First Person

Follow the Money: UFT Political Funds Highest in 10 Years

In a recent article in the journal Education Next, Mike Antonucci reviewed the finances of the two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). He found teachers unions in states like Oregon, Colorado, and Montana spent several hundreds of dollars per teacher for political campaign spending on candidates and ballot initiatives. New York, according to Antonucci, spent only $5 per teacher.

But this is only part of the picture. Another source of political spending can be found in financial documents that the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), filed with the federal government. According to this “LM-2” filing, the UFT spent around $31 per teacher, or a little over $2.4 million overall, out of a $202 million budget, on political activities during the 2008-2009 school year.*  The UFT membership, however, consists of more than just teachers. If you included total UFT membership — 164,462 — spending on political activities would be around $16 per member. (To be clear, Antonucci only considered active teachers in his calculations.)

In addition to this spending, which includes things like lobbying, buses to events, and phone banks, the UFT has a political action committee (PAC). The PAC is a stand-alone group whose specific purpose is to dole out money to politicians, groups, and ballot measures that the union supports. The UFT’s PAC, known as the Committee on Political Education (“COPE”), is funded by voluntary member contributions as well as other sources.

COPE spent $187,411 in 2008-2009 on donations to politicians. The fund’s balance — the amount that could theoretically be given away — has also dramatically increased, to $1.35 million in July 2009, from an average of $124,000 during 2000-2005.  Furthermore, contributions to the COPE — the amount that members have voluntarily given to the union’s political activities — have reached their highest level in 10 years. In contrast, the amount the UFT spent on political activities independent of COPE has remained relatively constant at around $2.5 million annually.

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Much of the increase in political giving could be due to the pressure that teachers unions around the country have faced. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal today, charter supporters outspent the UFT during by about $100,000 during this same period. Last year contributions to COPE could have been particularly high due to the mayoral race and the battle over mayoral control, although the increase in COPE’s coffers came earlier.

Although the dues for UFT members vary by job type, teachers are required to contribute $47.27 of their paycheck every two weeks to the UFT. This means that around 3 percent of a typical teacher’s UFT dues is spent on political activity. UFT members can also elect to send part of their paycheck to COPE. According to the UFT handbook, this voluntary contribution is usually around $5 per paycheck.

The UFT’s LM-2 also lists the amount of time that UFT employees spend on various activities. My analyses found that 61 of the 623 paid UFT employees, or around 10 percent, spent more than a quarter of their time on political activities. Overall, around 7 percent of all UFT employee activities are devoted to political lobbying.

The majority of the UFT’s funds were spent on benefits for members, consultants, and lawyers. However, the UFT, like the AFT and the NEA, also spends a significant amount of its funds supporting left-leaning organizations. The biggest donations were to groups like ACORN and the National Action Network. The UFT also contributed small sums to a wide number of community organizations and to a number of religious, political and ethnic organizations like the American Friends of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, Empire State Pride Agenda, Inc. and the Hispanic Federation. (A full breakdown of the UFT’s contributions is available below and in this spreadsheet.)

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Salary-wise, 85, or 13 percent, of the 624 UFT employees made over $100,000, with the highest salary paid in 2008-2009 being $228,705. The average UFT salary was $51,215. It is important to note, however, that because many members work part-time, the numbers may be somewhat distorted.

As always, I welcome your feedback and questions and encourage any UFT members to share their understanding of the UFT’s finances in the comments.

* I arrived at the $31/teacher figure by using numbers provided to me by the DOE and contained within the UFT filing: According to the UFT’s filing, the union spent $2,404,820 on political activities during the 2009 fiscal year. Documents provided to me by the DOE stated that the active teaching force as of January 2009 was 78,728 teachers.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.