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February 19, 2016 standard

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.

February 16, 2016 standard

There is a difference between an anomaly — or a rare event or incident within a system or institution that will almost never happen again — and what is normal or tends to be the established practice within that very organization. Based on the responses to the latest revelation about the practices of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, this is something that the school reform movement must learn, especially if it is to remain a moral movement that builds brighter futures for all children.

As some of you already know, the charter school operator once again went on the defensive last week after the New York Times released a video showing Charlotte Dial berating one of her first-grade students for failing to properly show how she answered a math problem. After the six-year-old, confused by the question, began to count, Dial snatched a paper the young girl had did the work on, ripped in half, then screamed at the girl and told her to go to a chair and sit. Dial then ranted that “there’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”

Was there anything that the young girl did that merited Dial’s response? Not according to the video. She didn’t misbehave. In fact, she said nothing. As Dial screamed at her and engaged in her own tolerated brand of misbehavior, the child meekly walked over to the chair and sat. Put simply, Dial’s behavior was educational malpractice, abusive, intolerable, and just plain unacceptable.

But as bad as Dial’s behavior was, Success’ response was even worse. After New York Times reporter Kate Taylor, who obtained the video from a former teacher’s aide, brought it to the attention of the operator, it didn’t dismiss her or even put her on a long-term suspension. Instead, Success Academy took her off the job for a week, then put her back into the classroom. After the Times ran the story this past Thursday, Moskowitz and her crisis management flunkies hastily put together a press conference in which they accused Taylor and the newspaper of teacher-bashing. [Success also put together a hashtag on Twitter, #StopBashingTeachers, that was quickly hijacked by traditionalists who have long considered Success a bete noire.]

As far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial’s misbehavior was just another “anomaly” that didn’t represent how Success conducts its business. If anything, as far as Moskowitz was concerned, Dial was still a “model teacher” deserving of being considered an example of high-quality instruction for her colleagues. Save for a few reformers, most-notably Valentina Korkes of the otherwise reliably pro-Moskowitz Education Post, most reformers lined up behind Moskowitz’ party line. This included former CNN anchor-turned-reform advocate Campbell Brown, who sits on Success Academy’s board and runs reform-oriented media outlet 74. Despite the piece quoting one parent supportive of Dial and Success Academy, Brown accused Taylor and the Times of failing to balance the piece with even more quotes from supporters. [The Times editor overseeing Taylor’s coverage, Amy Virshup, took apart Brown’s logic.]

One would believe that Dial’s misbehavior was an anomaly — until you review the long and well-reported record of Success Academy’s bad practices.

As Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a former teacher and school leader-turned-education technologist, confirmed to the Times, ripping up student papers and embarrassing them has always been a common practice within the operator’s schools. Sliwerski should know. After all, she was one of Success’ golden children. Her work as a teacher and school leader at one of Success’ Harlem schools was profiled four years ago by Steve Brill in Class Struggle, his considerable tome on the battles over transforming American public education, as well as a companion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Sliwerski notes that ripping student papers was taught to teachers by the professional development Success runs with Touro College, while making children cry was considered within a key to having them learn. [Your editor moderated a panel featuring Sliwerski last year at SXSWEdu.]

Another sign that Dial’s action was no anomaly lies in the Times revelation last November that Success’ school in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s Brooklyn had kept a list of 16 kids who it deemed had “got to go”. Those students, by the way, were suspended multiple times by the school over the year. Nine of those children ultimately left the school. [Since the Times revelations, several families have filed suit against Success over the effort to push their children.] As she did last week amid the revelation of Dial’s misdeed, Moskowitz claimed that the “got to go” list was just an “anomaly”, even as the chain kept the principal who oversaw the effort, Candido Brown, on the job, albeit in a teaching role.

But as the families of 13 children who attended Success’ schools have detailed in a complaint filed last month with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, efforts to push out children weren’t limited to the operator’s Fort Greene locale. The parent of A, for example, noted that the principal of Success’ Harlem 4 “urged her” to pull her now-12-year-old son out of the school. Another parent, whose six-year-old attended the Harlem 3 school, was asked numerous times to withdraw the kid from the school (and wasn’t even given a re-enrollment notice). And as documented four years ago by now-former New York Times columnist Michael Winerip, Success seems to thrive on pushing out struggling and supposedly troublesome children.

Then there is Success Academy’s long-documented overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. A year ago, the New York City branch of education news chain Chalkbeat reported that Moskowitz’s charters suspended 17 percent of its students in 2011-2012, the sixth-highest among the 12 charter operators surveyed in the outlet’s analysis of data supplied to the Big Apple’s traditional district; the 27 percent suspension rate for the outfit’s Harlem 1 school is higher than all but 13 charters surveyed. As former PBS NewsHour correspondent John Merrow noted in his controversial report on the operator last October, one Success Academy school (with 203 children enrolled) meted out 44 suspensions to just 11 kindergartners and first-graders; essentially each child was suspended at least four times during the school year.

Particularly damning is the case of a kindergartner at Success’ Crown Heights school who had issues using the bathroom. Her family is among the 13 who filed last month’s civil rights complaint against the operator. Because of her issues and Success’ unwillingness to provide the child with an aide as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the young girls was often marked as being a discipline case for not following school rules. That it would be hard to follow school rules when you have a disability didn’t seem to occur to Success’ teachers and school leaders.

As saddening as these incidents are, they aren’t shocking. Why? Because Success has long-embraced overusing harsh discipline as a component of instruction and building its school culture. The operator’s own school discipline code gives teachers and school leaders wide leeway to suspend and expel children. Even worse, it is so arbitrary that a child can be suspended for any reason. This includes failing to sit in the “Ready to Succeed” position, “Being off-task”, or forgetting to bring a pencil to school. Despite the overwhelming evidence that overuse of harsh school discipline does little to improve student achievement, Moskowitz, with help of allies within the school reform movement such as Michael Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has strongly defended these practices and implicitly argue that Success cannot improve student achievement without them.

The most-damning evidence that Dial’s misbehavior is no anomaly became clear last October when Moskowitz released the school discipline record of one of the operators former students, the son of Fatima Geidi, a parent interviewed by Merrow for his report on Success, as part of the operator’s crisis management campaign against the piece. By doing this, Moskowitz likely violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the federal law that governs the privacy of student records, which bars Success from releasing discipline records without the permission of families. Even worse, by citing the discipline record of Geidi’s son, Moskowitz betrayed the school reform movement’s mission of nurturing and protecting the lives and futures of children. She used the life of a child who may be in need of real help as ammunition against a negative media report.

But again, this is nothing new. Over the past five months, Moskowitz has shown that she will always choose to preserve the institution she founded over being a champion for children and their families. In that time, she has shown that she is more-willing to protect the teachers and school leaders that work for Success than be defenders of the young lives who sit in its classrooms. And over and over again, like a traditionalist superintendent in a failing district, Moskowitz has demonstrated that she will explain away any incident as an “anomaly” instead of acknowledging that there may be some deep-seated issues within the institution and its model of educational practice.

At a certain point, either Moskowitz or Success Academy’s star-studded board, must acknowledge that when the institution has several incidents of educational malpractice, they are no longer anomalies. They represent the norm for the institution itself. Success Academy no longer merits a defense, especially from school reformers who, like Born-Again Christians, know better and should no longer tolerate its malpractice.

Featured photo courtesy of Chalkbeat New York.

February 9, 2016 standard

On this episode of On the Road, RiShawn Biddle joins Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, Parent Power activist Milagros Barsallo of RISE Colorado, Zeke Berzoff-Cohen of Baltimore student activist group Intersection, and Jonathan Mansoori of Leadership for Educational Equity in a discussion at Teach for America’s 25th annual summit on how reformers can use movement organizing to transform the schools and communities in which our children live.

Listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the On the Road podcast series and the overall Dropout Nation Podcast series. You can also embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.

January 26, 2016 standard

The question mark is important. Genocide is a loaded term and the act of genocide can take many forms: the slow genocide of American Indians accomplished by thousands of local actions as well as by state power and disease; the comparatively recent genocide in Rwanda inflicted by neighbors with machetes; the classic genocide of the Shoah or Holocaust. The mass killings of young Black men in Chicago, largely accomplished by gunfire from other young Black men, would at first appear to be simply a matter for the criminal justice system of the state. On closer examination it can be seen as a matter of criminal activity by the state.

There were 480 homicides out of 2,986 recorded shooting victims in Chicago in 2015, as counted by the Chicago Tribune. Nearly all these victims were young men; the overwhelming majority were between the ages of 18 and 30. They shoot one another in the streets of the city, usually in the afternoon. Very few shooting victims are females, relatively few are men over 50. Fewer still are White.

The neighborhood ranking first among Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crimes in 2015 was West Garfield Park. West Garfield Park has a per capita income of $10,951, much less than half of the city average of $27,148. Forty percent of the neighborhood’s households have incomes below the poverty level, more than double the city average. The rate of arrests for prostitution, another poverty indicator, is among the highest in the city. A quarter of the working age population is unemployed, 26 percent have no high school diploma. West Garfield Park is 96 percent Black.

