A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Worth Reading and Thinking About

Two articles in today’s New York Times are worthy of note for what they say about the increasing absurdity of contemporary education, both here and abroad. The first is about the broad usage of webcams in Chinese schools that enable parents, or anyone else for that matter, to observe the goings on in classrooms and to comment on what they see. While some schools in the U.S. have experimented with this technology, no place has used it to the extent that the Chinese appear to have, although there will undoubtedly be increasing pressures to do so in our schools. That pressure is generated by the unexamined notion that because we have the technical means to do something, it is probably a good idea to do so. The notorious tiger parents, for whom their children’s success in school is of paramount importance, now have the means to scrutinize their children’s performance minute by minute, all the while keeping an eye on their teachers as well. In a surveillance society, the camera sees everything. No one seems to care that that the presence of the camera profoundly changes what it records.

The other article worth thinking about is one on homework. Some elementary schools in New York City that are experimenting with no homework policies are being hit with a backlash from some parents who are demanding that worksheets and such continue to be sent home. Some less well-off parents that they cannot afford to fill the time previously taken up with homework with enriching activities for their children. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to simply let their kids relax, go out in the street to play or watch a movie on TV. Fact – There is no evidence that doing homework in elementary school leads to greater achievement. Fact – There is ample evidence that play is an important factor in human development and that American children have less and less time for it. So, by all means, let’s do away with elementary homework, but let’s not do it in the name of some snooty concept of enrichment. The enrichment our children need is play time and down time.

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Otherness and Inequality

The election of Donald Trump has breathed new life into the movement to legitimize the spending of public dollars on parochial education. Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been touring the country preaching her private school voucher gospel, doing what she can to gin up the public’s lack of confidence in its public schools. While I believe in the right of parents to send their children to parochial school, I strongly reject that citizens like me have an obligation to pay for it. Furthermore, I believe leaders in our society have an obligation to promote the importance of public schools to the health of our society. Our public school should be places where children from varying religions, economic backgrounds, races and ethnicities come together each school day to cross the barriers of otherness fostered by parochialism.

Here on Long island we have an example of the danger of parochialism to the welfare of children in our public schools. In Lawrence, Long Island, the public schools have been effectively taken over by religious people who send their children to parochial schools. For some years now, a once prestigious public school system has been in decline as there has been a reciprocal decline in the support for public education by citizens whose children do not attend the public schools. The children of Lawrence while they live in the same town effectively live in two different worlds, focusing on their differences rather than on their shared nationality and humanity.

Again, while I don’t like it, I support the rights of the religious people of Lawrence to keep their kids apart. What I don’t support, and what I don’t believe truly religious people can condone, is providing lesser educational support to the minority children of the town. At best, that amounts to indifference to those who do not belong to one’s religious group. At worst, it’s plain old fashioned bigotry.

On May 17th, the public school teachers of Lawrence, working through their union, will be holding a demonstration to protest conditions in the under resourced Lawrence schools. These hard working public servants have been trying for years to bargain a new contract without any progress in that direction. Indifferent to the educational needs of the district’s students, the board of education is equally indifferent to the needs of their employees as well. The board of education is going down the same path as East Ramapo, a district which but for the cowardliness of our elected officials would be taken over and a mechanism developed to put the district into the hands of the people who actually have their children in the public schools.

I will be in Lawrence on the evening of May 17 to lend my support to the educators and children in the public schools. I urge my local readers to be there as well.

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Economic Inequality

I’ve been reading Ganesh Sitaraman’s recent book The Crisis of Our Middle Class Constitution which explores the history of economic inequality in the United States from the relative equality of the Founders’ generation through to our time. It’s a long history, the issue having been front and center in the debates leading to the formulation of our Constitution.

From time to time in our history, as economic inequality grew, movements arose to push back against the growing political power that always accompanies when the differences in wealth and income between classes grows too large. We are clearly in such a period now, a period of inequality made worse by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. For those who think our time are so different from the past, I offer for reflection the constitution of the Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization in the United States during the 1860 and 70s. If we modernize the English, the cry of the Knights is not too different from that of the vanishing middle class. Take a look at the preamble.

