The governor of school deform

April 15, 2015

New York City public school teacher Peter Lamphere documents Andrew Cuomo's attack on teachers' unions--and points a way forward in the fight for public education.

ON JANUARY 21, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared war on public education. His State of the State address contained a laundry list of corporate attacks on education disguised as "reform."

Now it appears that that he has succeeded in pushing through drastic changes to education law in New York, despite a popular groundswell against him and union mobilization against his plans.

Why was organized labor defeated at a time when two out of three voters trust unions to fix education more than the governor? Advocates for public education need to take stock and analyze the balance sheet of this round of the struggle in order to prepare for what comes next.

Following up on his campaign promise "to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies," Cuomo's State of the State was straight out of the playbook of the hedge-fund billionaires who back charter schools and gave close to $1 million to Cuomo's reelection campaign.

Cuomo demanded that the state weaken teachers' tenure rights, make half of teacher evaluation ratings based on state test scores, allow private organizations to take over failing schools, give tax credits for parochial school tuition, and require merit pay for teachers based on performance. Furthermore, he conditioned any substantial increase in the state education budget on acceptance of the proposals.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Public education advocates and teachers' unions across the state, recognizing a direct attack on their schools, gave battle right back. In a January 31 e-mail to the union's membership in New York City public schools, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew declared that it was "time to fight," and outlined a list of actions, including local borough forums, school-based protests, and social-media and call-in campaigns to politicians to begin pushing back against the governor.

The union got behind a grassroots coalition that led a large rally in Manhattan as Cuomo's deadline for passing the budget approached. Clearly appreciating the seriousness of the threat, the union leadership put more effort behind mobilization than activists remember in years. The union's focus was to pressure the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, which, along with Cuomo and the Republican-controlled Senate, had to approve the budget.

Initially, the UFT argued that its approach had worked. Apparently convinced by the rosy portrait painted by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the framework agreement struck with the governor, Mulgrew triumphantly declared that "the governor's draconian agenda has, in large part, been turned back."

Within 24 hours, however, public education advocates were calling on Assembly Democrats to reject the budget deal, as it became clear that the governor had gotten almost everything he wanted.

The Democrats in the Assembly had voted overwhelmingly for the budget "with heavy hearts," despite disagreeing with many of its provisions. But while some legislators publicly said they were holding their noses as they cast their votes, others seemed gleeful--like Bronx state Rep. Carmen Arroyo, who declared that incompetent teachers had "better get a job at McDonald's." A few days later, as details of the actual budget surfaced, union leaders had to strike a different tone, admitting in an April 1 e-mail that "we took hits in this first battle."

THE EDUCATION bill attached to the budget contains more than just a few setbacks for unions in public education. In many ways, these are historic defeats that will be difficult to recover from.

Tenure: The governor won an increase in the probationary period for new teachers from three years to four before they achieve due-process job protections. This is the first such extension in the century-long history of these rights, instituted to protect teachers from anti-pacifist witch hunts during the First World War.

Tenure will also be tied to test scores through the new evaluation system. In a profession that struggles to keep more than half of first-time teachers for more than five years, this will undoubtedly increase the turnover that weakens public schools. Ironically, the UFT leadership has tried to downplay the significance of this change by pointing out that almost half of new city teachers are already having their probationary periods extended--a recent trend the leadership accepted without complaint.

Testing: The governor unequivocally won his demand that standardized test scores account for half of a teacher's performance evaluation. Despite obfuscations suggesting that the state education department will determine some details, teachers will be evaluated on a testing component and an observation component, which play an equally weighted role in determining the teacher's final rating.

Furthermore, qualitative artifacts like teacher lesson plans and student portfolios are expressly excluded from being used in evaluations.

School Budget: In a big win for the governor, increases in school budgets are conditioned on districts implementing the evaluation proposals outlined in the law.

Cuomo was forced to give significantly more money to public schools than he had initially asserted he would--a $1.6 billion increase in state aid instead of the paltry $1.1 billion he had initially proposed.

However, both of these amounts pale in comparison to the $6 billion owed to school districts under the court-ordered Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, which declared that state was systematically and illegally underfunding its urban schools. Until this court order is actually enforced, educators' dreams of real reforms like lowering class sizes and providing wraparound services will be unrealizable.

Collective Bargaining: The reform act contains dangerous threats to local collective bargaining that allow a district-appointed "receiver" organization to take over schools labeled as failing and replace up to half of their staff, superseding contractual provisions and regulations. These "receivers"--potentially private organizations--will have the right to renegotiate union contracts and turn schools directly into charters. Although Cuomo wanted the state to intervene directly instead of local districts, this provision advances a number of goals that school privatizers in New York have advocated for years.

IN MANY ways, the school "reform" agenda had been on its heels in New York state for the past couple of years. The election of charter school critic Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City and the large and growing number of families opting out of state tests seemed to indicate that the tide was turning. Tenure remains a popular and publicly supported idea in the state.

So how did the "Empire Strike Back"?

The pro-public education movement engaged in a real and sustained grassroots mobilization through February and March. A parent-initiated call, picked up and supported by the UFT, to have teachers and families hold their hands around school buildings to symbolically protect them, produced hundreds of local actions around New York City.

A bottom-up coalition emerged to plan a large citywide demonstration at the governor's office. For the first time in years, the union organized local borough forums to bring out members.

But in the end, these initiatives weren't able to mobilize large numbers of educators. As James Eterno, a longtime activist and former UFT chapter leader in Queens, put it, "I think the union is so weak and essentially useless that leadership calls for any actions are ignored...[and the m]embership sees UFT as irrelevant for the most part."

