A Teachable Moment

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

A Day of Action

I’ve been in California for a week or so, but have tried to stay in touch with happenings in the education and union worlds. I get an email from my state organization announcing a union day of action on February 24th. I follow up on the web and find that a coalition of public sector unions is sponsoring a national day of protest as a unified statement just prior to the United States Supreme Court taking up the Janus Case, a law suit challenging unions’ right to collect agency fees from non-members.

I immediately look to see about demonstrations in the Palm Springs area. Although there is a 12,000 student school district here and a union with collective bargaining rights, there is nothing on their website or any other union’s website. Frustrated, I figure the California Teachers Association, a huge statewide union, will surely have an announcement of the plans for the day of action. Nothing!

Wouldn’t one think that before a national announcement about a day of action, arrangements with the state and local affiliates and of the national unions would have been made? After all, unions are supposed to be about organizing. With the event just a couple of weeks away, wouldn’t it have been wise to have a publicity campaign that immediately made it clear where demonstrations are going to take place?

A labor day of action is a great idea, but this one doesn’t seem to have been effectively planned and organized. I sure hope we don’t wind up demonstrating our weakness.

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Loraine Rubin

On Sunday, I joined with other NYSUT colleagues to say goodbye to Loraine Rubin, a pioneer in the teacher labor movement on Long Island who died the day before at almost 95. Lorraine was the wife of another pioneer, Paul Rubin, the local president I succeeded in Plainview-Old-Bethpage. Loraine was a leader of that brave group of teachers across Long Island who in the 1960s declared they had had enough of the lousy wages, working conditions and disrespect for their needs and decided to build unions to gain some power for themselves. Speaker after speaker at her memorial ceremony talked about how Loraine’s fortitude and courage inspired them to become union activists.

My relationship with Loraine was a strange one, but one that left me with profound respect for her knowledge, courage and commitment to the cause of unionism and progressive politics in general. It was at first awkward in that I ran for president of my local against Paul Rubin and won. When he passed away, our local set up a scholarship fund in his name and invited Loraine to join us in the process of selecting the recipients. It was at these meetings that I began to get to know her. It was also a time when a central focus of my union work was aimed at bringing about a merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT, a cause that Loraine shared with me. Without ever addressing the politics that caused me to run against her husband, without ever an unkind word, she began to call me from time to time to offer advice on what I was doing, suggesting contacts I might make with sympatric NYSUT people, questioning me about articles I had written.

I came to learn that her devotion to our mutual cause transcended any personal issues she might have had. There were important issues to be dealt with of much greater significance than the battles I had fought with her husband. After all, those battles were about competing visions of how to make our union stronger and more effective. I have always been attracted to union work’s call to something greater than oneself. Loraine heard that call until her last breath.

Our mutual friend Ken Ulric told a story about literally the last hours of her life. Moved to a hospice, Loraine knew her days were limited. Whatever time and energy she had left, it was still important to her that they counted for something. Knowing that there was a special election to fill a vacant assembly seat in her district, she summoned Ken to the hospital to get him to help her get an absentee ballot. After all, the Democrats had a NYSUT teacher running for the seat. Something important to our union was on the line. Loraine had to be there.

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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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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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Since We Last Spoke

I’ve been off-line for the past few days, a power outage having blown up my Fios service, something that system is prone to, this being my second such occurrence. Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about with the extra time I’ve had during my digital media blackout.

I learned that the superintendent in my home district sent an email to the staff ordering them not to talk about the Trump inauguration. I hope most of the teachers ignored her command, but it irks me no end to see an educational institution bar its doors to discussion of contemporary events, no matter how controversial. How different from the beginning of my career when we routinely had high school presentations on the war in Viet Nam, the issue of the late 60s and early 70s. When a Viet Nam War moratorium demonstration was planned for Bryant Park in Manhattan, a number of our faculty wrote to the superintendent informing him that we are taking a personal day to attend, fully expecting that he wouldn’t grant us the day and would dock us our salaries for the absence. To our surprise, the day was granted. Can anyone imaging that happening today? Our schools then, fostered an open exchange of ideas. Faculty members at my high school often debated each other at assembly programs before students who were fascinated to listen to their teachers battle over an issue. I vividly recall one such contest between two colleagues, one a born again Christian who debated an inveterate atheist. Try to put that program on in most of today’s high schools. In so many ways, the culture of our schools has been debased by waves of ill-educated, gutless administrators whose fear of controversy is matched only by their predatory pedantry.

