The city teachers union is gearing up to fight a lobbying battle on many fronts this year.
A lobbying day is on the calendar (March 4), a social media hashtag is being heavily promoted (#invitecuomo), and messages are being crafted for teachers, parents, and other allies invested in helping the union beat back Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education agenda.
“We’re going to go have a fight,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew summarized Thursday at the union’s headquarters.
The strategy for that fight is beginning to take shape. Mulgrew spent the day urging parent advocates and community leaders to join the UFT for an all-out campaign against Cuomo, whose recent budget proposal was seen as an attack on teachers unions around the state.
Cuomo’s proposal calls for changing tenure rules, tougher teacher evaluations, more charter schools, state-managed takeovers of struggling schools, and overhauling the state’s due process law to make it easier to fire teachers who are underperforming or accused of misconduct, changes the governor said are necessary to improving the state’s education system. Mulgrew said those policies would drive teachers away from working with high-needs students, likening Cuomo’s approach to that of an old nemesis.
“I spent five years working with parents fighting against really bad polices in education with the Bloomberg administration,” Mulgrew said. “Well, we’re going to have to do what we did before.”
But the teachers union is in a newly vulnerable position as the legislative session in Albany gets underway. The state teachers union was outspent in last year’s election by charter-school backers and fell short of its effort to help Democrats win control of the state Senate. The news that Sheldon Silver will vacate his position as speaker of the Assembly, which has often served as a liberal backstop against policies the union opposes, means the UFT has also lost a uniquely powerful ally.
“They used to be in the driver’s seat in Albany and they’re no longer in the driver’s seat,” said New York City Charter School CEO James Merriman, who often clashes with the union.
Mulgrew acknowledged the perception that “the chessboards are lined against us,” but said he had no intention to cave on issues that teachers oppose.
To make that opposition more visible, the unions have created an #invitecuomo social media campaign and the UFT is asking members to take to Facebook and Twitter to urge the governor to increase school funding.
Behind the scenes, Mulgrew was working to build support among parent leaders, advocacy organizations, and clergy members on Thursday. At a morning meeting that included NAACP’s Hazel Dukes, parents from community education councils, and representatives from Class Size Matters and Alliance for Quality Education, Mulgrew was clear about what he was looking for, according to an attendee.
“He wants parent support to go after Cuomo,” the attendee said. Specific education issues were raised, but “he kept bringing it back to Cuomo.”
The union has also scheduled a lobbying day in Albany for March 4, and leaders said they are hoping for a larger turnout than in previous years. Steve Juliano, a teacher and union delegate who attended one of the union’s “emergency” meetings on Thursday, said the union will be trying to position that event as “more of a grassroots campaign.”
“A lot of parents want to get involved, so it’s a little different,” Juliano said.
Union leaders got specific about what they are looking for on one issue, charter schools, at a press conference on Thursday.
Cuomo wants to raise the state’s charter-school cap by 100 schools, but Mulgrew said that number should be frozen until charter schools show they are serving a greater share of at-risk students, as required by law.
To ensure they serve more of those students, Mulgrew said charters should be required to give preference in their admissions lotteries to new groups of at-risk students and required to give district superintendents the power to to fill empty seats that open up in charter schools. The union also began circulating an analysis of enrollment data showing charter schools in many districts serve an especially small share of students living in temporary housing and students with disabilities who require self-contained classes than the average district school.
Teachers union delegates had their own meeting on Thursday afternoon, where members received a two-sided flyer that summarized Cuomo’s proposals with a few sardonic lines on each issue.
“Are you kidding?” begins one description of Cuomo’s proposal to pay top-rated teachers a $20,000 bonus. “Teachers are motivated by seeing their students succeed, not by corporate bonus-style merit pay.”
Teachers who attended said that Mulgrew was angry but focused on how to promote a positive message pushing back against Cuomo’s suggestion that the system is filled with poor teachers who need to be removed from the classroom. Mulgrew stressed that progress was already being made under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration.
“In New York City, we can feel this energy that we’re moving education forward the right way,” Mulgrew said.