It was billed as a "National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education," but teachers at the event in New York City Monday were thinking more locally: their top issue was a new contract.
"We're hoping that we get a contract that's fair," said Veronica Wilensky, of P.S. 346 in Brooklyn. Wilensky was among hundreds of teachers and community activists in a crowded auditorium at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters. Their gathering was one of more than 60 similar events around the country.
City teachers have been without a contract since 2009. Many said they were hoping Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio would give them a retroactive wage increase.
"I don't think that he's going to have that much freedom but he's going to have something," predicted Marie Kallo, who said she teaches in Gravesend Brooklyn. Stuart Kaplan, a Manhattan high school teacher sitting next to her, added: "I don't think we're going to know anything until de Blasio gets into office and actually opens the books."
For teachers, and for many of the education activists at Monday's event, de Blasio's election was seen as a chance for much warmer relations with City Hall. He campaigned on the promise of universal pre-k and the expansion of after school programs. He also promised to put less emphasis on test scores. All of these issues were embraced by groups that joined the National Day of Action, including the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Educational Justice and Make the Road New York.
But the city's incoming public advocate, Letitia James, warned against complacency.
"We can't rely on the fact that we elected a progressive into office," she said, adding that she would press de Blasio to enact his education policies within the first 100 days in office.
"Yes, he is a friend and, yes, he is an ally, but you elected me to be a public advocate and a thorn in his side," she said to cheers.
Union president Michael Mulgrew took a softer tone, however, and told reporters the new mayor will "have to re-motivate and re-energize school communities."
Although Bloomberg gave teachers a raise of more than 40 percent during his first two terms, and high school graduation rates improved, relations with the union soured over the lack of a contract in 2009, the intensive focus on test scores and the closing of so many struggling schools while charter schools dramatically expanded.
Mulgrew said he talks to de Blasio "every couple of days." When asked about the search for new chancellor, he said the names he keeps hearing about are all qualified to fulfill the new mayor's vision.
"I believe that you give people the benefit of the doubt," he said, acknowledging that two of the educators reportedly under consideration have had tense relations with their unions: Washington, D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Chicago Schools C.E.O. Barbara Byrd Bennett. "As a teacher, a child comes in who has a bad reputation, you don't say 'you can't be here.' You say 'let's figure this out. Let's see what we can do.'"