While some schools were able to able to put together impressive actions, turnout at the rally was in the thousands--a statement of weakness rather than strength for a union of more than 100,000 members. The union's organizational muscle has atrophied, and thanks to the recent defeat at the hands of Cuomo, this has been exposed for all members to see.

At the heart of the union's inability to beat back Cuomo's agenda of corporate education reform is a fundamental strategic weakness: a reliance on a lobbying strategy that has failed again and again.

While the teachers' unions remain the largest single giver of campaign contributions in Albany, their clout has continually decreased. It was not that Sheldon Silver, the former Assembly Speaker and UFT ally, was indicted on federal corruption challenges, but rather that the hedge-fund charter backers had much more cash to spread around.

Furthermore, the unions remain slavishly dependent on Democratic politicians who continually betray them. Remarkably, the Democrats have retained their hold on campaign contributions of unions, even as they have shifted rightward and embraced neoliberalism and austerity. This shift has reached its apex with Cuomo, yet the teachers' union leadership opposed any alternative candidate to the governor in last year's election, from the mild-mannered liberal Democrat Zephyr Teachout who challenged Cuomo in the party primary, to the radical Green Party ticket of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones, who is himself a former New York City teacher.

This bankrupt tactic has its roots in the philosophy of UFT founder Albert Shanker, who in 1972 argued against parent-led boycotts in defense of teachers and public schools, declaring, "The basic process must be solved by a political process--by electing a responsive legislature."

Because of its reliance on the goodwill of progressive (or increasingly not-so-progressive) Democrats, the union has let its once-strong activist structures deteriorate, rarely mobilizing for contract battles or other fights.

Organizing at the school level is increasingly difficult and has all but disappeared at many sites. And a lack of internal democracy--changing the UFT leadership is virtually impossible, given election rules that privilege the votes of retirees--decreases the ability of rank and filers to get involved.

THIS DOESN'T mean that hope is lost for the movement for public education in New York State. In some respects, the prospects for a movement in defense of public education have never been better.

Most excitingly, there is a growing movement of parents opting their children out of the Common Core-aligned state standardized tests. Activists expect opt-out numbers to dramatically increase beyond the 60,000 students who sat out the exams last year. While the movement has been centered in whiter, suburban districts, it is growing in strength in majority Black and Latino school districts like New York City.

As Jia Lee, a chapter leader and anti-testing advocate, explained:

While the high-stakes standardized testing refusal movement [began] within progressive education and predominantly affluent white communities, it provided the leverage for building connections across diverse school districts...and brought to light the tool being used...[to] test and punish public schools in predominantly poor, Black and Brown communities.

Education officials like New York state schools chief Merryl Tisch are clearly terrified about the movement. Tisch went so far as to threaten that the state would have to implement the national Common Core tests--the state has developed its own versions--if too many students opted out. She even had the audacity to claim that student stress over testing was caused by "overheated rhetoric" about testing from anti-testing advocates.

Local principals have followed her lead in spreading misinformation, some making bogus threats that schools might lose federal funding if less than 95 percent of students take the test (a penalty acknowledged as nonexistent by state officials).

On the contrary, if anything can reduce student stress over testing, it's the opt-out movement, which denies the system the data needed to evaluate teachers. If parents begin to understand that the best way to protect their children from testing mania is to protect their children's teachers from a punitive evaluation system by refusing to participate, the movement has the potential to increase in power exponentially, by building strong alliances between parents, students and educators.

UFT activists have been pushing their union to publicly advocate for opt-out, but UFT President Mulgrew has inexplicably demurred, despite statewide union president Karen Magee and AFT President Randi Weingarten jumping on the opt-out bandwagon.

IN THE end, only stronger networks of educator activists will have the power to shift the strategic direction of the union movement away from a reliance on lobbying unsympathetic politicians to an approach based on building power within schools and communities.

There is a caucus of teachers within the UFT, the Movement of Rank and File Educators, which has opposed the politics of the union leadership and organized around the slogan that "our working conditions are our students' learning conditions."

But for MORE to have stronger traction in shaping future challenges to the inevitable neoliberal attacks, it needs to connect to more activists in a greater number of schools and reinforce its network of local organizing hubs. MORE members played a key role in the recent movement against Cuomo's budget and organized many of the local and citywide actions.

Now they must consolidate their connection with those who became involved in the struggle to help grow their organization. MORE also needs to remain true to its slogan that it is the "social justice caucus of the UFT" by making sure that issues of racial justice connecting Black and Latino families with New York City teachers remain an important focus of its work. Supporting efforts to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline is a good example of these kind of alliance-building efforts.

Cuomo's nearly complete defeat of the teachers' unions starkly illustrates the crossroads facing the public-sector union movement as a whole. As one of the last bastions of union power, the viability of unions to mobilize in order to shape public policy is at stake. One chapter leader of a Brooklyn elementary school went so far to ask in an e-mail discussion, "If, in the face of an attack as existential as this, there isn't even a discussion of a strike, in what way can we credibly be considered a labor union?"

While public-sector strikes are illegal in New York, they have been effectively used by unions (including by the UFT when it was founded in the early 1960s) to win decent contracts and defend against attacks by the political class. The UFT is a very long way from being able to mobilize an effective strike--patient organizing to prepare members and public-school parents would be needed.

Parents are beginning to deny the testing machine the data that fuels it by opting their children out. In similar fashion, educators can make the system grind to a halt by withdrawing their services. Only by rediscovering the labor movement's activist traditions can we turn back the well-funded and ruthless hedge-fund juggernaut at the core of the education "deform" movement.

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