of union members who remain on their former partners’ health plans even after they are divorced.

He also said the union has agreed to find $1.3 billion in health-cost savings over the next four years. Then he announced a new incentive for teachers: The city has agreed that any cost savings over that target amount, up to $365 million, “would go directly to city workers in a one-time bonus check.”

The proposed contract also addresses educators in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, who are on the city payroll but lack a permanent school placement. Some teachers expressed concern Wednesday about an expedited termination process for ATRs described in the deal. Mulgrew reiterated that the process would only kick in after two successive principals document an ATR for misconduct. At that point, he said, an expedited hearing makes sense.

“I believe that fast and fair is in the best interest of anyone who has a disciplinary charge against them,” he said.

After Mulgrew spoke and answered questions for most of the meeting, the delegates were given a little less than 15 minutes to debate the proposed contract.

At one point, a teacher who opposed the deal began to argue with Mulgrew, which led to a dispute over speaking time limits. Eventually the teacher called the debate process “absolutely ridiculous and completely undemocratic.”

“Now you’re out of order,” Mulgrew replied, and called for the next speaker to begin talking.

A few minutes later, Mulgrew called a vote to send the contract proposal to the full membership, which he said was “overwhelmingly” approved.

After the meeting, some teachers criticized the union for giving opponents of the deal little time to make their case. Others complained that the union only released a detailed summary of the agreement the day of the meeting, limiting their ability to prepare questions.

“It was almost like a blind vote today,” Michael Kerr, a Brooklyn dance teacher, told Chalkbeat.

Others denounced certain parts of the deal, including the new ATR rules and the way it disburses the retroactive pay in payments spread over several years.

“If the contract expired in 2009, then why should we get the retro pay in 2020?” asked Marie Baker, a Bronx school librarian.

But many teachers said they supported the deal for economic reasons, and because they thought it would make a challenging job more manageable.

“I think it’s an excellent contract,” said Joyce Baldino, a Brooklyn teacher. She said her colleagues also back the deal — especially a provision that allots time during the school day for teachers to collaborate and communicate with parents. “We finally have time to do all the things that we’re already doing as professionals.”

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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.