“The recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth, which, unless checked, will invariably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses, render it imperative, if we desire to enjoy the blessings of life, that a check should be placed upon its power and upon unjust accumulation, and a system adopted which will secure to the laborer the fruits of his toil; and as this much-desired object can only be accomplished by the thorough unification of labor, and the united efforts of those who obey the divine injunction that “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,” we have formed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor With a view of securing the organization and direction, by cooperative effort, of the power of the industrial classes; and we submit to the world the object sought to be accomplished by our organization, calling upon all who believe in securing “the greatest good to the greatest number” to aid and assist us…”

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Commodifying Education

The hawkers of school choice frame their propaganda in terms of freedom. Freedom to choose – who could be against that. Why can’t citizens of a free country pick the school their children? It sounds so good, so in tune with the principles the founders of the republic, so American. It’s the same basic argument that being used to try to undo the Affordable Care Act (We need to stop calling it Obama Care.). Yet, do we not pervert any meaningful concept of freedom when we treat the necessities of human existence in the same way that we deal with toilet paper or deodorant, subjecting them to market forces with the rather sizable risk that the poorest among us will wind up with none.

Jason Blakely, in a concise, brilliantly clear analysis, gets to the heart of the school choice argument – commodifying education and subjecting it to market forces threatens universal access to education in America. If you are open to thinking about where the choice movement is taking us, read this very important article.

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Getting Serious About Mandatory School Attendance

Most teachers I know are angered when parents take their children out of school unnecessarily. Some parents often think nothing of asking teachers to facilitate their bad behavior by requesting assignments and materials for their children to work on while they are away. Often these illegal absences are to partake of lower airfares and hotel rates that exist during school vacations when premium rates are charged. Sadly, not only do the administrations in most school districts turn a blind eye to this behavior, they often insist that teacher due the extra work of providing assignments and materials for kids to take along. The teachers of these students have extra work up front and after the child returns when they are obliged to catch the child up on all that she has missed. Thus, parents and school cooperate in flouting the mandatory attendance law and in so doing set a really poor example for children.

With this background, I was interested to read that the United Kingdom has the same problem, but their Supreme Court has decided to send a message to the parents who illegally pull their kids from school. Fined $180 for taking his child out of school for a trip to Disney Land having been denied permission to do so, a father appealed his fine. While the lower courts sided with him, school authorities took the case to the Supreme Court where the fine was reinstated. Interestingly, that court noted the unnecessary imposition on teachers this parent sanctioned truancy caused and the bad example it set for children.

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Depression in Our Schools

A few days ago, a high school student in our district committed suicide. I don’t know anything about her personal circumstances, but in all likelihood depression contributed to her demise.

I’ve been thinking about clinical depression and our public schools for over twenty years. I’ve tried to use my union advocacy skills to encourage school district leaders to understand that clinical depression is more common in our schools than conventional wisdom suggests and that knowledge throughout a school community about depression can spare members of that community unnecessary suffering and even death. I learned that it’s easy to get a school community to think about drug and alcohol use, the dangers to children of unsupervised internet use and universal bus transportation to school. Depression, however, is another matter. We are still discomforted by talk of mental illness.

Some twenty years ago, I was teaching English to a class of students who on the basis of their academic records were likely not to graduate. M y class with them was part of an alternate education program of small classes with teachers who had an interest in working with children who had been dubbed failures. Until I met that group of kids, I had never taught a class in which it was almost impossible for me to get anything accomplished. In this setting, I was the failure. I needed to know why.
During that school year, a union colleague of mine fell ill to depression. Suddenly, this enormously accomplished teacher and union leader began to refer to herself as “pond scum,” often wondering aloud why anyone would befriend the likes of her. To be frank, her behavior frightened me. My lack of knowledge about depression left me without an understanding of what my colleague was suffering and how I was to behave with a person with whom I need to work closely.

I began to read about depression. As I read, I slowly came to recognize some of the symptoms of depression in the students of my alternate ed class. At some point, I came across a screening questionnaire for clinical depression which I decided to administer to my class, telling them that it was part of an assignment for a graduate class I was taking (Today, I would probably be fired for this activity.) After I scored the questionnaire, I was no longer in doubt as to why I was having so much trouble teaching these students. Almost 60 percent of them appeared to be clinically depressed. These kids weren’t failures. We, the adults in their lives, were failing them.