If, for the sake of argument, we attribute each recorded violent crime in West Garfield Park to a different male between the ages of 18 and 64, we can estimate that about 14 percent of that group committed a violent crime in 2015. Of course, some of them committed more than one violent crime, and, on the other hand, few over the age of 45 did so. Fourteen percent will do as an indicator of the prevalence of young men committing violent crimes in West Garfield Park.

North Lawndale, the runner up in the rate of violent crime in Chicago, has similar socio-economic statistics. On the other hand, the neighborhoods with the lowest rates of violent crime have the opposite socio-economic data: per capita incomes many times the city average, poverty levels far below the city average, virtually no unemployment, no arrests for prostitution, few adults lacking high school diplomas and, generally, majority White, non-Hispanic, populations. (Just four percent of Lincoln Park adults, for example, lack a high school diploma, hardly any live in crowded housing, per capita income is between two and three times the city average and more than six times the average of West Garfield Park.)

Why do young Black men in West Garfield Park and similar Chicago neighborhoods shoot one another?

A recent Centers for Disease Control study found that two-thirds of those committing a firearm crime had themselves been victims of violence requiring an emergency room visit. For such young men, who were also unemployed and who, when in school, had qualified for the National Lunch Program, had a record of school discipline actions and had failed to graduate from high school, the percentage committing a firearm crime rose to 90 percent. Those study results, although useful, are merely descriptive. They do not tell us why young Black men are becoming the instruments of their own genocide. For this we can turn, for example, to the classic study, The Cost of Inequality by Judith and Peter Blau, who found that inequalities promote criminal violence.

Chicago has among the highest rates of income and wealth inequality in America. White median household income is twice that of Black median household income. Nearly half, 45 percent, of Black residents of the city have incomes below the poverty level; just 13 percent of the White residents live in poverty. Two-thirds of Black families in Chicago have incomes so low that their children qualify for the National Lunch Program. There is little economic mobility in Chicago neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. Few Black children in Chicago, among those who live to adulthood, grow up to have incomes equal to that of their parents and most will have lower incomes than those of their parents. In addition, 93 percent of Chicago’s Black households have no net wealth, apart from equity in their own homes: they could not pay an unexpected medical bill—or bail—of a few hundred dollars without borrowing.

This leads to the question: Why are race-based inequalities so stark in Chicago and similar American cities? What are the causes of the vast racial inequities in the city? One is easily identified: The operations of the schools.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports concerning the crucial eighth grade level of basic skills achievement show that while the district’s schools have brought half (52 percent) of its male White, non-Hispanic, students to grade-level Proficiency in reading, they have only done so with eight percent of their male Black students. Nearly half of Chicago’s male Black students (3,700) do not graduate from high school. As in many other districts, the reforms of the last decade that improved literacy in the early grades haven’t been helpful in making kids college- and career-ready by high school.

A recent U.S. Department of Education study has found that even if they are given a high school diploma by their school, students who could not read at grade level in eighth grade cannot expect to succeed in college. Of the approximately 3,900 male Black high school graduates, therefore, only three or four hundred can be expected to go on to middle class careers. In other words, from the point of view of the male descendants of enslaved Africans, the Chicago school district fails in a key part of its mission 90 percent of the time.

If an institution fails more often than not to achieve its professed mission, it is reasonable to conclude that its actual mission is to achieve that result.

Compounding this failure, the Chicago school district added another risk factor by suspending or expelling approximately 13,000 male Black students in 2011-2012, the most recent date for which nationally certified statistics are available.

There were 2,986 recorded shooting victims in Chicago in 2015, nearly all of whom were Black males. 3,700 male Black students did not graduate from high school. 13,000 male Black students were suspended or expelled. These are the groups who, according to the CDC, are most likely to become themselves perpetrators of fire-arm crimes. And the shooters, themselves, are of course also victims.

The Chicago public schools do not educate male Black students for success in life. They prepare them for lives of violence. Generally, those lives are short.

What can be done to improve those Chicago schools “serving” Black children so that they learn to read and do math, graduate on-time and college and career ready?

The reform package is well-known: It starts with high quality early childhood education from age two and includes overhauling how we recruit and train teachers along with providing high-quality educational opportunities. Just within the district itself, this could mean a doubling of the instructional budget for schools in neighborhoods like West Garfield Park. Given that nearly half the funding available to the district presently might be said to have been wasted in the process of not educating Black children, a targeted doubling of support for the education of Chicago’s most vulnerable children might even be considered cost effective.

