state of the union

In Albany, teachers unions' lobbying power remains unmatched

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, an organization that co-hosts Lobby Day with NYSUT.
Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, a group that co-hosts Lobby Day with NYSUT, speaks in Albany on Tuesday.
Teachers from across the state began descending on Albany Tuesday for a series of high-profile meetings with lawmakers, a small but significant part of their unions’ overall lobbying strategies.

A high school marching band helped start off the New York State United Teachers’ lobby day in the late morning, leading hundreds bused in from around the state on a parade outside the state Capitol building. At a rally, the crowd of teachers, students, and community organizers asked for more school funding and called Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget, which increases state aid by 4.4 percent, “bananas” because it wasn’t enough.

Today’s message will feature a different union — the city’s United Federation of Teachers — with different budget priorities and a more powerful audience. The UFT wants money for teacher training centers, community schools, and child care, and it has reserved speaking slots at its rally for the legislature’s three leaders: Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, Senate Republican Dean Skelos and Senate Democrat Jeff Klein.

The two lobby days, which include union members and their supporters, are among the most visible manifestations of the unions’ annual behind-the-scenes effort to influence how state policies are shaped and money is spent. Each year, New York’s teacher unions spend millions to organize large rallies, launch statewide advertising campaigns and pay teams of staff lobbyists to work directly with elected officials on specific legislation.

The UFT spent more than $1.86 million on lobbying expenses in 2012, including thousands of dollars on catering for phone banks, cell phone reimbursements and postage, according to records filed with the New York State Ethics Commission. And while NYSUT spent dramatically less on lobbying than in previous years, the state union still spent $1.7 million last year.

The two unions, like many of their counterparts across the country, are an ever-present force at the state capitol, lobbying legislators and organizing their members to reach out to them. Put together, the unions represent about 800,000 teachers, school staff, nurses, college faculty (and even more than 1,000 lifeguards). By staying closely involved, they’ve been able to score key legislative victories – and soften the blows of some defeats.

“The real power of the unions is not so much the dollar amount in any given year,” said Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that contributes to reform-minded Democrats and lobbies for specific education policies. “The fact that they go at it year after year after year forces groups that are pushing ideas and the legislation that the unions [are] opposed to to be very smart about selecting issues.”In their filings with the state’s ethics commission, groups are required to list any bill that they “expect” to lobby on. Each year, NYSUT and UFT list hundreds, many having to do with healthcare or schools, such as a bill to study the option of a four-day school week or one about radon testing in schools.

But other bills on the unions’ list fall outside of their normal purview. Among the bills that the UFT and NYSUT said they expected to lobby on in 2012 was one that would “direct the commissioner of health to establish a schedule of fees for the use and maintenance and repair of air conditioners used by residents of adult homes.” Another, Senate Bill 1255, would make the monk parakeet a protected bird.

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Listing so many bills, the UFT said, is a way to err on the side of caution and guarantee that the list covers everything any union lobbyist might be asked about. In reality, the organizations pour the bulk of their time and resources into a few key bills.

In 2009, the UFT pushed for incorporating transparency requirements for New York City school closures into the reauthorization of mayoral control; now there must be a hearing and impact statement before a school is shuttered. In 2011, the union was able to defeat Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for an end to seniority-based layoffs.

But even when bills that the unions opposed gained traction, they have been able to help craft compromises. UFT officials explained that when a bill clearly has enough support to pass, its lobbyists focus on helping to shape the specific details. In the 2012 teacher evaluation bill, for instance, they worked on an amendment to the appeals process. When legislators voted to raise the state’s charter school cap in 2010, the UFT succeeded in establishing a limit on how many of the schools could open in a given year and how many could be in New York City.

Traditionally, NYSUT has outspent the UFT — and virtually all other groups that lobby in Albany. In 2010, NYSUT spent $4.7 million, the second most of any lobbying organization, and $4.2 million in 2011, which ranked third, according to a report by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But in 2012, NYSUT slowed its rate of spending on lobbying and was surpassed by the UFT, its New York City affiliate, records show. (In 2012, by contrast, the UFT slightly increased its lobbying expenditures from 2011.)