Over the ensuing years of my teaching career, I met numbers of high school students who suffered from depression, many of them undiagnosed. I’m not talking about the intense sadness that adolescents often experience. We know why we are sad. Something has happened to make us feel this way. The depression sufferer doesn’t know why he is profoundly sad, why life has ceased to please, why he is deeply disgusted with himself. In any school you wish to talk about, there are depressed students who are too often talked about as academic problems when their real issue is mental health.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is primarily the job of the school to treat these depressed children. No public school I know of is equipped to do so. But we can take intelligent steps to train a staff to recognize the signs of clinical depression. We can also teach students to be aware and to instill in them the need to make contact with responsible adults when they recognize those symptoms in themselves or their friends.

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Anti-Union Bastards

The number of low-life scum who spend their days seeking to abridge the rights of teachers to have a voice on public policy by working together with colleagues in a labor union continues to grow. The Indiana legislature just passed a law that would require the state labor relations board to inform teacher of their rights to choose not to be represented by the unions in their districts. It further seeks to publicize the number of union members in each local union with the aim of promoting votes on decertification in districts where less than fifty percent of the teachers are union members. I wish I were a believer so I could tell myself that there is a special place in Hell for those who seek to destroy unions. I wish I could believe that some union leadership will come along that will create a Hell on earth for these bastards. I keep hope alive, but believe? That’s another matter.

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Scott Walker’s War on Wisconsin’s Public Schools

Most teachers are at least vaguely aware of what Governor Scott Walker did to the public employee unions in Wisconsin. Ending collective bargaining, ending agency fee and requiring local unions to be recertified each year by a majority in the unit are generally understood to be inimical to the welfare of teachers and public employees. There is also a general sense in our ranks that the Trump administration has very similar goals nationally. What hasn’t received much attention is what Walker’s war on public employee unions has actually done to public education in Wisconsin and what his approach could mean for school districts throughout the United State in the era of Trumpism. Patrick Caldwell, writing in Mother Jones, gives us an unvarnished view of the consequences of Walker’s assault on Wisconsin’s schools. Thos who value public schools and appreciate their centrality to a democratic society would be wise to think about Caldwell’s analysis.

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Opt-Out Thrives on Long Island

The opt-out movement is still strong here on Long Island. If fact, it seems to be clear that a majority of Long island parents are no longer anguishing about the decision to opt-out or not. Withholding their children from the tests has become routine. School districts where upwards of 80 percent of students opted out of this year’s English exam seems to have unceremoniously adjusted to this boycott. While opt-out numbers are yet to come in from New York City and upstate, Long Island results point to a little crow eating by Commissioner Elia who predicted an increase in the number of students taking the exams this year.

The opt-out movement has been one of the very few high points in the recent history of public education. The growth of the coalition of parents and educators who nurture it encourages us to believe that there is hope for the renewal of public education and that out schools can eventually be freed of the testing tyranny that has increasingly robbed a generation of children of an age appropriate, humanistic education, one that prepares them for life, not just employment

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Leadership Failure

More and more, the issue of our time is waning leadership. I’ve read a ton of stuff today on the failure of Republican leadership to deliver their seven years in the making repeal and replacement of the affordable care act. In my field of education, we increasingly see people who have not taught long enough to have gained command of their profession skipping through the classroom door to become administrators, leaders of teachers. In New York State, we have an election coming up for the officers of our state teachers union, a campaign that has been essentially idea free. There certainly hasn’t been anyone to inspire the rank and file to think that there is a way out of the daily deterioration of teaching conditions in our state. Nowhere in the democratic world does there seem to be leadership that inspires us to reach beyond our current grasp for a world better than our own. Frighteningly, the longing of people for leadership has them increasingly embracing the Trumps, Putins and LePens of this world.