On the union front, we learned that our state organization, NYSUT, is to again have contested officer elections. While I will have much to say about this upcoming election in future posts, for now a few comments will suffice.

One of the candidates for NYSUT President is Andy Pallotta, currently the Executive Vice-President in charge of the organization’s political operation. Pallotta comes from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), our New York City affiliate, representing approximately one third of NYSUT’s membership. The size of the UFT gave it the power from the organization’s inception to decide who would be its president. It very wisely chose to exert its power through other means. Pallotta’s candidacy is an abrupt break with that tradition. It will further inflame those from suburban districts who have long resented the UFT’s power in NYSUT.

As I write this morning, Billionaire Betsy DeVos is but one Republican vote away from seeing her nomination to be Secretary of Education go up in smoke. Republican Senators Collins and Murkowski deserve our admiration for bucking their newly elected president and voting their consciences. It’s interesting that the two Republican no votes thus far are from women senators. Could it be that women are more attuned to the damage posed by an incompetent twit like DeVos?

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I’m Voting for Bernie Tomorrow

This primary season has offered an opportunity to understand why the message of a large part of the labor movement fails resonates with the American people. It has become a movement that shuns idealism. In no segment of our movement is that clearer than in our public education unions who leaders have ridiculed Bernie Sanders for his call for tuition free college education at state supported schools, universal health coverage, breaking up too big to fail financial institutions and even more disturbing pooh-poohing the possibility of a political revolution to substantially change an economic system heavily rigged in favor of a kleptocratic elite. They are obtuse to the reality that there is no future for our unions in the current system. They have lost faith in the promise of America becoming a better society, one in which education, health care and economic security are the rights of all Americans.

I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders tomorrow because I continue to believe that it is possible to reverse the 30 year trend of stagnating wages of the American worker. I believe that all citizens should have an opportunity to receive as much free education as they are able to absorb. While I applaud the Affordable Care Act, there are still too many Americans who do not have access to quality health care. I don’t understand, and never will, why they can’t have the same Medicare that covers me. I will vote for Bernie because he is as outraged as I that so many American children are stunted by poverty in the richest nation the word has ever known. We have a system that is literally shortening the lives of millions of our citizens. The movement Bernie Sanders seeks to build wants to change that. How can I not be a part of that noble goal?

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We Must become the Movement We Claim to Be

In our NEA New York days, Judi Alexanderson, Mike Lynch and I used to do a workshop many summer for union officers on how to build stronger locals. The goal was to reduce the dependence of local on the state organization, with the even larger goal redirecting resources from Albany to the locals out of a strong belief that the best possible work for a local is by well- trained local leaders. While I believe we helped some locals to become more independent, the vast majority are as weak today as then. Being a part of NYSUT now for a dozen years or so, to many resources still flow towards Albany rendering locals weaker than they have to be. That reality is embedded in the structure of our state union rather than in the conscious efforts of our state leaders. To be sure, NYSUT too makes some efforts to empower locals, but the fact that a looming Supreme Court decision in Friendrichs terrified us is stark testimony to that fact that we are not any way near as organized and resourced on the local level as we should be.

My own local is not perfect, but we had no fear of Friedrichs nor do we fear the cases that are sure to follow it. Had the decision in Friedrich’s gone against, we were already insulated from it, having signed our members up for next year. The yearly sign up process will now become a part of our yearly routine. Our teacher labor movement has largely failed to organize its local unions to be able to easily accomplish things like this. The extreme political right has located this vulnerability and is exploiting it from every direction. Were we the movement we claim to be, and I believe we could be, they wouldn’t have a chance against us.

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Without a calendar, I can tell we are getting close to the end of the school year as the pace of union work picks up. This year I’m especially harried in that I have announced my decision not to run for re-election as president of my local, and so I’m desperately trying to clean my plate before I turn things over to my successor. One of the things that has suffered as a result, is what has been daily postings to this blog, an activity that I hope to continue in retirement.

Last week I attended the NYSUT convention. I’ve been a NYSUT member since the merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT about a dozen years ago or so. Each year I’ve gone to its convention, only to wonder afterward why I bothered, so much of the time devoted to speeches from a predictable cast of political characters, characters who all love us, are behind us and have a deep and abiding respect for the invaluable work we do. This year at least, the monotony was broken by Hillary Clinton’s appearance. While I will vote for Bernie Sanders in next week’s primary, I have to say she made a moving speech focused on education issues that she knew were of interested to us. Should she be the democratic nominee, I will have no trouble working for her election. While she is not the system changer that Bernie would be, neither is she like the Republican contenders, clear enemies of working people, those who rely on government to protect them to some degree from the power of corporations and wealthy elites who rig our economic system in their favor.

