Still Waiting

De Blasio speech repeats pre-K plan but offers few new details

Bill de Blasio reiterated his plan to fund new preschool and after-school programs with a tax hike on high-income earners. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)
Bill de Blasio reiterated his plan to fund new preschool and after-school programs with a tax hike on high-income earners. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)

In his first major post-election speech, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio argued Monday that his wide electoral victory amounts to a mandate to curb inequality by expanding the city’s pre-Kindergarten and after-school programs through a tax hike on the wealthy.

But beyond announcing the formation of an “early-education working group” to hash out the details of the expansion, which he said he wants to begin rolling out next school year, de Blasio offered few new details about his central campaign pledge.

Instead, he repeated his plan and said that it is gaining support from lawmakers in Albany, who must approve it – even as former mayor David Dinkins suggested to de Blasio, his one-time aide, that he reconsider the income-tax hike.

“I have offered a game-changing investment in early-childhood education and after-school,” de Blasio said in his keynote speech at a summit on children hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Nothing less will do.”

In a press conference after the speech, De Blasio declined to name candidates he is considering for schools chancellor, but said he may have more information “in a couple more days down the road.” He also did not name the members of the working group.

Some observers quickly pointed out that de Blasio, who will take office in January – midway through the school year – left many questions about his signature proposal unanswered.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said de Blasio had yet to detail where he would find space to provide full-day preschool to nearly 50,000 more four-year-olds or how he would train enough educators to teach them.

“I would have liked to have heard more,” Noguera said, though he added that these are “big, complex issues” that take time to resolve.

Key state legislators – including the senate co-leader, Democrat Jeffrey Klein – have recently endorsed de Blasio’s plan to raise the income tax of city residents earning more than $500,000 a year, but Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo will be harder to convince, analysts say.

Cuomo “doesn’t want to go into an election year as a Democrat who raised taxes,” said Michael Benjamin, a political consultant and former Democratic assemblyman. He said insiders have suggested that Cuomo may try to find a different revenue stream for the plan before November’s state elections, after which he might reconsider a tax bump.

Ex-mayor David Dinkins suggested that de Blasio, his former aide, reconsider his proposed tax on the wealthy.
Ex-mayor David Dinkins suggested that de Blasio, his former aide, reconsider his proposed tax on the wealthy.

But de Blasio told reporters his tax plan is the best and fastest way to fund the school programs and said “more and more people who matter” are backing it.

He said he aimed to “win this tax fight by April 1” – the start of the state’s fiscal year – and then begin running the expanded programs later in 2014. He acknowledged that preschool space is limited, but said possible solutions include grouping multiple programs into existing pre-K centers or converting other buildings for that use, including former Catholic schools.

He also hailed a new Bloomberg administration pilot program that pairs middle schools with nonprofits to extend the school day by nearly three hours as a model after-school program. And he plugged community schools, which enlist private partners to offer an array of on-site services for students and families – a model favored by the city teachers union, which de Blasio has said he wants to expand from the current 16 schools to 100 schools.

Immediately after de Blasio made his remarks Monday afternoon, in which he had praised Dinkins, his former boss, the forum’s moderator invited Dinkins to ask de Blasio a question. Dinkins used the opportunity to suggest that the mayor-elect push for a so-called commuter tax on people who work in the city but live outside it, which he said might face less resistance in Albany.

“See whether or not this might be more easily done than to put a tax on the wealthy to take care of the rest of us,” Dinkins proposed.

But de Blasio balked at the idea, responding that his tax on high earners “is the right path and an attainable path.”

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”