I’m thinking about leadership today in that I’m infuriated by the lack of an immediate substantive policy response by the Democratic leadership in Congress to the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Seconds after the bill to repeal was pulled, a Democrat plan to fix the obvious problems with the ACA should have been offered. Where Republicans have been pounding away at the fact that the many counties have only one company offering insurance under the act, Democrats should be explaining how a public insurance option would be a simple fix for that problem. The republicans having failed for the moment to substantially cut Medicaid, Democrats should have offered mandating that all state participate in the Medicaid expansion provided by the ACA. I would have had Bernie Sanders make the announcement of the Democrat series of improvements to the ACA.

The republicans failed in their endeavor to kill the ACA because all they have had for seven years is rhetoric. They were never united around a plan. Senator Rand Paul has been correct when he said that they had unanimity on repealing the ACA but no such broad agreement on what to replace it with. Democrat need to get out with a plan, a plan that allows American to plainly see how it would improve the quality of their coverage and care.

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Rosenfeld’s Law

Forty years or so working in education led me to the formulation of Rosenfeld’s Law, Never discount stupidity as the cause of a problem you are facing. I had occasion to see some of the leaders of my local union the other day. It wasn’t long after meeting them that I found myself and listening to them talk about an issue they are confronting that I had the opportunity to say to them, “Remember, never discount stupidity as the cause of your problem.”

Their problem at the moment is our school district’s decision to change our heretofore common understanding of the clause in our contract covering staff development. From out of the blue they have decided that there is no longer any make up for missed”mandatory” staff development. Even though the word mandatory appears nowhere in the contract clause in question, and even though there is a whole paragraph that describes how missed staff development is to be made up, district leadership has advanced the following stupidity: The district owns all twelve of the staff development hours. Mandatory staff development sessions are so important that they cannot be missed, and if missed, they can’t be made up. Those who fail to attend these sessions are threatened with discipline.

The district believes it has vital information to pass on to teachers in these mandatory staff development session, but if for some reason a teacher can’t make a session, like having to pick up a child from school, feeling ill at the end of the work day etc., they won’t work with her to see to it that she gets this vital knowledge. Instead, teacher will be punished. In some unexplained way, management clearly believes this approach will benefit students.

While I’m now in a position to laugh at this latest example of Rosenfeld’s Law, the fact is it is not a laughing matter to the teachers involved. The issue is especially galling in that in the last round of contract negotiations our union presented a detailed plan for the incorporation of staff development into the regular work day where it belongs. Had our plan been agreed to it would have obviated most staff development issues and ended once and for all the perception of most teachers that staff development is tantamount to detention and in its present iteration serves a very limited purpose at best.

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Our Own Inequality Issue

Labor unions are notoriously poor at dealing with their own employees, employees who are usually organized into union bargaining units. This has certainly been true of the national and state affiliates of the AFT and NEA. While our organizations have railed against the growing economic inequality in our nation, they have conspicuously failed to observe the same phenomenon in their own organizations where many elected officers and staff make salaries many times those of the average members they represent. Their pension and welfare benefits also tend to significantly outpace those of the members they serve. In my experience, they come to look and sound more like our adversaries than they do the members. The first time I walked into the headquarters of NYSUT, my state organization, I was struck by the corporate feel of the place. I would come to feel the same way about much of the staff. They neither look nor talk like union people by and large. At the risk of sounding naïve, too many of them are just working jobs. Too many are without any noticeable visceral commitment to the labor movement.

Our state and national union need an approach to the remuneration of staff and officers that ties salaries and benefits in some meaningful and transparent way to the compensation of the people they represent. When I was on the board of directors of NEA/New York, I argued for paying our president at the rate of the highest paid teacher we represented, adjusting for the fact that the job was for twelve months, not ten. I was met with a very sincere, albeit ignorant, response from the overwhelming majority of our board. All I was suggesting was that everyone rise with the ranks, not have officers and staff rise above the membership. One fellow, whom I genuinely liked and respected, said, “I want my CEO paid like a CEO,” obtuse to the irony of referring to the head of a labor union as a CEO.

