When we last checked in on Bill De Blasio, the New York City mayor was reeling from the fallout from the string of investigations into 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).
Since then, Hillary Clinton’s former U.S. Senate campaign manager has suffered more setbacks. This includes revelations by the Empire Center that he handed out $2 million in raises to his political appointees, as well as losing out on an opportunity to speak at the Democratic National Convention during prime time, the latter a reprisal from former boss Clinton and her presidential campaign for failing to endorse her run until he had no choice but to do so.
Meanwhile his likely campaign for re-election, already weakened by low poll numbers as well as the unwillingness of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers to back him, took another hit when Harlem pastor Johnnie Green announced he would challenge the mayor in the Democratic mayoral primary next year. While Green isn’t likely to garner a lot of votes, the move presages the entry of more-formidable candidates such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer (who will likely gain UFT’s backing if he decides to run) and Bronx Borought President Ruben Diaz Jr. (whose support for expanding charter schools would likely attract reformers in the city).
But for Big Apple taxpayers, none of De Blasio’s political problems mean as much for them as the long-term financial woes they and their children face as a result of the long-term mismanagement of the city’s two defined-benefit pensions for teachers and other district employees. As a Dropout Nation analysis of the latest financial statements reveals, the pension shortfalls for the Teachers Retirement System and the Board of Education Retirement System have worsened under the mayor’s tenure.
Let’s start with TRS, the larger of the two pensions. It officially reports a shortfall of $27.5 billion as of 2013-2014, the latest year available. This is a 2.5 percent increase over the officially-reported shortfall in the previous year. But as readers know by now, those reported numbers don’t reflect reality. For one, this doesn’t include $4.2 billion in unrealized losses kept off the balance sheet as part of “smoothing” efforts by the city to avoid dealing with the shocks that come with financial market volatility. Add that number onto the total, and the shortfall would amount to $31.7 billion, or 15.3 percent higher than officially reported. As Dropout Nation noted last year, such accounting tricks can help pensions appear more-solvent than they really are, making it difficult for policymakers to make smart fiscal decisions.
But the smoothing isn’t the biggest problem. What is? That TRS assumes an investment rate of return of seven percent. Not only is this rate of return higher than the six percent median rate Wilshire Associates expects over the next decade, it is even higher than the 2.8 percent rate of return(net of fees) the pension’s investments generated in 20114-2015. [TRS’ rate of return for this year is just 2.7 percent, according to the New York City Comptroller.]
Because of the inflated rate of return, TRS (and ultimately, the city) understates what is likely the true level of insolvency that taxpayers will ultimately have to bear, and thus, results in lower than necessary contributions being paid by the city and teachers. Given that the pension annuities paid to retirees are essentially obligations like bonds, TRS’ assumed rate of return should be much lower, aligned with yields being gained in the bond market.
To figure out TRS’ true insolvency, Dropout Nation uses a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return on investments. [Moody’s bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Based on the formula, using just TRS’ officially-reported number, the pension is underfunded to the tune of $32.9 billion. This is 20 percent more than it officially reports. If the shortfall had to be amortized (or paid off) over the next 17 years, Big Apple taxpayers and teachers would have to contribute an additional $1.9 billion annually, or 60 percent more than the $3.2 billion contributed in 2013-2014.
Yet this number doesn’t include the unrealized losses. Account for those and Dropout Nation estimates that TRS’ insolvency is $38 billion, 20 percent more than the unfunded liability adjusted for unrealized losses. Based on a 17-year amortization schedule, taxpayers and teachers would have to pay an additional $2.2 billion a year, or 69 percent more than contributed to the pension in 2013-2014.
Then there is Board of Education, which officially reports a shortfall of $1.8 billion, a 3.8 percent increase over the previous year. Just like TRS, Board of Education is using smoke and mirrors because it also assumes an investment rate of return of seven percent. The pension’s rate of return in 2014-2015 was just 3.4 percent. [The rate of return for this year is just 3.1 percent, according to the City Comptroller.] The result? Board of Education’s shortfall appears to be lower than it really is.
