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.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”

blast from the past

Harkening back to earlier era, struggling New York City school fights closure but faces long odds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kevin Morgan, the Parent Association president at P.S./M.S. 42, is leading a fight to keep the Rockaway school open.

A decade ago, teachers picketed P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam in Rockaway, Queens and declared the campus unsafe. Parents said the building was in horrible shape — some areas reeked of urine — and they petitioned the education department to close the school and start over.

But when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he had a different idea: Rather than shut its doors, he would revamp it. After three years in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program, which injects troubled schools with academic supports and social services, P.S./M.S. 42 appeared to be making progress: Its test scores and quality reviews have steadily improved. Enrollment, while lower this year, has mostly been stable.

So when the education department announced plans last month to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 and 13 other low-performing schools, many in the school community were shocked.

“We think that this is a mistake,” said Donovan Richards, the local city councilman who said that when he met with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña shortly before the announcement, far from declaring the school a lost cause, she praised its recent strides and discussed ways to celebrate them.

“You have this glimmer of hope and turnaround in the building,” he added, “and yet we’re reversing the progress.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents used to complain about poor conditions at P.S./M.S. 42, which has since built a new addition.

Now, parents, teachers and local political leaders are vowing to fight its closure. The coalition has launched an aggressive social media campaign, printed highlighter-yellow T-shirts declaring the school “strong and united,” and planned rallies at the school and in Albany, where the school’s supporters traveled Tuesday to make their case to state lawmakers.

On a recent morning, Kevin Morgan, the school’s parent association president, went to his local congress member’s office to appeal for help, and brought in a motivational speaker to inspire students as they drafted essays in defense of their school.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “They need to rethink what they’re about to do. How is this going to affect these children?”

The fight puts the mayor in the uncomfortable position of defending the closure of a low-performing school despite signs of improvement and vocal opposition from some parents — a scenario he railed against when running to replace then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. At the time, de Blasio blasted Bloomberg for disregarding the will of parents in his zeal to shutter and replace troubled schools without first giving them a chance to rebound.

Now, after investing $582 million in a program meant to offer bottom-ranked schools the second chance he said they had been denied, de Blasio finds himself coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor: Some underachieving schools simply can’t be resuscitated — at least not quickly enough — so better to pull the plug and start fresh.

“After a serious effort, we do not think, with their current structures, they can make it,” de Blasio said on NY1 the day the closures were announced. Still, he defended the turnaround effort, saying that, without it, “we would have continued to see closures without an honest effort to fix the problem.”

In the case of P.S./M.S. 42, the education department is proposing to replace it with two new schools — an elementary school and a middle school — in the same building.

It’s likely they will serve many of the same students as the school they’re supplanting, though some parents worry the new schools may deploy admissions criteria that will screen out some of P.S./M.S. 42’s current students. An education department spokesman said the new schools would not turn away any P.S./M.S. 42 students. The new schools may also employ many of the same teachers, under a contract rule that says at least half the positions in replacement schools must be offered to teachers at closed schools who apply and hold the right qualifications.

P.S./M.S. 42 boosters hope the new schools never have a chance to open. But they face long odds: Under de Blasio, very few schools on the chopping block have managed to escape.

Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy — an oversight board where the majority of members are appointed by the mayor — signed off on all of the city’s proposed closures. Even when parents at J.H.S 145 in the Bronx mounted a campaign to keep the middle school open, only five of the 13 panel members voted against its closure.

The city’s plan to shutter P.S./M.S. 42 follows a yearslong, grassroots effort to save it.

Today, one of the leaders of that campaign is an unlikely champion: a parent named Queen Makkada, who called for the school’s closure in 2010 when her two children went there. At one point, her daughter was attacked by a group of boys, and students were known to roam the hallways unsupervised.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Queen Makkada says P.S./M.S. 42 has struggled in the past, but is now showing improvement.

“We literally had first graders cutting class,” Makkada said. A joint city-state report from 2011 said teachers there “demanded little” from students and parents complained about unchecked bullying among students.
Makkada says things began to turn around when the current principal, Patricia Finn, took over about seven years ago. Finn did not respond to a request for comment.

The principal smoothed over relations with teachers, who have filed far fewer grievances under her than the previous administration, according to their union. And she forged relationships with skeptical parents, Makkada said. Last year, 90 percent of parents who responded to a school survey said the principal works to build community.

“All the stakeholders had to come together and change it,” Makkada said. “These parents went through the process to improve a failing school.”

At the same time that parents were getting more involved, the school facilities were getting an upgrade. In 2011, a gleaming new addition was built onto the building, and there are plans for a new $7 million playground, according to the city councilman.

The Renewal program, which launched in 2014, marked a new wave of investment in P.S./M.S 42. A community-based nonprofit — Family Health International, which goes by FHI 360 — brought much-needed mental health supports for students, including one-on-one counseling. The school day was extended by an hour. And the school has launched several initiatives aimed at improving school culture, including training students to help resolve conflicts among their peers, parents said.

Since 2014, the school has received improved “quality review” ratings from official observers, and its test scores have ticked upwards. In fact, elementary students at P.S./M.S. 42 earned higher scores on the state English and math tests last year than the average among Renewal schools that the city is keeping open. Its middle-school students perform just below that average.

And enrollment, a key factor that chancellor Fariña says the education department considers when recommending closures, grew by dozens of students the first few years of the program. This past year, its population declined to just over 660 students — but that’s still higher than before becoming a Renewal school.

Given the progress, parents don’t understand why their school is targeted for closure.

“This is ripping everything apart,” said Morgan, the parent-association president.

But despite the recent improvements, the majority of the school’s students still are far behind where they should be.

Only 17 percent of elementary students and 14 percent of middle schoolers passed last year’s state English tests — compared with 40-41 percent of students citywide. In math, 14 percent of elementary students and 6 percent of middle schoolers passed the tests, compared with 42 percent and 33 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, a stubbornly high share of students are chronically absent, despite a major push by the city to boost attendance at Renewal schools. More than 45 percent of P.S./M.S. 42 students miss 10 percent or more of the school year, compared to 36 percent among all Renewal schools and about 26 percent among all city schools, according to the education department.

“This decision to propose a school closure was made based on a careful assessment of the school community as a whole,” Aciman, the department spokesman, said in a statement. He added that community engagement is an important part of proposed closures, and said officials will respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

Officials will hold a public hearing at the school on Jan. 10, before the Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 28 on whether to approve the city’s closure plans.

Among the P.S./M.S. 42 parents who will ask the panel to spare the school is Willard Price.

He said teachers have given his son, William, extra help in math and handwriting, and principal Finn has invited him to eat lunch in her office when he felt overwhelmed by the cafeteria. Now, William earns high marks on his report cards and would like to remain at P.S./M.S. 42 for middle school, his father said.

“I think that’s messed up, trying to close the school,” William said. “This school is the only school I ever liked.”