state of the union

Teachers unions dodge a bullet with Supreme Court’s split decision

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew

The Supreme Court delivered a major victory Tuesday to public unions, like the city teachers union, that will allow them to continue collecting fees even from members who want to opt out.

“The unions have dodged a bullet,” says David Bloomfield a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “It potentially could have seriously damaged the collective bargaining position of unions in school districts across the country.”

The case was brought by 10 California teachers who argued that they shouldn’t be required to pay fees that support union positions to which they object, and which finance collective bargaining. Many observers assumed the court’s conservative wing would significantly limit the collection of union fees, but the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the court with a 4-4 split, effectively leaving the lower court’s pro-union ruling intact.

Local education experts and teacher unions called the decision a win, but said it also raises the stakes of the upcoming presidential election — and warned that the unions’ fight is not over.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has protected your voice and your ability to join together to negotiate good wages and benefits and to fight for what our students need,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, wrote in a letter to union leaders immediately after the decision.

But he cautioned that the 4-4 decision could still be challenged, and that “well-funded” interests were likely to continue the fight. “Today’s ruling won’t stop them,” Mulgrew said.

New York City teachers, along with guidance counselors, school secretaries, and a host of other school staffers, have some amount taken from their paychecks equivalent to union dues — a requirement of state law. Almost all of those who pay are union members: Carl Korn, spokesman for NYSUT, the state teachers union, said less than 3 percent of teachers statewide pay those fees but remain unaffiliated with a union.

A ruling against the unions would have allowed members to refuse to pay those fees, weakening union finances. Such a decision would have had less of an impact in New York than in other states, Bloomfield noted, because the state’s strong union sentiment and relatively high teacher wages would reduce the incentives for teachers to refuse the fees.

Still, if a conservative judge replaces Scalia, it is possible the court could take a similar case and deliver the blow to organized labor that many pro-union groups fear.

On Tuesday, Mulgrew said that the U.S. Senate should give Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s moderate pick to replace Scalia, a fair hearing. Republican Senate leaders have said so far that they will not consider a nominee during Obama’s presidency.

“It’s perhaps a temporary victory,” added Bloomfield, “but given the unknowns regarding the composition of the Court in the coming years, it’s no less important.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”