Bloomberg and NYC's Education Wars
— Kit Adam Wainer
THE NEW YORK City school system averted catastrophe on June 24, 2011 when mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew reached an accord to prevent more than 4000 teacher layoffs. Under the deal, the teachers’ union agreed to suspend sabbaticals for one year and to reorganize the way in which teachers without full programs are assigned.
The deal marked a significant setback for the Mayor, who had hoped to use the city and state fiscal crises to more dramatically restructure the school workforce. It also highlighted the weakness of the teachers union, which had to agree to concessions in order to provide Bloomberg with a face-saving retreat from a layoff threat he didn’t want to carry out in the first place.
Over the past two school years Mayor Bloomberg has rolled out pieces of his longer-term strategy to transform labor relations in the New York City public school system. Mike Bloomberg is not Scott Walker, however — unlike the Wisconsin governor, Bloomberg does not advocate a sudden assault designed to eliminate public sector unions. Rather, he hopes to reduce labor costs and collective bargaining gradually; and when possible he plans to do so with union cooperation.
In a New York Times column Bloomberg criticized Walker for his approach toward labor. “Rather than declare war on unions, we should demand a new deal with them — one that reflects today’s economic realities and workplace conditions, not those of a century ago,”(1) the Mayor wrote. In subsequent radio interviews Bloomberg explained that given the difficult budgetary realities, public sector unions have an important role to play in helping to reduce labor costs.
Opening Charters, Closing Schools
In May 2010 the Mayor won a significant victory when the state legislature raised the limit on the number of charter schools from 200 to 460 schools.(2)
Most charter schools are public but their management is private. Businesses and non-profits can apply for charters. The UFT even runs two on its own.
Charter school teachers often have wage and benefit packages comparable to those of teachers in traditional schools. However, charter schools with fewer than 50 teachers are not automatically members of the UFT bargaining unit or covered under the union contract. Charter school teachers may vote to join the UFT, and the union has successfully organized a handful of them, but the majority of charter school teachers remain non-union.
Although charter schools make up less than 10% of New York City public schools,(3) they are an important foot in the door for those who want to increasingly privatize education and weaken the teachers’ union.
Charter school teachers represent a small but growing pool of non-unionized employees. Their workdays tend to be significantly longer and there is some evidence that the turnover rate is higher than in traditional public schools. And under state law, charter school teachers — unionized or not — cannot receive tenure.
In February 2010 the Mayor announced that he wanted to phase out and ultimately close more than 20 “under-performing” schools. The criteria for closing schools was murky, however, since some of the schools on the Mayor’s list had shown improvement according to the New York City Department of Education’s evaluations.
Bloomberg’s goal seemed to be to gradually remove the students and staff from these designated schools and hand the valuable New York City real estate over to private charter companies.
The teachers placed in “excess” because their schools are closing would join the growing “Absent Teacher Reserve” pool — a group of more than 1000 teachers who remain on payroll but no longer have regular teaching assignments. Primarily they are used as substitutes or to fill temporary vacancies. The students remaining in the phasing-out schools would finish their time in schools whose resources are steadily reduced.
The UFT teamed up with the NAACP and sued the NYC Department of Education to block the school closings. In March 2010 Judge Joan Lobis ruled that the closings had violated state requirements for public comment and environmental impact studies and nullified them. The ruling only achieved a delay, however. The city had publicly declared its intent to close those schools and everyone knew that Bloomberg would try again the following year.
Many parents did not want to send their children to a school the city had classified as “underperforming.” Many teachers in these schools had little choice but to help recruit new students in order to prevent a drop in enrollment and the subsequent elimination of their jobs.
What made it worse was that in the summer of 2010, the UFT agreed to a deal in which the city would “co-locate” charter schools within several of the schools the Mayor had tried unsuccessfully to close. The deal highlighted the weakness of the union’s strategy for resisting Bloomberg’s attack. Although the UFT had prevailed in court, it had won only a one-year reprieve. The union had failed to mobilize the members or the affected communities to save and properly support public schools.
A rally of 2000 union and community members outside the February 2010 meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy(4) did not lead to further citywide mobilizations. The smaller rallies outside closing schools were isolated and failed to build a sense of solidarity beyond the affected schools.
As expected, in the spring of 2011 mayor Bloomberg announced again that he wanted to close 22 schools, several of which were schools he had tried to close the previous year. Unfortunately, there were even fewer protests against closings in 2011 than there had been the previous year.
In May 2011 the UFT and NAACP filed suit once again. This time they charged that charter schools co-located within public school buildings are receiving greater funding and are better supplied than the traditional schools in the same buildings. Thus the state violated the terms of the 2010 law, which originally lifted the charter school cap.
But on July 21, 2011 the courts denied the UFT/NAACP request for an injunction against school closings and charter co-locations. Justice Paul G. Feinman ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show a likelihood of success in their lawsuit.
Targeting New Teachers
The Mayor is fighting his slow-motion war on several fronts simultaneously, In spring 2011 newer teachers received a dramatic shock when the majority of those who had applied for tenure learned they would not receive it.
Teachers complete three years of probation before they are eligible for tenure and each school district, of which New York City is one, has wide latitude to determine the criteria. Prior to 2010 teachers generally received tenure after completing three years of “satisfactory” service.(5)
By 2011 the Department of Education had revised its tenure process to require teachers to submit portfolios in order to complete probation. Teachers are now judged by several factors, including improvements in student test scores. The precise criteria are somewhat murky, making the entire process especially frustrating.
