When it comes to the willingness to sell out the futures of children for support from affiliates of the Big Two teachers’ unions, no public official has done so wholeheartedly than New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Since succeeding the reform-minded Michael Bloomberg three years ago as Big Apple Mayor, the onetime campaign manager for now-Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign has essentially gutted much of his predecessor’s overhaul of the nation’s largest traditional school district on behalf of United Federation of Teachers and its boss, Michael Mulgrew.
But these days, with an array of corruption allegations hurting his chances of winning a second term, De Blasio is learning the hard way that loyalty to AFT and NEA affiliates can often be a one-way street. This, in turn, should serve as a lesson to politicians who spend more time catering to the demands of traditionalists than doing right by children and communities.
As Politico reported yesterday, UFT has all but ran away from public support for De Blasio’s political agenda. Last month, Mulgrew took to the Daily News to blast De Blasio’s sensible move to ban use of out-of-school suspensions against kindergartners and children in the earliest grades, complaining that the move takes away the ability of teachers to control their classrooms. At the same time, Mulgrew has abandoned De Blasio on his efforts to reauthorize mayoral control over the New York City Department of Education, which has been in jeopardy thanks to his feuds with Empire State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans in control of the state senate. [Back in June, De Blasio won a second one-year reauthorization of mayoral control.]
UFT has also shown its unwillingness to back De Blasio in one very important way: Money. So far this election cycle, the union hasn’t given a penny to the mayor’s re-election campaign, according to data from the city’s Campaign Finance Board. [It only gave $4,950 directly to De Blasio during his first run for mayor in 2013, and spent nothing on his behalf through its super-PAC, United for the Future.] In contrast, UFT has already donated $4,950 to City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who may challenge De Blasio’s re-election bid next year.
Certainly Mulgrew has one big reason for leaving De Blasio hanging. After all, the mayor is reeling from revelations that federal, state, and local officials have launched five separate investigations, primarily on possible violations of campaign finance law during his successful campaign for mayor as well as on his unsuccessful effort two years ago to help New York State Senate Democrats regain control of the upper house (and essentially give De Blasio control over Empire State politics).
UFT’s parent union, AFT, faces scrutiny for its $350,000 donation to a De Blasio-controlled group at the center of some of the alleged violations, Campaign for One New York, which has been used by the mayor to ring up support for efforts such as increasing Empire State funding for expanding early childhood education programs (from which UFT gained new members and new revenue). The donation came just months before De Blasio signed a new contract with UFT that gives the union nearly everything it wants while increasing the long-term pension and healthcare liabilities that will be born by taxpayers decades into the future. A former UFT staffer, Jason Goldman, is also allegedly caught up in one of probes; UFT told the Daily News that it would cooperate fully with that investigation.
[By the way: UFT’s other activities during the Big Apple’s municipal elections in 2013 have already been scrutinized. One of its political consultants, Advance Group (which did $60,383 in direct work for the union that year), was fined $25,800 last year by both the city’s Campaign Finance Board and the state attorney general for concealing its work for both UFT’s super-PAC and the candidates the union supported.]
Given the stench of scandal surrounding De Blasio’s administration, as well as the mayor’s low approval ratings just a year before the next municipal election, it only makes sense that UFT distance itself from him.
But there are other reasons why UFT is abandoning its rather profitable alliance with the mayor.
For one, there’s the possible challenge Stringer, a longtime beneficiary of the union’s political and financial largesse (including $5,050 in direct contributions to his run for comptroller three years ago, along with $192,333 in independent expenditures through its super-PAC), may pose to De Blasio. The possibility of a more-pliable occupant of Gracie Mansion, someone who owes his entire political career to the union, is definitely something Mulgrew would favor. After all, Stringer has proven more than once that he will take on Eva Moskowitz, the controversial boss of the notorious Success Academy collection of charters who is one of the leading players in advancing systemic reform in New York City. That De Blasio was never the guy UFT wanted in City Hall in the first place makes it easier for the union to leave him behind.
