Potent Mix of Politics Shapes Current Education Debate

Email a Friend

This could be a critical year for the future of New York City public schools. A potent mix of factors have converged that will alter the face of education here for years to come, yet no one has the slightest inkling how it will all shake out.

Among the factors at play are a lame-duck mayor who hopes to cement his legacy as the "education mayor," the various candidates who wish to succeed him, a union leader who is up for re-election, and an upstart caucus that hopes to unseat him.

The most immediate challenge for the schools is the looming deadline -- today -- for a teacher evaluation agreement. If the city and the United Federation of Teachers can't reach a deal, the city will forfeit $250 million in state funds. Last week, the rhetoric escalated. The UFT released an ad attacking the mayor's legacy, even going so far as to include a reference to the disastrous appointment of Cathie Black as chancellor. Shortly after, Mayor Bloomberg struck back by comparing the teachers' union to the NRA, a comment that infuriated many, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy.

It's likely that both the city and the UFT want an evaluation deal. For Bloomberg, this could be his last chance effect a major change in how teachers are hired and fired after several failed attempts to get rid of LIFO (Last In First Out) rules for excessing and layoffs. Yet he has insisted that the deal must include a means of holding teachers' "feet to the fire" by making evaluations public, which is not required by state law. For its part, the UFT had a hand in crafting the new Annual Profession Performance Review (APPR) in the first place, helping limit efforts to make standardized test scores count for more than 25% of a teacher's grade.

But there are other underlying political factors that may hinder an agreement. Foremost among these is the upcoming UFT election. Last time, Michael Mulgrew, then basically an unknown among teachers, won a staggering 91 percent of the vote as the protégé of outgoing president Randi Weingarten, facing no meaningful opposition. This time around, a new caucus has been gaining traction. This caucus, called MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators), opposes any teacher evaluation agreement based on standardized test scores, which critics argue have a wide margin of error and other problems.

MORE's candidate for president, Julie Cavanagh, is a well-spoken, well-regarded educator who is beginning to make a dent in Mulgrew's hold on leadership. MORE's recent resolution to have members vote on any evaluation deal, rather than union delegates mostly loyal to Mulgrew, garnered a significant amount of support. Said Cavanagh: "It is unacceptable that he (Mulgrew) does not recognize the truth: That the highest decision-making body of this union is its rank and file members. We should decide if ‘we as a union’ accept this: Because we are our union."

Membership unrest in Chicago due to evaluations led to the ouster of the leadership there and conferred near hero status among unionists to Karen Lewis, who stood up to education reformers; the same could happen here if teachers are dissatisfied with the evaluation deal. And lest the potential mayoral candidates feel too sanguine, the story of Adrian Fenty, who was booted out as mayor of Washington, D.C. due largely to his support for test-obsessed Michelle Rhee, should act as a cautionary tale.

Complicating matters further is the teachers' contract. The current deal expired in October, 2009, and the UFT did not receive the 4 + 4 percent over two years that other city workers got at the time. There is pressure on the union to settle a contract right away by tying evaluations to a new contract with higher wages, but there is also considerable sentiment that the UFT should wait out the Bloomberg era and try to get a favorable deal from the next mayor.

If Bloomberg and Mulgrew fail to come to terms on a contract, pressure will brought to bear on the current crop of mayoral hopefuls as to what kind of contract, with what kinds of wage increases, they'd be willing to sign. Democratic candidates are sure to vigorously court the UFT's endorsement but by doing so they may risk losing financial support from Bloomberg, who will likely try to keep his reforms intact.

Other issues face the schools as we enter a new year. A bus strike is upon us. The city is looking to close 26 more schools, and is certain to be met with a fight. Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped into the fray in his State of the State address, calling for a teacher "bar" exam, as well as a longer school day and year that could add 300 hours to the school year without a clear means of financing those initiatives, which easily would cost billions of dollars in an age when school budgets have been cut every year for the last four years.

While the outcomes may not be certain, one thing is: 2013 promises to be a contentious year in education in New York. Whoever wins their political battles this year will likely affect the city's schools well into the foreseeable future.