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Paid Family Leave

Could it be that the stars are aligning toward the passage of paid family leave legislation in New York?

A few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted twelve weeks of paid family to over 20,000 City employees by executive order and with the further promise to negotiate with the unions for the remainder of the City’s workforce. Not to be out done by his rival for supremacy in New York’s Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo featured a proposal for paid family leave in his State of the State speech the other day.

People in public education need many fixes to the state’s laws, but paid family leave would be a real boon to the people I represent, people who can’t currently afford to settle in their new born children, deal with the unexpected illness of a family member, often a parent who lives in retirement thousands of miles away. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive a phone call from a desperate member seeking help with maintaining her income while meeting her obligations to a member of her family. Too often, management is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the member’s need. It would relieve so many to know that in such time of need, the law of New York was there to support with up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.

II intend to make passage of paid family leave a major focus of my local’s lobbying efforts this year. I hope and trust that my NYSUT brothers and sisters will do the same. Both the NEA and AFT need to get very publically behind legislation introduced by New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would make paid family leave a national entitlement. It’s surely time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and take the welfare of families seriously.

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Making Our Own Justice

I’ve always found it curious that most people recoil at the statement that the law is often made in the streets. Social unrest, or the threat of it, has historically been a powerful motivator of justice. The Brown Decision, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60’s came to be thousands and thousands of citizens, united beyond race and social class by their belief in equality, demonstrated in the streets of our nation, demanding justice and an end to the oppression of people on the basis of their race.

I read a piece by Shamus Cooke this morning of this lesson that I learned long ago. Cooke reminds our union brothers and sisters that we don’t have sit back and let the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court use the Friedrichs Case to eviscerate public sector unions, the only part of the American labor movement that has been growing in recent times. He calls on us to do what those who engineered all social justice movements have done. Get organized and take to the streets. I fear it’s a challenge we won’t accept to our everlasting shame. We may have forgotten how to make our own justice.

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Our Kick in the Ass

One can almost hear the teeth gnashing of public sector union leadership following the reports of the argument at the Supreme Court yesterday in the Fredrichs case. Simply stated, Friedrichs and ten other California public school teachers are challenging the right of the California Teachers Association and its affiliates to collect an agency fee from individuals who choose not to belong to the union, an agency fee currently legal and paid in recognition that whether or not a person belongs to a union, he profits from their work in negotiations and contract enforcement. All reports indicate that the argument did not go well for the unions. Want to know more about the case and argument? The best coverage I’ve read is in the SCOTUSBLOG.
What I don’t hear from the national or state unions is a coherent plan in the event that agency fee is completely struck down by the high court, a likely event given what the media coverage seems to indicate. My local, currently at 100% membership, will shortly be asking members to sign membership renewal cards authorizing dues deductions for the 2016-17 school year. We want to know who is with us and who’s a freeloader seeking to profit from our work. Then, if the Supreme Court wants to be the agent of the right wing that seeks the destruction of organized labor, we will be prepared to resist. I can’t understand why the national unions are not promoting a similar plan. Enough moaning and groaning. Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Let’s actually do it now in anticipation of the worst possible outcome of the Fredrichs case. Let our fear of what the court will do be our kick in the ass.

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Fredrichs Might Just get Us Back to Organizing

There is justifiable fear in public sector labor ranks of an adverse decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Friedrichs Case to be decided by the end of the court’s current term. The case turns on the claim of a California teacher that that her constitutional rights are being violated by having to pay an agency fee to her union, a union she does not belong to and which she does not support. Until now, the Supreme Court has held that while public sector workers have a right not to belong to the union in their workplace, they nevertheless have an obligation to pay for benefits they enjoy as a result of the union’s work. They do not, however, have to pay for the political or ideological work the union does. Fredrichs claims that she should not have to pay anything to an organization to which she does not belong and that doing so violates her constitutional rights. Should she prevail, our teacher unions project a severe loss of revenue, the belief being that many members will opt out of membership if they do not have to pay an agency fee instead.

