the educated voter

As city teachers vote, union chief Mulgrew faces small but spirited group of challengers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

Disappointment drove second-grade teacher Michelle Baptiste to run for a seat in this month’s union elections.

She watched with dismay as the city’s United Federation of Teachers — the largest local union chapter in the nation — declined to back the swelling protest movement against standardized tests, or to forcefully push for school desegregation, she said. And she has waited in vain for smaller class sizes and better training, despite a new era of cooperation between the union and City Hall.

“As a working teacher, I don’t see a whole heck of a lot of change,” said Baptiste, a member of an opposition party within the union called MORE, who is running for a seat on the union’s policy-making board. “It hasn’t trickled down to me.”

As UFT President Michael Mulgrew seeks another three-year term, he can point to the union’s rising fortunes since its last election in 2013. During that time, the union has added thousands of new members and it replaced a long-expired contract with a new one that gave teachers a hefty (if incremental) raise. In the process, Mulgrew has transformed from City Hall’s chief antagonist under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to one of its most stalwart allies under current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Despite those changes, a small but spirited dissident group within the union is arguing that conditions have barely improved for ordinary teachers. While those activists have little hope of ousting the union’s leadership — Mulgrew won 86 percent of the vote in 2013 — they are using the election as a chance to question how much rank-and-file members have really benefitted from the union’s new partnership with City Hall, and to force a new set of priorities onto the union’s agenda.

Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union’s executive board.

Leading that charge is MORE, or the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a relatively new party within the union focused on bread-and-butter labor concerns like pay and job protections, alongside hot-button policy issues like teacher evaluations and school segregation. This year it teamed up with New Action, a longstanding opposition caucus that endorsed Mulgrew in the previous election, to put forward a slate of candidates to vie for dozens of union positions, including president. (Ballots were sent out last week and must be returned by May 25.)

MORE is set to release a report Tuesday that makes the case that Mulgrew and de Blasio have failed to halt a steady deterioration of school conditions.

The report, titled “The Crisis in Our Schools,” is based on an online survey of 438 UFT members that MORE distributed last fall through social media, email groups, college professors, and other means. The respondents work in at least 200 schools across the city, according to MORE.

Nearly half of respondents said their school buildings are not in good shape, more than two-thirds said their schools do not devote adequate resources to students with disabilities, and almost a third said they are unable to make photocopies at school, the report says.

“Conditions continue to get worse,” Erik Forman, a MORE member who teaches in a Bronx high school, said in an email. Meanwhile, union leaders “fail to engage the membership in a campaign to fix the problems. Instead, they say, ‘Celebrate our schools.’’’

The union did not respond to the survey findings, but Mulgrew said in a statement that the union routinely polls its members about work conditions, then adjusts its priorities accordingly.

Another minority caucus called Solidarity, which is even newer than MORE and less well-known, is also jumping into the election. Led by Francesco Portelos, a Staten Island teacher who has clashed bitterly and publicly with his principal, the party is focused largely on teacher-administrator relations.

The minority-party candidates face tough odds partly due to the union’s unusual election rules, which allow retirees to vote. Nearly a third of the 189,469 ballots this year went to retirees, who historically have been more likely than active members to return their ballots and to back the current union leadership. In 2013, 93 percent of retirees voted for Mulgrew, while one in five active members backed the MORE candidate challenging him.

Jia Lee, this year’s MORE/New Action candidate for union president, said she knew it would be “long shot” for her to unseat Mulgrew. But the election still provides an opportunity to recruit new members, highlight issues, and encourage teachers to take more ownership of their union, she said.

“I think it’s just about raising awareness and getting members actively engaged in the union, versus just saying, ‘I have no choice,’ and shrugging your shoulders,” said Lee, a special education teacher in Manhattan who has championed the right of parents to refuse to let their children take standardized tests.

While MORE/New Action’s candidates are unlikely to replace any of the union’s dozen officers, they have a better chance of snagging one of the 90 seats on the union’s executive board, which helps set policy. In particular, they have set their sights on the seven slots reserved for high school representatives, since high school teachers have historically been more likely to support alternative candidates.

The UFT press office did not make Mulgrew available for an interview. But it pointed to campaign materials produced by his party, called Unity, that cite a host of accomplishments under his leadership. Those include an 18 percent raise for members (spread out over seven years) in the new contract, the addition of 7,000 new UFT members during Mulgrew’s tenure, and a successful bid to get policymakers in Albany to temporarily remove state test scores from teacher evaluations.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement of Mulgrew’s leadership has come from de Blasio, who has enjoyed the UFT’s steady backing even as he butted heads with the police officers’ union and his fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Speaking at the UFT’s spring conference Saturday, de Blasio praised Mulgrew as a fighter.

“In fact, when he sees a righteous cause, he goes out of his way to stand by it,” the mayor said, according to a transcript. “And that is a leadership that is helping to make this city and, in fact, this whole state a better place.”

Clarification [May 11, 2016]: This story has been updated to include additional information about the survey that MORE conducted in fall 2015.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: