education is political

The GothamSchools voter's guide for an education election

Picture via NYC Board of Elections
Picture via ##http://www.vote.nyc.ny.us/##NYC Board of Elections##

As if you could forget amid all the noise about sanity and fear, today is election day. And while education hasn’t been at the forefront of any of this year’s big races, the issue is never too far from many voters’ — and candidates’ — minds.

We’ve compiled a short guide to where education fits into the biggest statewide races, as well as a few smaller races where candidates’ stances on education may play a key role.

Governor: Cuomo v. Paladino

From the beginning of his campaign, Cuomo has framed himself as a supporter of President Obama’s education policies and as a would-be governor willing to fight with unions. Though he hasn’t said exactly what he would do in office, he has aligned himself with groups like Democrats for Education Reform, which support increasing the number of charter schools, ending seniority-based layoffs, and changes to teachers’ pensions.

Paladino’s views on education are considerably more radical. According to his website, he supports firing the entire Board of Regents, repealing the law that governs how teachers are fired, and instituting school vouchers. Though he wants to cut the state’s budget by 20 percent, he told reporters that he would not cut education funding.

The city and state teachers unions — alienated by Cuomo but even more unlikely to support Paladin0 — are refusing to endorse either candidate. DFER formally endorsed Cuomo only yesterday, but has been raising money for his campaign for months.

Cuomo and Paladino are the two mainstream party candidates among a total of seven running. Of the remaining candidates, some teachers have thrown their support behind Green Party Candidate Howie Hawkins, who has picked up the endorsement of the group Teachers for a Just Contract.

Read more about Cuomo and Paladino’s takes on education here and here.

Comptroller: DiNapoli v. Wilson

Though not the most high-profile contest this election season, the comptroller’s race has been especially shaped by the education debate.

When Albany voted last May to more than double the number of charter schools allowed to open, legislators added a provision explicitly allowing the state comptroller to audit the schools. The change was intended to overrule a June 2009 state court ruling that found that the comptroller did not have the legal authority to audit charter schools.

Charter advocates have said they intend to challenge the new law’s constitutionality if the next comptroller tries to exercise it. But the outcome of tomorrow’s election may determine whether the charter school lobby even deems a lawsuit necessary.

Incumbent Thomas DiNapoli, who was formerly a Democratic State Assemblyman, has aggressively used his audit power to oversee both the state and city departments of education. One of his audits found flaws in the state’s oversight of Regents exam scoring. Others showed that city education officials did not follow regulations on no-bid contracts or charter school oversight. Another audit found that some high schools falsely claimed they discharged students into GED programs. Before the state court stopped him from doing so, DiNapoli also looked into the finances of several charter schools around the state. DiNapoli’s assertiveness is one of the reasons why the teachers unions and the parent activist group  NYC Kids PAC have endorsed him.

His challenger, Republican Harry Wilson, has targeted DiNapoli for that aggressiveness, calling it “politically motivated.” Wilson has close ties to the charter school movement through his work as a hedge fund manager, and he has been praised by charter school advocate and philanthropist Whitney Tilson. Wilson has indicated that he intends to focus his audit attention to areas other than education, such as health care spending.

Attorney General: Schneiderman v. Donovan

When Attorney General candidates Eric Schneiderman and Dan Donovan have sparred over education, it’s been in the context of Schneiderman’s close ties to teachers unions in his current position as a State Senator.

Democrat Schneiderman, who has been endorsed by both the city and state unions, stood with the union through this winter and spring’s protracted negotiations over the state’s charter school cap. Schneiderman is also aligned with the union in his support for retaining the “last-in, first-out” policy governing teacher lay-offs.

That fidelity to the union has drawn criticism from his Republican rival’s campaign, which has called Schneiderman “a wholly owned subsidiary of teachers’ union leadership.”

State legislature

Democrats are fighting to retain their majority in the State Senate; they currently hold it by merely one vote.

One race where Democrats hope they can pick up a seat is in Northeastern Queens, where former City Council Member Tony Avella  is challenging Republican incumbent Frank Padavan. Avella has strongly articulated views on education, developed during his tenure on the Council and an unsuccessful mayoral bid last year. According to a GothamSchools survey he returned last year, Avella opposes mayoral control, does not believe that test scores should be a factor in deciding teacher tenure, and thinks that “charter schools should not exist at all.” He also told GothamSchools last year that he opposes the way that the city currently funds its public schools and would work for a system in which schools received the same amount of money for every student.

In Long Island, DFER has been raising money for a Democrat fighting to hold onto his Senate seat, Craig Johnson. Johnson played a key role defeating the version of a charter cap lift that the charter lobby opposed in January, and then supported their favored version in May. DFER has also thrown its fund-raising weight behind Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who was also one of the major players in the push to double the cap on charter schools.

The state teachers union, meanwhile, withdrew its support from several incumbents, including Hoyt, who supported charter advocates’ preferred version of a cap lift. In Hoyt’s race, the union endorsed the Conservative Party candidate, Buffalo Councilman Joe Golombek.

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”