Brownsville Academy senior Tyrone Francisco and several of his classmates meet with State Sen. John Sampson’s chief of staff.
Brownsville Academy senior Tyrone Francisco and his classmates met with State Sen. John Sampson’s chief of staff.

One reason, spokesman Carl Korn said, was that, compared to 2011, when the union spent big to kill a “Tier VI” bill that would have required its members to pay more to tap into their pension benefits, there were fewer contentious bills to fight.

The union usually advertises in local markets to urge voters to pass their proposed school budgets. But few of them were contentious in 2012, due to a property tax cap that limited budget growth to just a few percentage points, Korn said.

“We typically do media buys on state budget and school budgets and if there is an extraordinary legislative measure,” Korn said.

Most of the money NYSUT saved on advertising went toward other political strategies. In a heated election year in which Democrats had a realistic shot at taking over leadership in the New York State Senate, the union poured $4.5 million into polling, advertisements, and direct contributions for its preferred candidates in hotly contested races.

NYSUT’s lobbying expenses come as the organization’s financial books are in question. The union reported a nearly $30 million deficit on its latest tax forms submitted to the federal government, first reported this week in the Albany Times Union. (Attributing the shortfall to an accounting issue involving pensions, Korn said the union’s actual deficit was closer to $7.8 million.)

Lobbying often means hiring an outside firm to persuade legislators. While each organization does have employees that devote part or all of their time to working directly with senators and representatives, together, their overall lobbying strategy is diverse, relying on member organization and public awareness as well.

In 2012, NYSUT spent at least $114,840 on advertising and $17,565 on member giveaways, including $1,666 for clacker noisemakers. That year, the UFT reported spending $11,144 on iPads and $10,185 on t-shirts. Another $51,770 went to make a bulk “first aid kit/nylon bag with UFT logo” buy; items such as the kits are given out at UFT booths at events like Harlem Week and the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn.

Much of NYSUT’s more than $360,000 in itemized expenses went to member reimbursements for Lobby Days in Albany, where teachers visit the capitol and meet with legislators. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that receives funding from NYSUT and co-hosts its lobby day, has spent more than $200,000 on lobbying over the past two years.

At least $140,974 of the UFT’s 2012 expenses went to Lobby Day costs, such as buses, parking, buttons, and staff accommodations.

Not all of the unions’ lobbying efforts are captured in their spending reports. Mobilizing members is often a crucial lobby activity for teachers unions across the country, said Dara Zeehandelaar, a research manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. But expenses for such “internal communications” may not always be reported as lobbying expenditures, she said.

“The power of the union is not quantifiable with the dollar amount because you can’t put a price tag on sending an email,” Zeehandelaar said. “It’s part of the teachers union culture. As a teacher you expect to get that message from your union. … That’s not going to show up in your financial reports.”

Take, for instance, what happened months after New York City’s release of teacher performance data sparked nationwide outcry by teachers and their unions. Lawmakers sought to prevent it from happening again through legislation. The legislation faced considerable opposition from free speech advocates and, importantly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a significant donor to Senate Republicans. Bloomberg saw the public’s access to performance data as critical to a high standard of accountability.

NYSUT asked its vast membership to tell their legislators, in emails, letters, phone calls and even faxes, to support legislation that would bar the public from seeing teacher ratings. The campaign, which relied on teachers to voluntarily and individually lobby lawmakers, yielded 33,000 faxes and “thousands” more calls and letters, Korn said.

On June 21, much to Bloomberg’s frustration, the legislature passed a privacy law that would limit access to teacher ratings to the parents of each teacher’s students.

“NYSUT’S strength comes not from its lobbying but from the tens of thousands of energized teachers in districts across the state who are knowledgeable with the issues and will work with candidates who will support public education and organized labor,” Korn said. “Elected leaders listen to their constituents.”