There is about to be an officer election in my state organization. In nothing that I have seen is there any serious plan for how to go about addressing this issue. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy task. Years of growing the bureaucracy have yielded it more power in many ways than the elected officers and board of directors. Speaking of the board of directors, perhaps step one would be to end the substantial stipends members receive. I came to call those stipends hush money, in that to my perception fear of losing them determined how many of the directors voted on controversial issues. A board of members who are there because they wish to renew our movement would be a significant improvement. Candidates with an agenda to address the misallocation of members’ dues to salaries and benefits would take a significant step towards our waning solidarity.

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Infectious Ignorance

Freed from the tyranny of work schedules, Judi and I start most days with some exercise at our local gym. To the extent that either of us engages in social exchanges with the other patrons, we talk about trips, the weather and such. We are careful to avoid the subject of politics lest we accidentally engage a Trump supporter and thus completely negate any cardiovascular benefit to come from our workouts.

On Saturday, I was at my regular elliptical machine earnestly trying to work off 700 calories when I notice Judi in what seems an animated discussion with a woman on the treadmill beside her. My earphones on and listening to Tina Turner, I had no idea what they were talking about except that Judi’s body language suggested that something was amiss.

On our way out, Judi explained that this woman, a working professional, was chatting about their mutual interest in dogs when they both looked up at the TV in front of them in response to seeing President Trump. Seeing Trump, Judi, who would prefer to clean up cat vomit to seeing or hearing Donald Trump, found herself talking about the President’s boastful ignorance and his seeming disinterest in learning. Her abandonment of her political reticence was countered by the woman with, “Well the other candidate is crazy, and I don’t want to wind up wearing a burka.” Judi was shocked back to reticence.

If I see this woman again, I will be sorely tempted to ask her how it came to be that she perceived Hillary as determined to usher in Sharia Law if she were elected. How does it come to be that a professional person, living in an upper middle class community, one in which Democrats hold a significant lead in party registrations, how does it happen that such a person comes to believe such a blatant absurdity? With what other disinformation has she been infected? How much has she passed on to her children? We once though facts were the antidote, but people like her seem to have become immune to them.

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Growing Opt-Out

The New York State math and English assessments for grades 3 through 8 will soon be upon us again. While there have been some changes in the exams around the margins, they remain an insidious inhibitor of quality education in our state. Educators with the best of intentions and a deep appreciation of what children should be taught are nevertheless teaching to these tests, they being judged, like the children they teach, on the basis of their students’ scores.

To a generation of political leaders who can only understand learning by measuring it, a generation that has reified accountability thereby reducing it to a number, talk of authentic assessment not only has no meaning but is too often seen as seeking to evade accountability. It doesn’t seem to matter to worshipers of math and English scores that over a decade of test score driven accountability has yielded no significant improvements. Some educators like me believe that it has reduced some of our best schools to shadows of their former selves. In my home district, while district leaders utter pious platitudes about test driven accountability, leadership still makes programmatic decision based on essentially useless scores.

The only option open to people who are serious about ending the tyranny of these tests is for parents to opt their children out of taking them. Each of the past few years has seen the opt-out rate in New York grow. This trend must continue to the point where it becomes absurd to spend huge sums of money on assessments that almost no one is taking. Only then can we expect to have a serious conversation about what a sane accountability system would look like.

Teachers have a duel role in accelerating opt-outs. They need to set an example in their home districts by opting their own children out of the assessments and demanding that meaningful educational experiences be offered in their stead. Through their unions, they must also encourage the parents of their students to follow their lead and opt their children out. There are thousands of public school teachers here on Long Island. Imagine if each of them convinced one new parent to opt her children out.

One of the few good things to happen in the realm of public education in New York has been the advent of the opt-out movement that has grown from a small group of dedicated parents, many of whom like Jeanette Deutermann exerted enviable leadership, to a coalition of parents, educators and citizens determined to save quality public education in our state and nation. We must grow this movement.

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Sucking the Meaning Out of Freedom

The independent Congressional Budget Office has told us what we already knew, that the Donald trump/Paul Ryan Republican healthcare plan is a massive tax break for those who have everything at the expense of the poor, middleclass and our pre-Medicare population. Supporters of the proposed legislation falsely claim we should not be interested in the number of people insured under the Affordable Care Act as many of the people who have purchased insurance through the exchanges set up by the act have a useless certificate of insurance that doesn’t get them actual care because of high deductibles and physicians who do not accept Medicaid coverage. Their plan they claim gives people the right to buy the coverage they want or to go without health insurance. Their plan is about freedom.