Based on the Moody’s formula, Dropout Nation concludes that Board of Education is actually underfunded to the tune of$2.2 billion. That’s 20 percent higher than officially reported. Based on a 17-year repayment schedule, taxpayers and district employees would have to contribute an additional $127 million a year, 59 percent more than the $214 million contributed in 2013-2014.
Altogether, based on the best-case scenario, New York City taxpayers face a virtual insolvency of $35.1 billion for the two education pensions. That’s $35,885 for every child within the Big Apple’s traditional district and public charter schools. Use the worst case scenario (which includes the unrealized losses), and taxpayers must address an insolvency of $40.2 billion. That’s $41,099 in pension debt for every child in school today.
Given that the Big Apple’s other defined-benefit pensions for city workers are also virtually busted, it is harder than ever to address the insolvency of the two education pensions. Contributions to TRS and Board of Education account for 38 percent of the $8.1 billion in contributions taxpayers put into all of the city’s pensions in 2013-2014, the latest year available, according to the Big Apple’s annual financial report. The city’s plan to increase contributions to all pensions by $600 million a year from 2016-2017 to 2019-2020 will not cut it
By the way: None of this includes the $28.9 billion in unfunded healthcare liabilities for retiree healthcare expenses; these account for 42.6 percent of the $68 billion in unfunded health liabilities on the city’s balance sheet. All of these obligations must eventually be met.
Put it simply, Big Apple taxpayers and children (who will one day become adults) face a fiscal disaster of massive proportions. One that won’t be easy to overcome. This isn’t all De Blasio’s fault. As Dropout Nation noted two years ago, his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg and his contemporaries in city government leadership continually provided generous annuity benefits and healthcare benefits (along with salary increases) in part to get UFT to go along with his systemic reform efforts. In the process, Bloomberg failed to require teachers to pay more toward their retirements, hoping in vain that stock market gains would cover those benefits and reduce liabilities. None of this worked out.
Yet De Blasio has learned nothing from Bloomberg’s failings on this front. Between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, the contributions made by teachers to their retirements declined from six cents to 4.5 cents for every dollar put in. The collective bargaining agreements struck De Blasio struck with UFT and other unions representing district employees two years ago required no additional contributions to pensions and healthcare expenses (including the $1,700 a year the city pays in prescription drug coverage and other so-called welfare benefits for every retired teacher). The low member contributions, along with the salary increases a decision two years ago to allow 777 teachers to retire early, and other early retirement plans currently in place, are adding to the virtual insolvencies of TRS and Board of Education. Like Bloomberg, De Blasio is betting on investment market gains, even though history has proven this to be unreliable.
De Blasio should have pushed to increase retirement contributions by UFT-represented teachers, who make up the vast majority of current and future annuitants. Don’t think it is possible? Look at the city’s charter schools, whose expansion the mayor has actively opposed. The average charter school teacher in New York contributes 17 cents out of every dollar to their pension, four times the contributions by peers working in the traditional district. Given the low contributions of their traditional district colleagues, can easily argue that charter school teachers (who are also often Big Apple taxpayers) are bearing an unfair share of TRS’ burden.
The consequences of De Blasio’s and Bloomberg’s fiscal recklessness can be seen on the city’s ledger. Teacher benefit costs as a percentage of district spending increased by 53 percent (from 17 cents of every dollar spent to 26 cents) between 2004-2005 to 2013-2014, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. If not for the corresponding 63 percent increase in revenue during that period, De Blasio would face the same dire choices confronting Chicago counterpart Rahm Emanuel. The city’s Independent Budget Office expects overall city spending to increase at a slower annual rate (3.5 percent from 2016-2017 to 2019-2010). But those assumptions depend on an average 1,769 Baby Boomer teachers retiring every year, as they have between 2004-2005 and 2013-2014, as well as low initial annuity payouts. Both assumptions are probably optimistic.
If that doesn’t happen, De Blasio will be in for an even tougher time. While the city still managed to wrangle an increase in state aid because of other districts, the mayor can’t expect Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republicans in control of the state senate to help him with any pension bailout. Nor can De Blasio count on UFT; having gotten most of what it wanted out of De Blasio (who it didn’t back), the union seems to already be moving on to a more-pliant candidate for mayor.
No matter what happens to De Blasio, the city’s taxpayers and children are stuck with the financial consequences of what could be a very short tenure.
