Decision time

Will they stay or go: New York City teachers ponder relationship with union post-Janus

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

The predictions are dire: After the Supreme Court ruled this week that public employees can’t be forced to pay fees to unions, labor experts say membership and dues could dwindle by double-digit percentages.

In New York City, more than 100,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers will have to act quickly if they want to cut off their dues payments: The annual two-week window to opt out of deductions ends on Sunday.

In the wake of the ruling, we asked educators whether they plan on sticking with their union, and what issues will be important as they weigh their decision.

More than 100 teachers, paraprofessionals, retirees and other school staff responded — and the vast majority say they are holding on to their union cards. But some members also hope for changes.

“My union does a great job at negotiating fair pay, pension, working conditions, and offering great services for its members,” said Rashad Brown, a teacher at M.S. 224. “I could not negotiate any of this on my own.”  

In a state with the highest union membership in the country, the show of support is not surprising. But time will tell whether the UFT can maintain that enthusiasm: In other states that have passed restrictive labor laws, membership has plummeted. Take Michigan, for example, where membership in the state teachers union dropped by 20 percent after “right to work” laws outlawed mandatory fees.

Here is what New York City educators from across the city had to say.

It’s not just about wages but also about teaching and learning.

“I worked in North Carolina before I came to New York and saw first hand what happens when collective bargaining power is stripped from teachers and their voice is effectively shut out from policy making. Teachers suffer and students suffer. I will never (willingly) fall back into that situation.”

— John McCran, teacher, Harvest Collegiate

“My quality of life as a teacher depends so much on the union. Salary increases, healthcare, days off — I owe all of these benefits to my union. I firmly believe that having a strong union at both the city and school level not only improves the working environment for teachers, but also improves the learning environment for our students.”

— Naomi Sharlin, teacher and special education coordinator

“My membership means that I will be protected from unfair work practices such excessive paperwork, not being paid for time worked over regular school hours, health benefits, and pension benefits being cut or taken away, fair hearings in case my job is jeopardized by false accusations.”

— Denise Lane, teacher at P.S. 289 in Brooklyn

The union has these teachers’ backs.

“It’s a shame politicians want to strip teachers of their dignity and treat them poorly. Our education system is falling apart and we as professionals are watching the educational system deteriorate! Our union is not only helping teachers, it is working very hard to help fix the educational system and cares deeply about the students.”

— Kerry Meehan-Capurso, special education teacher, P.S. 1 on Staten Island

“As it stands, the teaching profession is denigrated, dismissed, devalued… However, the presence of a strong and active union in New York City has alleviated some of the pressures so many of my colleagues in other states face. It’s hard enough to do the job well without added stresses.”

— Jason Zanitsch, teacher at High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow

Others are sticking around for the contracts and benefits.

“We are stronger together than we are apart. I don’t think many people realize the many benefits and securities we have gained through the years as a result of collective bargaining. The alternative is frightening to me.”

— Deborah Ogedengbe, teacher at P.S. 386

“Because of the union, my family has health coverage, a dental and optical plan, and a prescription plan. My salary keeps me in the middle class. My union gives me job protections, and I will have a secure retirement.”

— Richard Skibins, teacher at P.S. 123 in Brooklyn

“I am sticking with the union because of all of the wonderful things that they do to take care of their members. The Welfare Fund is unparalleled in what it provides to us as members. They protect our pensions, our tenure, duty-free lunch, prep periods and guaranteed summers off.”

— Farrah Alexander, teacher at P.S. 64 in Manhattan

Some hope the union will become more responsive after Janus.

“I’m sticking to the union, though the Mulgrew crew has to do a lot more organizing and move away from the business model and take up the fight for better education.”

— Jose Alfaro, retired school social worker

“I’m waiting to see what the next contract looks like. The UFT needs to do a better job actually representing the rank and file. But I’m willing to give them a chance to prove themselves… I feel like the UFT is really going to have to start earning its keep and representing all of its members.”

— Margaret McDonald, sixth-grade special education teacher at I.S. 234 in Brooklyn

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year