As you know by now, the United Federation of Teachers and the rest of the American Federation of Teachers have spent the past few weeks aggressively opposing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans (and that of his school reform allies) to expand the number of public charter schools and refine the state’s teacher evaluation system. This included the AFT local lobbying within New York City’s traditional public schools as well as trying to win over parent-controlled Community Educational Councils that are the advisory boards within them. And UFT, along with AFT and New York State United Teachers, are getting vassals such as the Alliance for Quality Education and Citizens Action of New York (which have collected $180,000 from AFT and NYSUT in 2013-2014 alone) to prep their activists for visits to state legislators in their district offices.
But as Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union alerts Dropout Nation this week, UFT is going further by asking the Community Education Councils to approve a resolution it drafted decrying Cuomo for daring to do the right thing by children. The move is another reminder to reformers in the Empire State as well as around the nation that working the grassroots is key to advancing and sustaining systemic reform.
The UFT’s resolution itself is rather hysterical in part because it is so focused on the union’s concerns for its own future. By proclaiming that Cuomo is “punishing low-performing schools” by floating a plan for the state education department to take over failing district schools, the union essentially betrays the real reasons why it opposes the concept: The schools would likely be placed into a Recovery School District-type model similar to that which has worked successfully in New Orleans in slowly improving quality of teaching and curricula.
In such a model, the UFT’s contracts with the New York City Department of Education (along with collective bargaining agreements its fellow AFT locals have struck with other districts) would likely be null and void. No more ability by UFT and other AFT locals to use the Empire State’s tenure law and teacher dismissal rules (which give them effective control over the process) to keep laggard and even criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms. Given that UFT collect $101.46 every month from every laggard teacher working in a failure mill, a state takeover means lost revenue into its coffers.
The UFT’s declaration that Cuomo’s plan to expand charters “reward” the sector for “bad behavior” would seem valid until you understand what they mean by misbehavior. As I noted last month, UFT and other AFT locals are annoyed at charters because they don’t over-label kids as special ed cases the same way New York City and other traditional districts do. For the union, every new charter that opens means fewer kids being given dubious diagnoses of mental retardation, learning disabled, emotionally disturbed or developmentally delayed — and therefore fewer kids condemned to academic in childhood as well as economic and social failure in adulthood.
This means the Big Apple and other districts lose out on an extra $1,227.61 in state aid per student. As you can expect, some of those dollars end up flowing into UFT’s coffers (and that of other AFT locals and the AFT itself) in the form of union dues of $14,154.60 paid by 186 teachers and paraprofessionals (based on an equal number of 93 of each) employed in district classrooms every month. For UFT, expanding choice that is beneficial for children and their families is a detriment to its finances.
Then there is UFT’s complaint that Cuomo’s effort to make state standardized test score growth data a larger component of the teacher evaluation system (from 20 percent of the performance measure as now structured) would “move high-stakes testing into overdrive”. But that isn’t so. For one, as the UFT would admit if pressed, standardized tests already account for 40 percent of the entire evaluation; this includes data from state exams as well as from district-administered tests essentially chosen by AFT locals. So nothing would change in terms of how many tests are administered. Given that testing itself helps improve student learning by helping teachers and policymakers learn how well kids are learning as well as what adults in schools are doing in instruction and curricula, UFT’s declaration is pure hype.
The real problem for UFT and its fellow AFT locals is that Cuomo’s plan would replace data from the local tests (which as I mentioned, the unions control, and thus, can game for self-protection) with using state test score growth data for half of the evaluation. Why? Because the state data, being of higher quality and less-subjected to gamesmanship, would likely lead to more laggard teachers being identified as such. This was made clear two years ago by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in its study of teacher evaluation models. Again, the last thing UFT and the rest of the AFT want is for more teachers to lose their jobs; that means lost revenue (even if it would also mean elevating the profession, as younger teachers within the rank-and-file demand).
The funniest line of all in UFT’s declaration is that Cuomo’s reforms would be “silencing the voices of parents and educators”. This coming from the union that moved two years ago to suppress the voice of its rank-and-file members by increasing the number votes from retired members no longer in classrooms that could be counted in union elections from 18,000 to 25,000. This coming from the union which teamed up with the NAACP’s New York unit on unsuccessful legal bid to effectively end school choice by keeping the Big Apple from allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty school buildings. This coming from a union that continues to maintain its sorry legacy of opposing the ability of families, especially those black and brown, to exercise their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education.
As far as UFT’s leadership is concerned, families and teachers only exist as tools of co-opting in order to maintain its declining influence — and to keep its bank accounts filled. That they even attempt to portray themselves as being truly concerned for the grassroots is laughable.
But the union can occasionally get away with such sophistry because reformers often do such a poor job of working with families and communities on the ground. This time around, UFT is putting something before committees of families that they can vote on — which reform outfits such as StudentsFirst’s Empire State unit and others haven’t done. Which they can and should do. And if reformers in the Big Apple and the rest of the state don’t get to work now, it may succeed in doing so again.