Seth Gershenson and Michael Hayes have recently published their research about the effects of the “civic unrest” in Ferguson on student achievement in the Ferguson-Florissant schools. They state that they are interested in the general subject as “educational success is likely to play a key role in breaking cycles of poverty and violence in disadvantaged neighborhoods, given the well documented association between educational attainment and earnings,” something about which we can all only agree.
Gershenson and Hayes document “the negative impact on student achievement of the many months of civic unrest that followed former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting (or murder, as we call it here at Dropout Nation) of unarmed teenager Michael Brown:
We find statistically significant . . . declines in students’ math and reading achievement in Ferguson-area elementary schools relative to other schools in the St. Louis [area]. Smaller negative effects are found in majority-black schools elsewhere in the [area] . . . Effects are relatively large, particularly at the lower end of the math-score distribution. For example, a conservative estimate suggests that the fraction of high-needs students scoring “below basic” in math increased by about 10 percentage points following the unrest.”
The researchers have found that that there was collateral damage from the events in Ferguson following Brown’s slaying: The educations of Black children there and in the wider St. Louis area. As Dropout Nation documented two years ago, the districts in St. Louis were already serving up educational malpractice to black and other minority children before the unrest. Things haven’t gotten better since.
The racial make-up of the population of Ferguson has rapidly shifted over the past fifty years, from nearly all White to majority Black. At the time of the killing of Michael Brown, however, the police department and the rest of the so-called criminal justice system remained not only predominately White, but functioned, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (although not in so many words), as a parasitical instrument for the oppression of Black residents of the area, financed by funds extracted from them by means of traffic stops, court fees and such.
This criminalization of the Black population of Ferguson is not unusual in Missouri. All through the state Black residents are stopped by the police, searched, arrested, fined and imprisoned in circumstances in which White residents would not receive the same attention from the police and the rest of the criminal justice system.
The result is that although Blacks make up 12 percent of the population of Missouri, they account for 39 percent of those in the state’s prison and jails. The incarceration rate for Black residents of the state is 2,337 per 100,000, more than four times the incarceration rate of 495 per 100,000 for whites. Further, more than twice the number of those currently in jails and prisons in Missouri are on probation or parole, bring us to, say, six percent of the total Black population or, at a back of the envelope calculation, 15 percent of the male Black population between the ages of 18 and 65.
Every sixth or seventh adult Black man in Missouri is in one way or another under the control of the state’s criminal justice system and many more have been at one time or another. This limits their life prospects and those of their families, reducing their income possibilities below those consequent upon the already significant penalty for working while Black, which in turn channels them into inferior, segregated housing and their children into inferior, segregated schools. And around and around we go, generation after generation.
The median household income in Ferguson is $41,000; one-third of the Ferguson households live on less than $25,000 a year. The Ferguson-Florissant School District is ranked 301st in the state. It is 66 percent African-American. $11,300 is allocated for each student in the district, slightly below the national average. Seventy-one percent of the district’s students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Just 40 percent are considered by the state to be proficient in reading, and yet 78 percent graduate. However, only 23 percent of adults in Ferguson have college degrees. Based on other data Dropout Nation presented two years ago, it is clear that many (if not most) of Ferguson-Florissant’s graduates are being given diplomas despite being unprepared for college or career success.
It could be worse. It could be nearby East St. Louis.
The St. Louis metropolitan area is divided into two-dozen school districts in Missouri, with East St. Louis across the river in Illinois. East St. Louis is one of the most segregated areas of the country; 96 percent of the residents are African-American. It is also profoundly poor. While the median household income in the country is $53,000, in East St. Louis that figure is $20,000 and 60 percent of those households live on less than $25,000 a year. 99 percent of the district’s school children receive Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Only 20 percent are proficient in reading (and yet) the graduation rate is 65 percent, from which we can conclude that two out of three graduates of the East St. Louis schools cannot read well. It is, then, not surprising that just eight percent of East St. Louis adults are college-educated, compared to a national average of 29 percent.
East St. Louis is the baseline for living conditions and educational opportunities, for African Americans, in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
On the other hand, things could be better for Black families in the region if they could live in Maryland Heights.