It infuriates me to hear them sucking the meaning out of the word freedom in this way. What does their concept of freedom mean to a person whose health is deteriorating from a curable or controllable illness? Is the homeless person who hasn’t eaten all day free in any meaningful sense of the word?

We were once a nation whose leaders called us to expand our understanding of freedom. I’m reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech given in 1944, an address to the American people that looked forward to military victories in Europe and Asia and the opportunities that victory would bring to advance the quality of life in America. Watch an obviously weary President Roosevelt as he talks about expanding the rights of all Americans, rights that many still do not enjoy. Contrast his call to that of Donald trump and Paul Ryan and consider what we have to do if we wish to make America an even greater nation than it has been.

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What’s the Plan?

I spent some time this morning looking at the webpages of each of the slates running to lead New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), our state union, affiliated with both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Both the Unity and Stronger Together slates are clear on what they oppose. Both are also clear on wanting a stronger, more united, more effective and democratic union. Both are abysmally short on how they propose to accomplish these noble aims. Unity does have a plan to more precisely define the responsibilities of each of NYSUT’s officers which it claims will bring greater efficiency. They way they talk about it, the president will be in charge of representing us with the governor and legislature, while the other vice-presidents will each take responsibility for other aspects of the operation. If they really intend to operate in the way they describe, I suspect we will have a compounding of a problem that has existed for a long time – officer turf battles that are not resolved because the president lacks the political clout to be the final arbiter. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that at least part of Karen Magee’s downfall came from trying to have too much of a say about NYSUT’s political operation, Executive Vice-President Andy Pallotta’s turf. It certainly was part of Dick Iannuzzi’s fall.

Neither slate offers any detailed plan for what should be the central concerns of anyone looking to lead NYSUT – the ever increasing irrelevancy of the organization to the rank and file members it exists to serve and the failure of the NYSUT service model to build power from the ground up. Stronger Together knows this, but they have yet to offer anything but platitudes about more democracy, educating the membership and organizing. Frankly, some of their positions are hopelessly naive. They appear to believe that we can build an organization in which New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (about 200,000, members) and the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress (700 members) can have the same clout in NYSUT because power should come from ideas not membership numbers. Good luck with that.

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Where’s the Strategy?

There is within our state union, NYSUT, a desire for change, change that would allow teachers to come out from under the largely false chare of the corporate reform movement that our public schools are failing. Three years ago, some of us voted for Karen Magee hoping that she embodied a new direction from the policies of her predecessor who took a more accommodationist approach to the reformers. While I believe that any fair assessment would conclude that under her leadership NYSUT has done better for the state’s teachers, a membership that continues to feel themselves denigrated and debased doesn’t see things that way. Mike Lillis, a candidate for NYSUT president from the Stronger Together Caucus is a manifestation of that yearning for dignity and respect teachers see as their due. He gives expression to that in this interview. Unfortunately, he is essentially silent about a strategy to bring about the desire for change he represents. He even allows the interviewer to get him to admit that he is probably going to lose. Where are the new teacher union leaders who have a credible, coherent strategy to halt the downward spiral of in the respect for teacher and public education in our state and nation?

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Demonstrating Weakness

This past Saturday saw planned demonstrations for education justice in communities throughout New York State. Judging from the very sparse coverage of the one in New York City and the one I attended in Wyandanch, Long Island, and these demonstrations were an exercise in how not to plan and mount demonstrations. In the City, one thousand teachers and parents showed up. In Wyandanch about 100 braved the extreme cold.

Effective demonstrations get under the skin of your political opponents. No one is going to be perturbed by the demonstration in Wyandanch. In fact, but for the very brief coverage in our Long Island excuse for a newspaper, I doubt that as many Long Island residents saw the assemblage of teachers and parents as the scant one hundred demonstrators that showed up. I suspect the foes of public education were amused by our pathetic turnout.

