School Yard Politics: A Guide to Who's Playing

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WNYC's Brian Lehrer and Beth Fertig discuss education and the presidential elections.

The 2013 mayoral election in New York City is still more than a year away, but we don't need an election to highlight the importance of education in New York politics. The teachers union and the Bloomberg Administration routinely clash over various issues such as teacher evaluations, and the union has been without a contract for almost three years. The debate over education has become increasingly charged. And there are numerous groups looking to influence policy on issues such as charter schools, class sizes, or parental involvement. Before the 2013 race for mayor takes off, or things get any more complicated, SchoolBook developed the following guide to the players here in New York City.

United Federation of Teachers (U.F.T.)

The U.F.T, led by president Michael Mulgrew, is big, with nearly 200,000 members. It represents the city's 75,000 teachers along with retirees, classroom paraprofessionals, childcare providers, guidance counselors and other school staff.

The union has the money and the political muscle to fight City Hall. It successfully prevented the Bloomberg Administration from closing and reopening 24 low-performing schools, because the staffing changes would violate its contract. The union has also opposed legislation that would give the chancellor more power to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct.

The U.F.T. falls under the umbrella of the American Federation of Teachers, and is an affiliate of New York State United Teachers. These two larger organizations also work to influence policy in their own right. The state's union, for example, sued the New York Board of Regents last year over a new teacher evaluation system. The two sides eventually hashed out the framework for a deal but New York City and the U.F.T. have yet to agree on the details.

This year, the two sides are under pressure to reach a deal by January or the city will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in state education aid.

The union and the city are also sure to tangle again over the politically contentious issue of school closings after the city releases its annual A-F progress reports this fall. The union claims the city should invest more resources into helping struggling schools and their teachers, while the city counters that some schools are so bad that they must be replaced.

According to its federal filings for 2011, the UFT spent $3.76 million directly on political activities and lobbying. The union also buys television and radio ads when it comes under attack, like this one criticizing Mayor Bloomberg's policies. The U.F.T. financially supports groups that share a similar agenda, including New York Communities for Change (formerly known as Acorn).

Democrats for Education Reform (D.F.E.R.)

This national political action committee has chapters in 11 states including New York. It's executive director is Joe Williams, a former Daily News education reporter and New York City public school parent.

Founded in 2007, D.F.E.R. supports charter schools and reforms that are often at odds with unions, such as merit pay. It campaigns for Democratic candidates who share its views. As expected, it's earned the ire of the teachers union. The union criticizes the heavy representation of hedge-fund managers on D.F.E.R.'s board, who the union says do not know anything about education.

The group tweets and blogs avidly, and has chimed in on daily education news, like calling on Chicago teachers to end its strike from Day 1 (it even released a two-part infographic, here and here, to help make its point). D.F.E.R got together with StudentsFirst (explained below) this month in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention to sponsor an advanced screening of the film “Won’t Back Down,” a fictional account of parents taking over a failing urban public school.

Williams said the national organization raises about $1 million a year from individual donors to give to political candidates in federal and state races. Williams said that, typically, the organization does not get involved in city races, though he has not ruled out the next New York City mayoral race.


StudentsFirst is a national non-profit founded by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools. This New York chapter launched in April 2012 with a board that includes Rhee; former city schools chancellor Joel Klein; Eva Moskowitz, who runs Success Academy Charter Schools; and several financial industry leaders. The current director of the New York branch is Micah Lasher, who previously worked for the Bloomberg administration as a lobbyist in Albany.

The group embraces the expansion of charter schools, an end to the “last in, first out” state law that gives experienced teachers more protection from layoffs. It also supports parent-trigger laws, which allow parents to vote on how to change a failing school.

StudentsFirstNY plans to raise $10 million each year for five years to advance this agenda, and is investing in political candidates who can help. The group would not disclose who its principal donors are. But a spokeswoman, Chandra M. Hayslett, said StudentsFirstNY is "raising money from anyone who is concerned about improving the quality of education in New York State."

In the race for New York City mayor, some of the expected candidates made news in August by saying whether or not they would even accept funds from StudentsFirstNY. You can read more about it in Capital New York and Gotham Schools.

New Yorkers For Great Public Schools

This group, made up of about 30 community organizations, advocacy groups and unions, including the U.F.T., announced itself in May 2012 as a direct counter to StudentsFirstNY. It's composed of several groups that have fought for more education aid such as New York Communities for Change, the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice and the Alliance for Quality Education.

The coalition believes that Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies, such as closing struggling schools, have failed the city. The group hopes to influence the 2013 mayoral race by encouraging candidates to “embrace a new direction.” It's asking mayoral hopefuls to reject funds from StudentsFirstNY. However, the executive director for Alliance for Quality Education, Billy Easton, says the coalition does not plan to endorse any specific candidates, nor is it raising money to contribute to political campaigns.

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools made a splash in August with an incendiary report tying StudentsFirstNY to Mitt Romney, saying many StudentsFirstNY board members were contributing substantially to Romney’s bid for president. According to The New York Times, officials at StudentsFirstNY describe their group as bi-partisan, and point out that board members have also donated to President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Class Size Matters

As the organization's name suggests, the non-profit Class Size Matters advocates for reducing class sizes in New York City public schools. It was founded in 2000 and is more or less a one-woman show led by parent activist Leonie Haimson.

Haimson works out of her Greenwich Village townhouse. Despite her small staff and bankroll (the group reported contributions of about $50,000 in 2010), she has a near-ubiquitous presence in local education politics. She has made the rounds on a number of national news talk shows as well and blogs for the Huffington Post.

Haimson chimes in on other issues besides class sizes, including standing up for teachers on strike in Chicago and criticizing wealthy private donors and foundations for swaying the debate over education reform.

In addition to running Class Size Matters, Haimson edits the blog NYC Public School Parents and helped found a new group called Parents Across America. The organization received a $25,000 start-up grant from the National Education Association, the largest national teachers union.

Educators for Excellence (E4E)

Founded by two New York City teachers, this group calls itself pro-union. But it deviates from the union on significant policies, such as merit-based pay for teachers and ending the last-in, first-out law that dictates teacher layoffs in New York City. The group has released several policy papers outlining its stance on these and other issues.

The group claims to have about 5,000 teacher members; it also has a Los Angeles chapter. The greatest indicator of its growth may be E4E's fundraising: the group reported more than $1.9 million in contributions and grants for 2011, a significant increase over $339,000 in 2010. The bulk of the funds came from private foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Robinhood Foundation.

Educators for Excellence says it spends all of its money supporting its organization, convening policy panels and holding other events, like happy hours and this recent screening of the film "Won't Back Down." Members do meet with lawmakers occasionally to discuss education policy, but the group is not a registered lobbying organization.

NYC Parents Union

New York City parent Mona Davids formed this group in 2011. She acknowledges she has accepted a contribution of $25,000 from the U.F.T., but says she gets donations from individuals, too.

The Parents Union has been a strong critic of the Bloomberg administration and its education policies. There's a countdown clock on its website indicating when Mayor Bloomberg’s term comes to an end. The Parents Union sides with the U.F.T. on certain issues, such as opposing the Bloomberg administration’s school closings and its co-location of charter schools in the same buildings as regular schools.

But the Parents Union has its own voice, too, calling on the Chicago Teachers Union to end its strike, and giving a thumbs up to the film “Won’t Back Down” and its promotion of parent power and involvement in schools.

Davids is a registered lobbyist in New York and runs a communications firm. The Parents Union endorsed Rodneyse Bichotte, who lost this month's Democratic primary for Brooklyn state assembly.