Maryland Heights is a suburb on the other side of the city from East St. Louis. The median household income there is about $59,000, higher than the national average, and just 17 percent of households have incomes under $25,000, a proportion considerably under that national average. 40 percent of adults in Maryland Heights have college educations. The local school district (Parkway C-II) is 15 percent African-American. Just 20 percent of its students are eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. $14,400 is spent on each student in the Parkway C-II district, almost a third more than in Ferguson. The Parkway C-II district brings 72 percent of its students to proficiency in reading on the state tests and graduates 93 percent of them.
East St. Louis and Maryland Heights are not very distant, one from the other, and quite similar except that in one the residents are almost all descendants of enslaved Africans, in the other the vast majority are not; in one the average household income is below the poverty line, in the other it is three times as much; in one the adults have little education, in the other the adults are highly educated; in one the schools do not in any meaningful sense function, in the other they produce high school students prepared, as the saying goes, for college and careers. Where once the Underground Railroad took Black people to freedom, schools like those in East St. Louis are a funnel leading to incarceration.
That is the regional context for Black families in Ferguson. Historians and sociologists have told us since the time of the French Revolution that the disappointment of rising expectations leads to a crisis. Although Black families in Ferguson were better off than those in East St. Louis, they had encountered the barrier of a criminal justice system determined to contain them and other institutions, such as the schools, that were failing them and their children. What followed was predictable in nature, simply not predictable in regard to place or time. And then it happened in Ferguson. And then it happened in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and earlier this week, in Milwaukee, the subject of so many reports on these pages.
Riots and police in armored vehicles frighten children, boys and girls who must already deal with the daily, oppressive, and often racially bigoted presence of law enforcement on streets and in schools. They become reluctant to leave their homes to go to school and their parents are reluctant for them to do so. Conditions in the schools themselves, hardly exemplary at the best of times, worsen. The resources needed to cope with this educational emergency, like those needed to cope with the more long-term lack of educational opportunities at the standard, of, say, Maryland Heights, fail to be provided.
We have grown used to this. This should never be the case. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
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.
Can’t understand why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Movement for Black Lives have issued proclamations opposing the expansion of school choice and Parent Power for the very black families for which they proclaim to care? The answer can be found in the annual financial statements of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions.
Over the past five years, the Big Two unions have worked zealously to co-opt black and other minority-oriented groups. Having been on the defensive against school reformers for most of the past decade, NEA and AFT used their considerable coffers to subsidize organizations in exchange for support for their agenda. For the most part, it hasn’t worked out nearly as well as the unions have expected. The $300,000 NEA and AFT gave to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in 2014-2015, for example, hasn’t stopped the controversial civil rights activist from being a strong supporter for expanding public charter schools, while outfits such as the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights have sparred with the Big Two over federal accountability rules contained over the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act.
Yet the Big Two’s vast spending has managed to gain it some allies. One of the biggest: NAACP, which has long ago abandoned its admirable leading role on civil rights and school reform that included spearheading litigation that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of Jim Crow segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015, NEA and AFT increased its contributions to NAACP and its affiliates by a six-fold (from $25,000 to $151,700); the outfit collected $380,500 from the two unions within that period.
For these paltry sums over that period (especially when compared to what National Action Network has received in one year alone), NAACP has repaid the Big Two with almost complete adherence to their agenda. This includes last week’s passage of the resolution calling for a moratorium on expanding charter schools, the most-popular option for black families otherwise forced to attend failure mills in their communities. Even with numerous polls showing strong support among black families for charters and other forms of school choice, overwhelming evidence that high-quality charters are successful in improving student achievement, and support for choice among some of NAACP’s own affiliates, the old-school civil rights groups has been all too willing to join common cause with those who don’t have the interests of black children at heart.
But the NAACP’s allegiance to NEA and AFT isn’t just about money. Among the influential members of NAACP’s 64 member board: Hazel Dukes, whose long (and often infamous) tenure as head of its Empire State affiliate included teaming up with the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in an unsuccessful effort to stop the Big Apple from renting space in half-empty traditional school buildings to charter schools. Dukes is also notorious for accusing parents of charter school students of “doing the business of slave masters”.
Another top NAACP board member is Adora Obi Nweze, the president of the group’s Florida branch, which joined the NEA’s and AFT’s Florida affiliate in its unsuccessful suit to end that state’s school choice program. Last year, the Florida NAACP convinced the national association to pass a resolution reaffirming its longstanding opposition to vouchers and other forms of choice.
The strong ties alone between Dukes (who remains NAACP’s most-influential board member) and AFT alone, along with the presence of Baby Boomer teachers in the outfits membership, all but ensures that the concerns of black families are secondary to traditionalist interests. Even if Dukes and Nweze weren’t on the board, NAACP would be more than a tad willing to go along with NEA’s and AFT’s agenda. This is because the association’s board has strong ties to the unions that make up AFL-CIO, the labor confederation in which AFT (along with more than a few NEA affiliates) is an influential member. This includes James Settles, Jr., a vice president of the United Auto Workers; Robin Williams (an apparatchik with the United Food and Commercial Workers International); and William Lucy of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, a key AFT ally.
But as noted earlier, NAACP is one of the few old-school civil rights groups on which NEA and AFT can count on as a reliable ally. So the Big Two have had to cultivate new alliances though a strategy of wrapping themselves in the language of social justice. This includes working to co-opt activists within the criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter movements.
Certainly the Big Two unions are using their coffers to win at least some of those activists over. But it isn’t just a matter of money. As any civil rights-oriented school reformer can tell you, NEA and AFT have learned long ago that extending helping hands, from meeting spaces to using fax machines to simply endorsing a platform, goes a long way in winning alliances. This is something reformers, more-concerned with policymaking and institution-building, have never understood.
That many in the school reform movement have either been reluctant or outright hostile about working with Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform activists on addressing issues that are tied to schools (including overuse of harsh school discipline and the penchant of traditional districts to refer children to juvenile courts), has also made it easy for NEA and AFT to win over some activists.
This partially-successful co-opting by NEA and AFT can be seen in the manifesto issued by Movement for Black Lives this week (which hasn’t been championed by such leading lights within the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements as Deray McKesson). The declaration itself was written not by the Black Lives Matter activists within the coalition, but largely by two of NEA’s and AFT’s prime vassals.
One of the coauthors, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, has long been a front for the Big Two. Besides counting NEA and AFT among its members, the coalition includes vassals such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education (which collected $725,000 from the two unions between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015), and Center for Popular Democracy (a recipient of $1 million in teachers’ union money in that same period whose board includes AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten on its board). Another coauthor, Philadelphia Student Union, has been one of AFT’s lead groups in its effort to oppose systemic reform and school choice in the City of Brotherly Love; it collected $20,000 from AFT in 2013-2014.
Given the presence of these groups, along with the presence of Alliance for Educational Justice (another group backed by AFT), it is little wonder why so much of the “manifesto” focuses on opposing choice and Parent Power, as well as calling for districts to stop hiring recruits trained by Teach For America, the teacher quality reform outfit that has long been the bane of the Big Two’s existence. [This is even before you consider that, unlike NEA and AFT, Teach For America has actually recruited more black men and women into teaching, as well as supported the work of Black Lives Matter activists such as McKesson and Brittany Packnett (a Teach For America staffer).] The manifesto proclaims to raise questions about the role of black families and communities in shaping the schools that serve their children. But because it merely consists of NEA and AFT talking points, it spends more time making laughable claims about “privatization” of education even though most children still attend traditional public schools.
The fingerprints of NEA and AFT can also be seen in what Movement for Black Lives either ignores or barely touches on: Zip Code Education policies such as zoned schooling and restrictions on intra-district choice that force black families to send their kids to dropout factories that put them on the path to poverty and prison. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions, referrals to juvenile justice systems and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that all but a few NEA and AFT affiliates strongly support. The near-lifetime employment rules through tenure and teacher dismissal policies defended by NEA and AFT that deny high-quality teaching to black children. The traditional district bureaucracies, often influenced by NEA and AFT locals through campaign donations, that do everything possible to oppose Parent Trigger measures and other tools that give black families lead decisionmaking roles in the schools that serve their children.