The cardinal rule for demonstrations is to never call for one unless you can be sure of mass participation. To do otherwise is to demonstrate your weakness. I fear that‘s what supporters of public education showed on Saturday. I think there are about 60,000 NYSUT members on Long Island. No serious effort was made to turn them out. Sad to say, I didn’t see too many local union leaders there either. Feeling lonely, Judi and I endured the cold for about twenty minutes and left.

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Political Turmoil in NYSUT

After only one term, Karen Magee is “stepping down” as President of NYSUT. We are to believe that she has been lured from the presidency of the largest state teachers union by the offer of a post with the AFT/New York State AFL-CIO. If you believe that, you believe that the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russian intelligence officers. Quite simply, Magee has been pushed out, largely by the efforts of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City NYSUT affiliate and the largest local by far in the state union.

It’s no secret that Magee has had her problems working with the current slate of officers. She took over a divided union and, from where I sit, made almost no attempt to heal that divide but instead alienated herself from the people who put her in office. The elevation of Andy Pallotta to the head of the Unity Caucus slate to replace Magee suggests that Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT and a local leader long frustrated with the management of NYSUT, has had enough and has boldly decided to try and install his own person as NYSUT president. Working with AFT President Randi Weingarten, the union allies were able to use their influence with the state AFL/CIO to create a soft landing for Magee.

I came to the view a long time ago that NYSUT, like much of the American 7 labor bureaucracy, is organized to accomplish little or nothing. It has offered its constituent locasl a model of service unionism that has too many members looking to Albany for the solution to all problems rather than promoting local capacity and militancy as the way to build a truly powerful organization.To try to meet the demand for services, it has hired staff upon staff, providing them with salary and benefits beyond the wildest dreams of the average member paying the freight.

Now would be a good time for a slate of candidates who had a thought-out an organizing model to reform NYSUT to come to the fore. The Stronger Together Caucus will make the claim that they are that slate. But, reading their materials thus far, one is hardly encouraged. Their candidates offer educating the membership as their approach to governance. Thus far, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that they have a clue how to devolve much of the Albany NYSUT operation to the local level where the real potential power lies. There hasn’t been a word that I can find about how they would deal with the scary structural deficit threatening NYSUT. Neither am I aware of any plan they have for how to manage the very real threat of the loss of agency shop.

I’m sorry about Magee’s departure. When she ran for office, my local supported her, hoping that she would rebuild NYSUT into a membership powered organization. Having served with her on the NYSUT board, she certainly had some good ideas for doing that. What was unknown was did she know how to get those idea circulating through the sclerotic bureaucracy. It’s clear now that she didn’t, much to the misfortune of the state’s school personnel.

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Deer in the Headlights

There is a real sense in which the success of unions in gaining agency fee and dues check-off has served to weaken them. In New York, where we have an agency fee law, there are probably thousands of public workers who are not union members and who are rarely contacted, if ever, about joining the union. Clever local unions structure their dues in such a way that they are equal or almost equal to member dues. With non-member money in hand, it doesn’t seem that important to try to win the non-members to our cause. In fact, with members’ money coming in through payroll deduction, union officials in the workplace are often unmotivated to be in constant organizing mode.

The result is that while we are now threatened by national right to work legislation, most unions are thoroughly unprepared to cope with the loss of agency fee and perhaps dues check-off. How many locals have their members signed up for next year to insulate themselves from the dire possibilities posed by the Trump administration? How many could if they had to hand collect member dues after each payday? How many have prepared themselves to take the credit cards of members who increasingly live in a cashless society? Beyond any doubt, few are prepared, having been lulled into laziness by years of receiving their income automatically.

Following a strike, my local lost the dues check-off for 18 months, leaving us to hand collect the dues. While it was a herculean effort, I would argue that our solidarity was never stronger, in the end getting the money from every member and even getting some of the very few agency fee payers to pony up their fair share.

I know I keep sounding the alarm about our unpreparedness should we get bad legislation or more likely a bad Supreme Court decision, but I simply don’t see a concerted effort to prepare for the very likely assault on our unions. We know what’s coming but appear to be frozen like deer in the headlights.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments