paying dues

UFT bracing for fallout from Supreme Court decision in Janus case

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
UFT President Michael Mulgrew this winter hosted a discussion on the potential impacts of Janus.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a decision that is widely seen as a blow to public unions and could have particularly dramatic effects in New York City, where the United Federation of Teachers counts more than 100,000 members.

The 5-4 decision means that public unions in more than 20 states can no longer collect “agency fees” from non-members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of negotiating contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members.

Now that employees have a financial incentive to opt-out of their unions, the decision is expected to drain membership, and with it, money that has helped fuel labor’s political clout.

The impact will likely be magnified for the UFT, the largest union local in the country. UFT President Michael Mulgrew was defiant, calling the Supreme Court “perverted and twisted” by political interests.

“As I promised my mother numerous times, I will pray for all of them when they’re burning in hell,” he said.

The decision was hardly a surprise: Justices had deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expected a conservative-leaning court to side with Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee who challenged the fee on the grounds that it essentially forced him to support a political organization and violated his right to free speech.

Elected officials across the labor-friendly state were quick to show their support Wednesday. Flanked by union leaders in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that exempts the personal information of state employees from public disclosure, saying anti-union forces in other places have used lists of addresses and phone numbers to “harass” public employees into leaving their unions. Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, joined more than 20 mayors from around the country in signing a symbolic pledge to protect workers rights.

“We believe working people deserve fairness. It’s clear that the conservative Supreme Court justices don’t share that same sentiment,” de Blasio said in an emailed statement.

The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents. Currently, about 1,200 educators opt out of the UFT and pay agency fees instead. Union officials said those people can stop paying all fees immediately — which translates to a financial hit of about $1.5 million annually.

Members have an extremely short window to decide whether to stop paying dues for the upcoming year: Though educators can drop their membership at any time, the dues obligation can only be cancelled between June 15 and June 30 every year — giving members a chance to act on the court’s decision immediately.

With the Supreme Court decision, the number of members dropping their union is only expected to grow. That is what happened in states like Michigan, where membership in the state teachers union dropped by 20 percent after “right to work” laws outlawed mandatory agency fees.

The Janus decision cuts particularly deep because, writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that employees must opt in to union membership. In New York City, union officials said teachers automatically become agency-fee payers, but they must opt-in to the union by signing a membership card.

Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the opt-in requirement could have an “enormous” impact on membership numbers.

“With the requirement for affirmative consent, any declines that were anticipated before Janus are likely lowball estimates,” he said. “The opt-in, opt-out difference can be just unbelievable.”

In anticipation of the Janus ruling, New York lawmakers recently passed legislation to help stem the potential losses and give members an incentive to keep their union cards.  The law gives union representatives time to meet with new employees, and allows unions to pull back services to non-members.

Under the law, UFT officials said the union is not obligated to provide a lawyer to non-members who face disciplinary charges, and that the UFT can limit services such as teacher trainings to only dues-paying members.

Dues are about $117 a month for teachers, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school jobs pay different amounts. Members also have the option of  contributing to a separate political fund, which the UFT uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

Many educators took to Twitter to show support for their union, using hashtags like #UnionProud.

“I know how important it is to have the UFT benefits as a way of protection,” wrote Lisa Ringston, a 20-year veteran of the education department who currently works with children who have autism. “With what little dues we pay, it goes a long way, and taking it away would be very detrimental.

Wednesday’s decision comes less than a week after a huge victory for the UFT — striking a deal with New York City to provide paid family leave to teachers. The union had been pressuring the city on the issue for months, and securing that victory could help demonstrate the UFT’s worth at a time when attracting dues-paying members could become more difficult.

The union took up the cause after a petition launched by two teachers went viral. Some say the Supreme Court decision is another opportunity for the union to become more responsive to its rank-and-file.

“Unions will need to better connect with their members,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “In light of this ruling teachers need to recommit to their unions, and unions need to recommit to their members by becoming even more democratic, diverse, and student-focused.”

Even before the decision was rendered, the UFT took on an aggressive campaign to hold on to members — who are now free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially. But they are bracing for potential losses. Leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations.

Mulgrew said the union will continue a recruitment and information campaign that started last winter. Along with local legislation to protect workers, he said that one-on-one conversations with teachers will be key in retaining membership.

“Having that conversation and building more active chapters at every work site has been the main push,” he said.

Daniel Lund Holstein, a high school math teacher, volunteered to knock on hundreds of doors of fellow union members to convince them to continue paying dues. He said the looming decision added to a feeling that many teachers have of being under attack, and inspired most to double-down and show support.

“The majority of teachers I talk to are very savvy about what exactly they get for those dues — and it is extensive,” he said. “When you have a bunch of teachers in the room or you have a one-on-one conversation, you have a lot of excitement about a revitalized union.”

If you’re an educator, let us know how the decision will affect your decisions about union membership.

Read more about potential impact on New York City here. And read about what has happened to schools, teachers, and students in other states after union protections were weakened.

moving forward

Frequent school changes are hurting students. Here’s how Detroit’s educators want to fix it.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, second from left, says a tweak to school funding policy in Michigan would alleviate some of the effects of high student mobility. Looking on from left are moderator Stephen Henderson of WDET, Darienne Driver, CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Maria Montoya, who works in the charter school office of Grand Valley State University.

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum came in the wake of a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of Detroit Today on WDET, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, spoke about the impacts of students changing schools.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Communities in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.