Certainly no one should expect NEA and AFT to care about the lives and futures of black children and their families. They have long ago proven that their concerns are elsewhere. But there is no reason why NAACP and Movement for Black Lives are siding with the Big Two in perpetuating the educational genocide that has enslaved and destroyed the minds and futures of the black children for which they are supposed to be concerned. In the process, both (along with the reform movement itself) have wasted an important opportunity to reshape systemic reform in a way that puts black children and families at the center. What a shame.
As you would expect, Tuesday’s commentary on Success Academy’s pattern of educational abuse garnered plenty of reaction from reformers and traditionalists alike. Even more discussion continued about the New York Times‘ revelation that the charter school operator’s “model teacher”, Charlotte Dial, berated and embarrassed a first-grader for failing to answer a math question to her liking, an approach that the outfit encourages through its professional development and daily practices.
But Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, can always count on more than a few allies within the school reform movement to defend it. Over the past couple of days, some reformers have offered up more excuses than any sensible person would want to hear. And in the process, Success Academy’s defenders have done a disservice, both to the school reform movement’s mission of building brighter futures for children and to the communities we are supposed to serve.
You already know one of the lines of defense that defenders of Success Academy usually trot out: That any critique of its practices by reformers concerned about them is de facto opposition to school choice. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in his attempt to be clever, tried this line of argument early on. Your editor has already detailed why this argument is pure hogwash; this includes the reality that families may be choosing Success not because it wants its model of educational practice, but because New York City has restricted the expansion of high-quality alternatives from which they can choose.
There’s also the fact that Success supporters are conflating criticism of charter school operators and other institutions with support or opposition to advancing the power of families to choose high-quality education. This is just as intellectually dishonest as traditionalists conflating criticism of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers with esteem for teachers. Just as importantly, while there are traditionalists taking aim at Success’ practices are aiming to oppose expansion of choice, taking aims at motivations of critics doesn’t address the lengthy evidence of Success’ failures in educational practice.
But never think that those willing to defend the indefensible will settle on one line of argument. The latest attempt to defend Success’ practices seems ripped from the words of your average 10-year-old after being caught misbehaving in class: Traditional districts engage in educational abuse, too. According to this line of argument, traditionalists (and by association, reformers) calling out Success for overusing suspensions, allegedly engaging in pushing children out of its schools, or keeping educationally-abusive teachers on payrolls are engaging in utter hypocrisy if they also don’t call out traditional districts for the long and sorry record of similar misbehavior. Otherwise Success should be left alone and the video of Dial’s misdeed ignored (or else someone conclude that it may be more-representative of what happens in its schools that photos of smiling faces for public relations purposes).
Certainly those who offer this excuse have a point: Many traditionalists have long-failed to acknowledge the academic and even physical abuse that has gone on within more than a few traditional districts. In fact, many of these folks, including those running the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have done all they can to oppose reforms of teacher dismissal policies that keep academically- and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.
But there are many problems with this argument. For one, it ignores the fact that there have been more than a few traditionalists who have stood against such abuses. Particularly on the school discipline front, traditionalists such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union have been more-active in pushing against the overuse of suspensions and expulsions than many within the school reform movement itself. This is a point made by former Newark Supt. Cami Anderson earlier this month at Teach For America’s annual summit. All in all, Success Academy defenders pushing this argument come off as being selective in their outrage.
If anything, by implicitly comparing their own failure to argue strongly against both Success’ school discipline practices and its failure to fire Dial, reformers defending Moskowitz are essentially admitting that they are no better than traditionalists who conveniently ignore these acts of educational abuse. Which is true. As Dropout Nation has documented ad nauseam, many in the movement either seem comfortable with overuse of harsh school discipline so long as it is done by the operators they favor, or are cowardly silent in the face of the facts.
Meanwhile reformers defending Success are taking another tact: Blame the media. From where they sit, the New York Times‘ coverage of the operator’s spate of problems –including its revelation of the Dial video — is biased because the newspaper supposedly doesn’t cover the educational and even criminal abuse that happens within the Big Apple’s traditional district and other school operators.