In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform went head to head with the teachers unions in New York, pushing to raise the state’s charter cap and devoting more than $6.5 million primarily to produce ads in favor of the bill. DFER ultimately won a partial victory, but had to outspend the unions to do so.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever going to happen again,” Williams said of beating the unions, adding that his group would be unable to routinely challenge them“You can’t afford to fight incremental battles with the union. They’ll demolish you.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”

Back to school

Newark officials deliver a message to students on first day: Keep showing up

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León spoke to seventh-graders at Hawkins Street School on the first day of school Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street School Tuesday morning, eighth-grade teacher Jasmine Johnson was at the whiteboard writing her students’ goals for the new school year — complete all assignments, get into a great high school — when in walked two unusual visitors: Newark’s mayor and schools chief.

Luckily for Johnson, Mayor Ras Baraka’s message was also about goals — namely, the lofty goal of perfect attendance.

“Try your best to get here and be in these seats every single day,” the mayor told the students as a phalanx of TV cameras captured his remarks from the back of the room. “It’s very, very important. The superintendent is super focused on that.”

Superintendent Roger León, who started in July and is the city’s first locally selected schools chief in more than two decades, told employees last week that he wants the district to achieve 100 percent attendance. That is a hugely ambitious, if not impossible, goal considering that the average daily attendance was 90 percent in 2016-17 and — even more troubling to experts — about 30 percent of students were chronically absent.

To assist in the effort, León has promised to rehire the attendance counselors who were laid off by former Superintendent Cami Anderson and to restore the truancy teams that in the past roamed the streets searching for students who cut class. He also ordered every district employee to call five students’ families before the start of the school year to remind them that school began Tuesday.

“It’s important for everyone to worry about student attendance,” León said during the all-staff meeting at the Prudential Center last Tuesday.

At a school board meeting that evening, district officials said that an analysis of state test data had shown a strong connection between attendance and test scores: Students who regularly showed up to class earned markedly higher scores.

Research shows the reverse is also true. Students who are chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of school days, tend to perform worse on tests and are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal-justice system.

Peter Chen, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who co-wrote a report on Newark’s high-school absenteeism problem last year, said in an August interview that schools often take a compliance-driven approach to attendance. After students miss a certain number of days, staffers may call or write home and inform families of the problem.

He said that a more effective, but also more resource-intensive, strategy is to analyze why certain students are frequently absent — for instance, are they suffering from mental-health challenges or struggling with school work? Then social workers and other staffers should try to help remove those obstacles that are keeping students out of class, Chen added.

He also pointed out that León’s state-appointed predecessors, including Anderson and Christopher Cerf, also came up with plans to reduce absenteeism. But top-level mandates only go so far, Chen said.

“What we’ve seen is that leadership at the top matters,” he said. “But on a day-to-day basis, what happens in school buildings is often more a function of the school-building leadership.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Seventh-graders listened to Superintendent León on Tuesday.

At Hawkins Street, Principal Alejandro Lopez said his school’s attendance task force had already devised its own plan to boost attendance.

Students with perfect attendance each week will earn “Hawk bucks,” named for the school mascot, and be entered into raffles to win prizes. Also, the three classes with the highest attendance rates at the end of the year will take a trip to Six Flags Great Adventure theme park.

Meanwhile, support staff will look for ways to help students who are frequently absent. In 2016-17, 45 percent of Hawkins Street students missed more than 10 days of school. Getting them to show up every day this year will be hard, Lopez said — but doing so is crucial.

“If you’re not present, you’re not going to learn,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

After leaving Johnson’s room Tuesday morning, Mayor Baraka and Superintendent León stopped by a seventh-grade math class where teams of students were building towers out of noodles and marshmallows.

León told the class that he had attended Hawkins Street as a child, before growing up to become a teacher, principal, and now, superintendent. Baraka, another Newark Public Schools graduate and former principal, told the students he loved them and would make sure they got whatever they needed to succeed.

After the city officials left to visit two high schools, 12-year-old Angeles Rosario said she was excited about the new school year — and dance classes, in particular. That the mayor had chosen to visit her school first on Tuesday only added to her excitement, she said.

“There are many other schools in Newark,” she pointed out, “but he decided to come to ours.”