It isn’t hard for anyone, much less school reformers, to be enrapt by the last week’s arrest and indictment of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges of wire fraud for allegedly accepting $4 million in bribes from companies through his outside job as a lawyer. After all, the New York City politician, who has reigned for 21 years as the most-powerful legislator in the Empire State, has long-managed to escape the kinds of scandal that befell the likes of predecessor Mel Miller, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
But particularly for school reformers in and out of the state, Silver’s indictment and decision to temporarily step down as overlord of the state assembly is another promising opening to advancing the array of proposals they back for overhauling public education. This is because Silver has long worked on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers and its two branches, New York State United Teachers and United Federation of Teachers, to block all but the weakest versions of reform. Now with Silver out of the way, reformers rightly think they have a strong chance of getting more thing done. Especially with Gov. Andrew Cuomo looking to expand charter schools and overhaul teacher evaluations, the Republican-controlled state senate hankering to pass a voucher-like tax credit plan, and both Cuomo and State Senate Republicans looking to teach NYSUT and UFT some lessons for trying to deny them power.
Yet reformers must not get so caught up in irrational exuberance and think that it will be easy for them to get their measures passed. This is because of Randi Weingarten and the national AFT, which will likely spend as much as they can to win as many defensive victories as it can so that its affiliates can maintain their declining influence. If anything, reformers must become even savvier in playing the political game than they have been so far.
Certainly NYSUT is none too happy with Silver’s indictment. It comes on the heels of four years of defeats on nearly every aspect of education policy — including the successful move by Cuomo two years ago to keep in place a teacher evaluation reform plan passed by predecessor David Paterson that required state test growth data to account for 20 percent of performance reviews, and the move by the state to increase the number of charters as part of winning money from the federal Race to the Top initiative. Sure, NYSUT succeeded in temporarily staving off the ability of districts to use the evaluations in hiring and firing decisions (ostensibly to allow for the implementation of tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards). But it is quite likely that Cuomo will successfully overturn that legislation this year.
Why? Because of the AFT unit’s decisions on the political front that have alienated it from both the governor and State Senate Republicans (the latter who have proven in the past to be occasionally willing to go the union’s way). NYSUT’s decision last year to not endorse Cuomo’s bid for a second term and push to keep the AFL-CIO’s state affiliate from giving him an endorsement didn’t hurt Cuomo’s successful run. If anything, as seen last week with Cuomo’s budget proposal to require test score growth data to play an even bigger role in teacher evaluations as a condition of increasing state school funding by $1.1 billion, NYSUT’s decision has actually empowered the political scion to push even bolder on advancing systemic reform.
Meanwhile NYSUT, along with fellow AFT affiliates UFT and New York State Public Employees Federation (and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio), faces payback from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his fellow Republicans in the upper house for backing efforts by Democrats to take full control of the legislative body. The $5 million spend by NYSUT, which included buying ads accusing Republicans of being unwilling to address domestic violence against women, didn’t work out well at all as Skelos and his allies gained enough seats to control the state senate without having to reach out to Democrat dissidents as it has had to do the past few years. Given that Cuomo prefers Republican control of the state senate — the better for him to win passage of his centrist Democrat agenda — NYSUT and the rest of the AFT can’t expect any help from the governor in beating back any of Skelos’ plans.
But at least the AFT affiliate could count on Silver. A longtime beneficiary of AFT largesse to the tune of $44,800 since 1996 (from both NYSUT and NYSPEF), the assembly speaker has done everything he can on their behalf to blunt reform efforts. This includes helping NYSUT pass the legislation delaying the use of data from Common Core-aligned state tests in hiring and firing decisions last year. But now with Silver out of power (for now) and control of the assembly delegated to his hand-picked committee of less-formidable legislative players, NYSUT and the rest of the AFT have to work harder to blunt reform efforts. Given that some Assembly Democrats are no more willing than Cuomo and Skelos to do NYSUT’s bidding, reformers theoretically have the upper hand this time around.
Karen Magee, the former local AFT boss who took control of the NYSUT presidency after ousting Richard Iannuzzi as head of the union last year, can ill-afford another political defeat. Her patron, UFT President Michael Mulgrew doesn’t need her to lose either, especially since he has staked his aspirations to succeed Weingarten as national AFT president on Magee making the kind of gains that Iannuzzi could not.
But reformers can never forget the national AFT or Weingarten, who presided over UFT (and effectively, through the union’s outsized presence within NYSUT, controlled the state affiliate) for 11 years before becoming the leader of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union seven years ago. This is because New York State is for the AFT what California is for the National Education Association: The lynchpin of the union’s influence. Every gain made by reformers in the Empire State is a loss of clout for AFT at all levels of education policymaking. Given all that is at stake, Weingarten isn’t going to simply sit by and let the AFT units flounder.
In Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is battling with the state-controlled district over the latter’s efforts to address its fiscal and academic woes, AFT subsidized the local to the tune of $1.5 million in 2013-2014, a 10-fold increase from the previous year, and spent plenty to hold events and subsidize the local’s vassals on its behalf. This includes holding three meetings (including two so-called community events) at the ritzy Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown at the cost of $142,129, dropping $272,715 at the rather nice Sonesta Philadelphia hotel to cover “member related expenses”, and handing out $129,120 to the ACTION United, Youth United for Change, and the Philadelphia Student Union in exchange for their support.
At the state level, the AFT spent big to successfully oust erstwhile reform-minded Gov. Tom Corbett from the state’s top executive post; this includes pouring $581,400 into Democratic rival Tom Wolf’s successful bid against Corbett’s re-election run, a move that ensured that PFT’s push to remove Philadelphia from state control will get a more-favorable hearing. AFT’s move on the campaign front, along with the $499,661 in subsidies to its state affiliate (including funding for campaign finance activities) was a strategic move that can yield dividends for the union on other fronts (including blunting any effort to overhaul the Keystone State’s woefully-underfunded pension).
If AFT was willing to pour $3 million just into Pennsylvania (and is spending almost-as-considerable sums in Louisiana as part of an effort to oppose reformers showcasing New Orleans’ partially-successful overhaul), it will spend even more in New York. As Dropout Nation has previously reported, AFT subsidized NYSUT to the tune of $14 million in 2013-2014, according to its disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor, while putting down another $300,900 into NYSPEF, which has served as its stealth vehicle for opposing reform by funneling campaign cash to legislators on senate and assembly education committees. Given that NYSUT is also struggling financially, with $380 million in pension and retired worker healthcare liabilities, AFT will have to step up even more on its behalf.
This has already begun this week with the so-called “emergency meeting” being held tonight by UFT to strategize on how to oppose Cuomo’s plans as well as that of his school reform allies. You can soon expect several of AFT’s reliable vassals, including Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change, to launch their own campaigns decrying Cuomo’s ties to reform outfits such as the Empire State branch of StudentsFirst as well as Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice (which, along with the New York City Parents Union, is battling with UFT and NYSUT in court over the Vergara suit looking to abolish the state’s near-lifetime employment and dismissal laws). AFT will also look to hire other so-called grassroots groups on its behalf the way it has done in New Jersey, where it has poured considerable sums into outfits such as One New Jersey to do its bidding.
But don’t think the AFT will limit itself to working through its affiliates and traditionalist allies. Chances are that the union will spend even more money in Albany on events and rallies to convince legislators to side with its affiliates. There’s also AFT’s considerable campaign coffers, which it can utilize to donate to statewide campaigns as well as on so-called independent expenditures as ads decrying Cuomo’s and reformers for supposedly defaming teachers.
Weingarten will also spend some time in Albany this year personally lobbying Assembly Democrats on behalf of AFT’s locals. This includes reminding key players chosen by Silver to run the body on his behalf — especially Majority Leader Joseph Morelle and Herman (Denny) Farrell (who collected $56,650 in campaign funding from NYSUT and NYSPEF since 1996) — that they need to repay the favors the union has given them. Catherine Nolan, who chairs the assembly’s education panel and is also part of the assembly’s new governing committee, will also feel pressure from Weingarten. After all, Nolan has also benefited from the largesse of AFT locals (to the tune of $39,712 over the last 18 years) and must also deal with traditional districts who will also be opposed to any effort to expand charters and choice; it is one reason why Nolan put the kibosh on her plan four years ago to introduce a Parent Trigger law.
Meanwhile the AFT will have plenty of allies within traditional public education to help out. As mentioned, the expansion of charters and the passage of a tax credit voucher plan will run afoul of traditional districts opposed to any effort to weaken their hold on children and the tax dollars that flow with them. While de Blasio, who is looking to renew the state law giving the mayor control over the Big Apple district (and having already been defeated by Cuomo and reformers on the school choice front) will keep quiet, districts such as Yonkers and Buffalo that are home to the Empire State’s worst failure mills will fight vigorously against any choice measure.
Districts and AFT will also look out for any plan from Cuomo to give the state Board of Regents power to take over failing districts; the governor hinted at doing this two years ago. Expect them to remind Cuomo that his picks for the board (including Chairman Meryl Tisch) are also up for consideration this session, and while the state senate will likely approve all of them, the assembly could hold up any appointments, forcing the governor to back down from any number of his proposals.
Finally, expect AFT to try to play its part in the state budget proceedings, which ultimately involve Cuomo compromising with Skelos and whoever represents Silver as speaker to come up with a deal. As seen seven years ago when NYSUT and UFT worked with Silver during the budget proceedings to abolish a tenure reform law Spitzer had managed to pass the year before, AFT can gain some victories by getting someone in the assembly to hold hostage state finances.
So Empire State reformers must be ready to play hard and fast this session. Because Silver’s fall may not mean their victory on behalf of our children.
Editor’s Note: In the hours since Dropout Nation ran this piece, Silver has been forced to permanently step down as speaker. You can read more about the implications of this and other moves.