Yesterday, Dropout Nation analyzed how the National Education Association’s Connecticut affiliate was taking a defensive move against school reformers with its two-week commercial buy touting its legislative agenda — and how it reflected the next trend for teachers’ unions in their effort to preserve the privileges from which they derive their declining influence. Today, the American Federation of Teachers’ notoriously bellicose New York City local (whose boss, Michael Mulgrew, is angling to one day succeed predecessor — and current national president — Randi Weingarten) rolled out its own ad buy. Targeting the school reform record of Big Apple Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is now looking to burnish his success in overhauling what was once the toxic waste dump of American public education with a push for a series of new initiatives such as $20,000 bonuses for teachers rated highly-effective on evaluations, the AFT is proclaiming that the mayor still “doesn’t get” that his efforts aren’t appreciated by the union. The commercials compliment a series of full-page ads being placed by the union in the Daily News that are supposed to be open letters rallying against the mayor’s efforts, including his push to use value-added analysis of student test score data in teacher evaluations.
This campaign isn’t just aimed at Bloomberg and attempting to appeal to Big Apple residents. After all, this will be an election year in the Empire State with Democrats seeking to regain control of the senate from Republicans. More importantly, the AFT is in the midst of a court battle (and related settlement talks) with the New York State Education Department and the state Board of Regents over its effort to allow states to allow for Value-Added analysis of state student test data to account for 40 percent of a teacher’s rating under the new teacher evaluation system. Meanwhile Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who successfully nudged education officials to allow for state test data to play a bigger role in evaluations, is continuing his teacher quality reform efforts (and also keep the $700 million in federal dollars the state received through the Race to the Top initiative). So the AFT’s Big Apple and Empire State affiliates find themselves in a pitched battle to preserve their influence. The AFT local’s ad campaign can be seen as another effort to beat back the efforts of the state’s reform-minded politicians and remind both Democrats and Republicans in Albany that they are dependent on teachers’ union dollars.
This play is also likely an attempt to shape the big election facing the Big Apple next year: Who will succeed Bloomberg as mayor, and thus, boss of the nation’s largest — and most reform-minded — school system. With the reformers such as state Board of Regents Chairman Meryl Tisch and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn likely to run for the job — and AFT allies such as city Comptroller John Liu either struggling with political scandals or lack of strong political backers — the AFT must also work hard to reshape the political game on the ground in order to stave off what would likely be another decade of strong reform efforts. Given that the AFT’s string of recent public relations disasters in New York City — including the failed lawsuit it filed along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to shut down expansion of charter schools — Mulgrew has to garner some sort of victory. Especially if he wants to succeed the (until-recently) more politically-masterful Weingarten.
Certainly the AFT’s New York City local has the cash horde to pull out an even bigger public relations blitz. After all, the local spent $26 million in 2010-2011 on so-called representational activities, political lobbying, and contributions to organization’s such as the NAACP’s New York branch, according to its filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. One can also expect the state affiliate and perhaps, even the national union, to join in. After all, for Weingarten, a victory in her home state and in the Big Apple would also do wonders for the union’s national efforts. Either way, the AFT local’s ad buy just proves again that school reformers will have to go big in the coming battles to come.