Beyond that, as more male Black students learn to read, are not chronically truant, are not suspended and expelled, do graduate from high school prepared for college and careers, fewer will go out into the streets in the late afternoon and shoot other young Black men. And how much would that be worth?

January 11, 2016 standard

It goes without saying that education and economics go hand in hand. For most parents, regardless of race or class, part of the American Dream is for our children to attend safe, family friendly, high-quality schools with great principals, teachers and support staff. As parents, we imagine that special day when our children graduate high school, attend a traditional college or trade school, and then obtain livable wage employment, hopefully with family friendly benefits.

The harsh reality, however, is that many parents, especially from Black and poor communities, must send their children to public schools that do not meet their academic and life needs. In addition, parents are learning that the many teachers who work tirelessly to put the needs of children first, don’t have much power within their own unions to effectively support students. Why? Because I learned, through the suit of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that many teachers are beholden to a narrow electorate of union politicians that shape education policy to favor the political agendas of union leadership, rather than the students in greatest need. All of this, at the expense of the taxpayer, regardless of results.

So, what do parents need to know about Friedrichs Plenty. This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by Mrs. Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California teachers who are not members of the teacher’s union, but are required to pay agency fees to the union, say that they do not benefit from the collective bargaining agreement and that collective bargaining is political because it includes workplace rules and requirements that prevent laws from being passed that would improve under-performing and under-served schools.

Friedrichs and many of her fellow teachers share the dreams we parents have for our children. This includes safe, high-quality schools that equitably educate all children, regardless of their zip-code and they encourage their colleagues to deliver the best possible teaching to all children, regardless of their family backgrounds. The reality is that families of color like mine are not alone in our fight for fair and just education.

For me, the suit brought by Friedrichs and her nine other colleagues brings awareness of the consequences of forced compulsory dues laws. While compulsory laws may have had good intentions decades ago, laws that force parents and teachers to do what is against their interests and those of children are wrong. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force parents to send their kids to unsafe and low performing schools. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force teachers to pay for other people’s political campaigns and agendas. Neither parents nor teachers should be forced to do what is morally wrong.

How can it be legal to force someone, in this case a teacher, to pay for an organization’s political agenda? How can forced compulsory dues laws be consistent with the First Amendment guarantees of free speech? Do the Constitutional rights of the individual matter? For both teachers and families, our ability to choose, either to support or not support political action, or to choose schools for our kids, is a Constitutional matter upon which no one should encroach.

But Friedrichs isn’t just about choice. It is also about justice, especially for our children. As parents, we are tirelessly fighting for equitable changes that would improve schools in disenfranchised and marginalized communities are prevented by union collective bargaining agreements. Each day, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and their affiliates use dollars forced out of the pockets of teachers to advance policies, laws, and collective bargaining agreements that stand against justice for our children and even against the interests of teachers they proclaim to represent.

If NEA and AFT were no longer able to force every teacher—even teachers who disagree with those policies—to fund their advocacy, we would have a better chance at adopting reforms that are fair to effective teachers and meet the needs of students. We could get rid of the policies and practices advanced by National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates that prevent justice for students most in need of meaningful review of teacher performance, demand assignment and retention of teachers based on seniority rather than effectiveness and need, and insist that teachers be compensated without regard to what, where, or how well they teach. We could instead fight for policies that bring justice to our children.

As a Black parent, living in the age of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and the many unarmed Black people that needlessly lost their lives in 2015, what I want and need more than anything is for the Constitution to matter for all citizens. Children and families need our government to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the equal protection of the laws and due process for all.

So you can imagine that I empathize with Friedrichs and her colleagues. She is compelled to send her dues to an education bureaucracy with which she did not agree, the same way parents like me are compelled by law to send our own children to schools that we do not trust. Her compulsory dues, like my children’s compulsory attendance, are part of a system designed to protect the economic interests of a white professional class at the expense of the freedom and equality for black, Hispanic, and Native American students.

Parents want the freedom to demand high quality educational opportunities for our children, and teachers like Friedrichs agree with us. But she is forced by these laws to fund anti-parent choice, anti-accountability lobbying that is fundamentally unjust. And this is wrong.

The research is clear: a quality education is the foundation needed to help ensure families and communities obtain careers that will lead to fulfilling, equitable lives. Parents like me are grateful for teachers like Friedrichs. Their fight is not only constitutionally just, it is also necessary for our public education bureaucracy to work the way it should, on behalf of children.

January 8, 2016 standard

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.