how things work

Teachers union sent scripted questions to City Council members

Council Member Simcha Felder displays one of the cue cards a teachers union representative handed him.
Council Member Simcha Felder displays one of the cue cards a teachers union representative handed him.

At today’s education committee hearing, City Council members took turns questioning Department of Education officials on the rise of charters schools. Their questions were passionate, specific, and universally accusatory. They may have also been scripted.

Just before the hearing began, a representative of the city teachers union, which describes itself as in favor of charter schools, discreetly passed out a set of index cards to Council members, each printed with a pre-written question.

One batch of cards offered questions for the Department of Education, all of them challenging the proliferation of charter schools. “Doesn’t the Department have a clear legal and moral responsibility to provide every family in the city guaranteed seats for their children in a neighborhood elementary school?” one card suggested members ask school officials. “Isn’t the fundamental problem here the Department’s abdication of its most important responsibility to provide quality district public schools in all parts of the city?” another card said. (View more of the cards in a slideshow here.)

Several council members picked up on the line of thought. “Shouldn’t we aspire to have every school in the city good enough for parents to feel comfortable sending their children?” Melinda Katz, a Council member from Queens, said in questioning school officials. “I remember when Joel Klein became the chancellor,” the committee chair, Robert Jackson, said. “Back then, he used to talk about making every neighborhood school a good school where every parent would want to send their children. I don’t hear him talk about that anymore.”

Asked about the cards, union president Randi Weingarten provided a statement saying that she regretted the tactic. “We are often asked by the council for information and ideas about various issues. Additionally, when I am available, I often respond to what others testify to. In this instance, I was in Washington and couldn’t be at City Hall,” she said in the statement. “I am proud of the testimony we gave today, but I regret the manner in which our other concerns were shared.”

One of the cue cards provided to City Council members by the teachers union.
One of the cue cards provided to City Council members by the teachers union.

The questions were in line with testimony presented by the union’s vice president, Leo Casey, who said that charter schools can be positive laboratories for innovation — provided that they serve the same students as traditional public schools, that they are held accountable, that their teachers are unionized, and that they don’t replace traditional public schools. The union runs two charter schools and represents teachers at several others. But Casey said that those schools are living examples of how the model can be done right.

Charter school expansion “must be combined with, not come at the expense of, the reinvigoration and improvement of neighborhood public schools,” Casey said in his prepared testimony. “It’s time to put the public back into ‘public charter school.'”

Another question passed out by the union suggested that council members ask school officials about the percentage of students at charter schools who receive special education services, another theme Casey’s testimony addressed. Two separate officials brought up the question: Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and Domenic Recchia, Jr., of Brooklyn. (A department official, Christopher Cerf, acknowledged that charter schools have smaller proportions of English language learner students and of special education students than traditional public schools.)

Another batch of index cards, titled “QUESTIONS FOR LEO,” suggested friendly questions for a vice president of the teachers union, Leo Casey. One card suggested Council members ask about the union’s work with a Los Angeles-based group, Green Dot, to start a unionized charter school in the South Bronx. Another suggested that Council members ask Casey about the union’s work with teachers at a KIPP charter school who have asked to form a union.

A council member of Brooklyn, Simcha Felder, showed me the cards as the union passed them out — arousing uneasiness amongst a lineup of teachers union officials who sat in one of the room’s front rows. (Department of Education officials took up a front row on another side of the room.)

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”