Another reason lies with UFT’s long-term goal of ending mayoral control of New York City schools that began 13 years ago under Bloomberg’s tenure. Certainly UFT has benefited greatly from De Blasio’s oversight of the district. But De Blasio (who wants to keep mayoral control) could lose his job to a more reform-minded mayoral candidate next year, putting the union back on the defensive. Besides, ending mayoral control means putting the district back in the hands of a school board, one that UFT can more-easily influence.
Then there’s Mulgrew’s need to keep control of UFT in the hands of the Unity coalition, which has long dominated the AFT local (and is a key player in the larger Progressive faction that controls the national union). Even with all of Mulgrew’s efforts to disenfranchise members who are currently working in classrooms (and stamp out dissidents who disagree with his agenda), his declining support within UFT (including winning re-election with just 76 percent of the vote, a second consecutive decline) makes him mindful that he can’t ignore their concerns.
One of those issues: De Blasio’s sensible effort to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline that puts far too many kids (including young black men) on the path to poverty and prison. Even as the national AFT uses school discipline reform as a tool in co-opting criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter activists, UFT’s rank-and-file members have little interest in embracing any meaningful change in how they deal with children in their classrooms.
But unlike the rancor from some in the rank-and-file two years ago over UFT’s tag-team with Rev. Al Sharpton on opposing police brutality, Mulgrew can’t simply dismiss their complaints. This is because the union’s job is to defend the autonomy of classroom teachers. The idea that teachers are the only ones who should determine what happens in schools, even at the expense of the futures of children, is a tenet of traditionalist thinking no AFT boss can challenge.
Put simply, UFT’s abandonment of De Blasio shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. Especially to the mayor himself. After all, the union only back De Blasio’s mayoral run at the last minute, only after he defeated their favored candidate, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
No reformer could have ever expected De Blasio, a longtime opponent of systemic reform, to build upon Bloomberg’s efforts. But given UFT’s weak bargaining position at the time, De Blasio could have chosen his own path on education policy. Yet De Blasio sold his administration out to UFT in exchange for a few hundred thousand pieces of fiat money for his political machine.
As part of that deal, he proceeded to give UFT nearly everything it wanted. This included the nine-year contract that increased salaries by 18 percent; actively opposing Cuomo’s successful effort to expand the number charter schools throughout the city and state; and working with the union on its successful effort to eliminate the use of test score growth data in the state’s teacher evaluation system, rendering it useless in rewarding high-quality teachers and removing laggards.
Despite the tough talk from his chancellor, Carmen Farina, De Blasio increased the number of newly-minted teachers granted tenure (from 53 percent in 2014 to 64 percent in 2016), risking the presence of laggards in the classroom for decades. Through his feuding with Cuomo and State Senate Republicans, De Blasio even put the future of mayoral control in doubt.
Having gotten nearly all it wants out of De Blasio, UFT is letting him twist in the wind. This is bad news for a mayor who needs all the help he can get for re-election. But that’s how it usually works in politics. If he loses office next year, the only thing De Blasio will have as a legacy on education policy is the damage done to the futures of Big Apple children under his watch, from subjecting more kids to laggard teachers, to shorting struggling students out of five days of additional learning time during the school year.
Children aren’t the only ones who have lost as a result of De Blasio’s kowtow to UFT. The collective bargaining agreement struck with the union two years ago didn’t require rank-and-file members to contribute more than the 4.5 cents of every dollar put toward their retirements (as of 2013-2014, the latest year available). The low member contributions, along with the salary increases and the decision two years ago to allow 777 teachers to retire early, add to the virtual insolvency of the Teachers Retirement System.
As a result of De Blasio’s fiscal mismanagement, taxpayers (including the children of today) will bear a burden of at least $38 billion (including unrealized losses of $4.2 billion), according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of TRS’ finances. [A full analysis of the Big Apple’s education pension woes will run on these pages next week.] Add in the unfunded healthcare costs for retired teachers (which also went unaddressed by De Blasio during his contract negotiations with UFT), and the high costs of the mayor’s star-crossed alliance with the union will loom large in the decades to come.
There’s a high price to be paid for carrying water for AFT locals who profit politically and financially from educational malpractice. Sadly for New York City and its children, Bill De Blasio won’t be the only one paying it.