This June, school principals recommended 60% of teacher applicants for tenure. Yet superintendents, who have the final say, approved tenure in only 40% of cases. The majority of those who were denied tenure had their probationary periods extended a year. A small number were “discontinued.”
Some teachers told the UFT that their probation had been extended because of student test scores. Others said that superintendents ruled that there was insufficient evidence of satisfactory teaching because principals had failed to observe the teacher.
In July, UFT president Michael Mulgrew formally requested an accounting from the Department of Education of the various reasons for denial of tenure. However, the union has not been mobilizing members to defend the rights of newer teachers.
Most likely, the UFT is nervous about appearing to support lower standards for tenure. But the new policy represents an assault on new teachers and teacher unionism in general. Probationary teachers, in effect, have few union rights.(6) The UFT could rally for a clear and transparent tenure policy, backed by a meaningful appeal process. But it has not yet done so.
The big prize mayor Bloomberg sought was to change the state law about how layoffs are conducted. Currently, teachers are laid off in inverse seniority according to their license (e.g. a junior high school English teacher with five years seniority is laid off before a junior high school English teacher with eight years seniority).
Mayor Bloomberg had threatened thousands of teacher layoffs in June 2010. He withdrew the threat at the end of the school year, stating that he would make up the cost savings by freezing public employee salaries for two years — something he has no power to do outside of collective bargaining.
With state and fiscal crises looming again in the spring of 2011 the Mayor began to threaten to lay off 4500 teachers. The threat was only partially based on economic necessity. Bloomberg hopes to pressure the legislature to change state law so that principals will have more say as to who goes first under layoffs.
In March 2011 the Republican-controlled state Senate passed the Flanagan bill.(7) The bill would have created a complex rubric in which a teacher’s position on a layoff list would be determined by a combination of seniority, teacher evaluations, student test scores, whether or not the teacher had ever been accused of misconduct, and several other factors. Mayor Bloomberg praised the bill, which also stripped laid-off teachers of their right to return to positions as they became available.
The Mayor launched a multi-million dollar campaign to convince the public, the Democratic Assembly, and Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo to change the tenure law. Nonprofits were established promoting the slogan “keep the best teachers.” Their ideas were echoed on the editorial pages of the two main daily newspapers. Full-color glossy mailings went out to the general public as did TV and radio ads.
The Department of Education even went as far as to send letters out to schools and parents stating how many teachers would likely be laid off in their schools. The numbers DoE listed were fictitious — there was no budget yet and nobody knew exactly which or many teachers would be laid off — but they frightened many newer teachers and parents and created the sense of urgency the Mayor thought he needed.
However, Cuomo refused to support the Flanagan bill and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver did not bring it to a vote in his chamber. Cuomo insisted that the details of New York’s new teacher evaluation system, in which part of a teacher’s rating will depend on improvements in student test scores, have not yet been finalized. Until they are, he reasoned, we don’t yet know who the best teachers are so we can’t yet say who should be laid off first.
Having failed to get the state to change the tenure law mayor Bloomberg was suddenly in a weakened position. He did not want to carry out layoffs under the current legal framework. He has been working for years to expand the power of principals to hire whomever they wish. Layoffs would require eliminating some teachers, moving others from school to school, based on seniority rather than principals’ discretion. It would also wreak havoc on the school system. That is why there have been no teacher layoffs in New York City since 1975.
By late June pressure on the city council to finalize its budget and close its deficit loomed. The Mayor insisted upon layoffs, but now this was widely understood as a bargaining ploy. He may have hoped to entice the city unions to grant concessions in exchange for removing the layoff threat.
The June 24 deal averted layoffs. In the subsequent days the agreement became part of the city’s $66 billion budget resolution, which kept fire houses and some libraries open while leading to layoffs of other city workers and cuts in public services.
The monetary value of the UFT’s concessions pale in comparison to the cost of saving more than 4000 teaching jobs. From that point of view one could argue that the union won this round. However, since the Mayor really didn’t want layoffs under the current conditions, a stronger union might have been able to prevent layoffs without conceding anything.
More importantly, like the other major city unions, the UFT has thus far failed to mobilize the kind of activist campaign that can turn the momentum around. It is obvious that the Mayor will treat us to a repeat performance next year. There will likely be more school closings announced, more demonization of teachers and teacher unions, more efforts to increase the number of charter schools and privatize other aspects of school services.
Given the shape of the national economy, it is only logical to expect city and state fiscal crises again in 2012. Instead of relying on lawsuits and deals that reduce or postpone the pain without dealing with the larger the threat, the UFT needs to prepare a larger campaign of rank-and-file and community protests that defend both public education and teachers’ rights.
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- As of fall 2010 there were 125 charter schools out of roughly 1500 New York City public schools. The number may well be higher in the fall of 2011. http://www.nyccharterschools.org/learn/faq/103-how-many-charter-schools-are-in-new-york-city.”
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- The PEP is the body which officially votes to close schools. It is a rubber-stamp board, however, because the majority of its members are mayoral appointees. http://www.nycparentsunion.org/?p=162.
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- This has been cited by conservative commentators as evidence that teacher tenure was automatic, a sham process. The claim is false, however. Roughly one-third of teachers left the school system, either voluntarily or because they were fired, before ever reaching eligibility for tenure. Thus a significant weeding out had already occurred prior to the granting of tenure.
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- Technically, they are covered by the same UFT contract. However, probationary teachers are “at will” employees and can be fired for only the slightest of cause. So the right to grieve a contractual violation is meaningless for them.
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September/October 2011, ATC 154