One problem with this argument: A simple Google search proves it to be untrue. This includes a story three years ago detailing how 16 teachers in New York City kept their jobs despite evidence of engaging in sexual misconduct against children in their care; allegations of sexual misconduct by Nicole DuFault, who worked in the Maplewood district in nearby New Jersey; and the crimes of now-convicted former Brooklyn Tech instructor Sean Shaynak. As with any newspaper, the Times is going to dig deep into a hot story featuring an institution or leader of significant presence, influence, and controversy. For the Times to ignore Success Academy, one of the foremost and most-controversial players in American public education, would be tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
At the same time, in complaining about the Times‘ coverage, Success defenders have failed to appreciate that the newspaper isn’t in the business of providing coverage they find favorable. After all, the Times is supposed to be both a news outlet that practices traditional objective journalism and an institution charged by the First Amendment and journalistic tradition to shed light and aid the afflicted. This includes families of children who have not been well-served by Success Academy’s schools and its staffers. If anything, as evidenced by how Moskowitz and her team handled the revelation of Dial’s malpractice, the Times proved to be as necessary as ever. The teacher’s aide who provided the video likely did so because she knew all too well that Success would do nothing right by the child in Dial’s care.
Instead of criticizing the Times for doing its job, reformers defending Moskowitz and Success should engage in some self-examination. Why do they defend overuse of harsh school discipline that has been overwhelmingly proven by data and evidence to do little to improve (and actually damages) student achievement and school cultures? Why are they defending a school operator against whom there has been a lengthy record of documented educational malpractice — including former teachers and school leaders pointing to teaching approaches that damage the self-worth of children in its care? Why are they so insistent on being unwilling to strongly criticize the actions of an institution even as they advance the much-needed expansion of high-quality school choice? Why do they seem willing to forget the goal of nurturing the genius and potential of our children, especially those black and brown who are harmed the most by these practices, that is at the heart of the movement’s mission? And how can the movement sustain systemic reform when it alienates the very families from which they need vital political support?
By continuing to defend Success Academy’s practices, these reformers are demonstrating to families black and brown that they cannot be trusted with building brighter futures for children. Even worse, their concerns for defending an institution over the life of the child at the heart of Success’ latest controversy serves as propaganda material for the very traditionalists they rightfully call out for their justifications of the indefensible. No matter how you look at it, this is not a good moment for reformers defending Success Academy’s practices. Not at all.
As the largest local of the American Federation of Teachers — and the breeding ground for the union’s past and present top leaders — United Federation of Teachers knows how to throw its weight around. But as the local’s latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor shows, that political heft isn’t exactly helping it keep members or stave off long-term fiscal burdens.
The nation’s largest teachers’ union local generated $126 million in dues in 2014-2015, a 5.7 percent increase over the previous year. [The union’s overall revenue was $169 million, a 3.3 percent increase over 2013-2014.] This is only because of a 6.8 percent increase in average monthly dues paid by classroom teachers into the union’s coffers (from $101.46 to $108.34).
The big problem? UFT experienced a three percent decline in rank-and-file. The decline is worse than it appears. The number of active teachers and school employees paying into UFT declined by 5.4 percent between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015; the union also saw a 15.1 percent decline in the number of teachers not in the union still forced to pay into its coffers through agency fees charged to them.
With nearly every Big Apple teacher paying $108.34 a month into UFT’s coffers, each lost teacher means less money for the union to stay afloat without either subsidies from the national AFT or massive bank borrowing. [By the way: AFT provided just $219,758 in subsidies to the union in 2014-2015, along with another $140,016 in grants through its foundation affiliate.]
UFT’s retiree members did increase by 1.9 percent within the last year. As you already know, the AFT local’s president, Michael Mulgrew, likes their presence because they are loyal to the Unity Caucus that controls the branch (as well as forms the heart of the Progressive Caucus that controls the national union). But as Dropout Nation noted last year, the fact that the average retired member pays between $1.50 and $15.09 a month in dues into UFT’s coffers (or between 86 percent and 98 percent less than dues paid by classroom teachers) means that the union needs the Big Apple to employ more teachers in order to keep dollars flowing, even as it continually works to suppress their voice within the union.
This is especially important because UFT’s pension and retiree healthcare burdens are on the increase.
The AFT local owed $61 million in pension and retiree healthcare obligations in 2014-2015. That’s a 17.3 percent increase over the $52 million in pension and other post-employment obligations on the union’s books during the previous fiscal year. UFT’s pension and retiree health liabilities have increased by 32.6 percent over the past two years. [The union contributed $5.4 million to pension and defined-contribution plans, a 4.9 percent increase over 2013-2014.]
Considering that UFT is also on the hook for $50 million in loans taken out by affiliates that control two of its posh real estate properties (including its former headquarters on Park Avenue South near the famed Flatiron Building), this means that the AFT affiliate has $146 million in liabilities compared to just $127 million in assets; in short, the union doesn’t have enough assets available to pay off its pension burdens.
So you can imagine that it is more than worried about the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which threatens to end UFT’s (and AFT’s) ability to force teachers to pay into the coffers regardless of their desire for membership. [As you know, Dropout Nation, along with several of its contributors, are party to an amicus brief filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case.] Theoretically, UFT may be better-able to withstand the impact of any ruling than its national parent or the National Education Association because of its role in dealing with teacher work issues on the ground. But given the lingering ire among both hardcore traditionalist Baby Boomers and younger, more reform-minded teachers over the suppression tactics of Mulgrew and predecessor (and current AFT president) Weingarten, there may be plenty of teachers ready to leave the UFT fold, either for another union or for professional associations that focus on elevating the teaching profession.
As you would expect, none of the short- and long-term fiscal issues are getting in the way of UFT’s influence-buying.
The union spent $31.6 million on lobbying, so-called representational activities (which are often explicitly political), and contributions to like-minded groups in 2014-2015, a 1.6 percent increase over the previous year. Among the beneficiaries of UFT’s largesse: New York Communities for Change, which along with the Alliance for Quality Education, has helped UFT and its national parent take on reformers such as former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. The union gave $155,001 to the group in 2014-2015. The union also gave $10,000 to former ACORN leader Bertha Lewis’ Black Institute, and poured $5,000 each into Citizen’s Action New York and ACLU’s New York Civil Liberties Union branch.
Meanwhile UFT spent heavily on old-school civil rights groups and high-profile minority events. The NAACP’s branch in the Elmhurst section of Queens picked up $56,910 from the union, while the Big Apple unit of 100 Black Men collected $12,500. UFT also gave $25,000 to the Martin Luther King Concert Series held in the New York City borough each summer; $10,000 to the organizer of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade; $10,000 to the organizer of the Big Apple’s West Indian American Day Carnival; $5,225 to the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Empire State chapter; $5,000 to the venerable Amsterdam News‘ foundation wing; $5,000 to Latino activist group El Puente; and $5,000 to Make the Road New York (which the union prominently lists as one of its “community partners” in opposing systemic reform).
Yet much of UFT’s spending went not to supposed community groups and progressive outfits, but on direct political spending and media buys.
The union spent $3.3 million with political campaign consultancy Shorr Johnson Magnus on various media buys, gave AFT boss Randi Weingarten’s former employer, Stroock & Stroook & Lavan $274,313 for lobbying activities, and spent $60,000 with the lobbying wing of law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. UFT spent $81,999 with the New York City branch of education news outlet Chalkbeat, bought a $15,000 ad with the Daily News, put down $11,990 with Politico‘s New York City outlet, and spent $12,500 with politically-connected media magnate Tom Allon’s Manhattan Media.
The union also did plenty of independent spending on behalf of state legislative candidates it favored during the 2014 election cycle. This included spending $30,416 with Momentum Strategic Campaigns to pay for junk mail sent on behalf of New York State Assemblywoman Jo Ann Simon’s successful maiden campaign; spending $10,213 with Red Horse Strategies on mailers for State Sen. Adriano Espaillat‘s re-election bid; and $40,400 with polling outfit Greenberg Quinlan Rosner to conduct surveys on state senate campaigns.
An even bigger spend was for last year’s lobbying day effort in Albany. For that, UFT dropped $50,400 with transportation firm Academy Express to transport activists to the legislature, spent $61,346 with Mazzone Management Group for catering services, and ran up $9,404 in hotel charges with TownePlace Suites by Marriot. [The union spent another $29,337 on hotel rooms for meetings with top black and Latino state legislators.]
You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML version of UFT’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA and AFT spending.