Frightening though a union loss in this case will be, the shock just might be what’s necessary to breathe some energy into a movement that for too long subordinated organizing to political action. Local unions like mine, that have tried to maintain their organizing capacity while many around us disarmed, are already planning for an adverse decision. We will prepare for the worst possible decision, one that does away with agency fee and requires us to sign up our membership each year by signing them up in advance for next year. In doing so, we will have a twofold purpose. Most of our members will have no problem signing, thereby ensuring that the flow of dues necessary to support the essential work of our union will be uninterrupted. We have staff and bills that must be paid. Those who balk, and there may be some, will self-identify as the people we have to talk more to and win over to our cause. In those conversations we will no doubt learn of grievances these people have with our union and its leaders, grievances that often could be fixed if we only knew about them. While we always try to engage the members in the importance of our union, we are doing so now with a new sense of urgency. Those unions that don’t will not survive an adverse Supreme Court decision. Yesterday, I attended a meeting at which some local leaders expressed the opinion that their local unions would lose forty percent of their membership. If that’s true, they have not a second to lose.

While I’m on the subject of organizing, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane McAlevey a noted labor organizer. Her thoughts, particularly those related to the centrality of our education unions to a revitalized labor movement will be of interest to many of my readers in our movement.

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Join Us! Don’t Attack Our Leaders

My blog today is a response to a Facebook posting by the president of our local board of education. He expresses the facile view that the scourge of high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided by a union leadership more concerned with the interests of its membership. While my reads know of my disagreements with various levels of union leadership, it’s not fair to confuse mistakes with personal corruption as Mr. bettan and too many other do. Here’s the posting and my response.

As I’ve been saying for years: The sad reality is that this entire hi-stakes testing mess could have been avoided if AFT leadership hadn’t sold out their members. In NY Cuomo never gets test scores linked to APPR without the support of NYSUT. Race to the Top never happens without support from national teacher union leadership. Time to stop blaming billionaires like Bill Gates and companies like Pearson and start realizing that teacher unions have been taking money from their foundations all along the way. This is just another example of Weingarten putting her agenda ahead of her teachers. Note: my comments here have nothing to do with Clinton or the presidential election, but rather the disconnect between teachers and those they pay to represent them.
Gary Bettan

While I have been highly critical of the response of our unions to the corporate attack on public education, an attack spearheaded by Bill Gates for whom you apologize, to cavalierly state that high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided if the AFT and NEA had simply chosen not to go along is to simplify history to an absurdity.

A fairer analysis than yours would take account of the creation, through the corporate manipulation of the media, of an education crisis in the United States. As Diane Ravitch and other scholars have amply demonstrated, there is no crisis. In fact by almost any measure, America’s schools have been improving. This attack on public schools diverts the public’s attention from the real crisis – a growing number of America’s children are being permanently scarred by poverty. Such an analysis would also take account of corporate influence on our politics. No child left behind and Race to the Top didn’t just happen. They are a testament to the influence of money on politics and policy.

While I disagree with our state and national union leaders and have expressed that disagreement in person and in my writings, I have never suggested that they sold our members out. While they have made strategic and tactical errors, I believe them to be motivated by an abiding concern for the membership. Their challenge was and is how to push back against a corporate reform effort that is clearly aimed at the destruction of public education as we know it. They made a decision to engage the reformers and the politicians whom the reformers had bought and paid for, hoping through engagement to blunt the attack on our schools and members. That engagement has included taking money from places like the Gates Foundation to finance union education experiments. Let’s remember too that much of this testing escalation took place in the midst of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, one in which states had gaping holes in their budgets and the Feds were offering millions to climb on to the reform bandwagon, insisting on thing like tying teacher evaluations to test results.

In New York, this all took place at a time that I was on the NYSUT Board of Directors. The state was in a financial hole as were many local school districts. The Feds were offering close to a billion dollars if we would buy into the Race to the Top program with its Common Core Standards and testing regime tied to them. The challenge to NYSUT was how to get the federal money that many of its locals needed to save the jobs of their members while blunting the impact of the federal mandate to tie student test results to teacher evaluation. Their answer was to try to use collective bargaining to permit locals to participate in the creation of teacher evaluation plans, so-called APPRs.

While I and others spoke out against the APPR deal NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi made with Governor Cuomo and worked to try to get the NYSUT Board to vote it down, the fact is a majority of the NYSUT Board supported this approach, and the deal was done. Therefore, while it is fair to say that Iannuzzi made a mistake (It’s important to note that many in our ranks still do not believe he did.), it is completely unfair to suggest that he sold our members out. He made a decision that was backed by our board. It was in part that decision that ultimately cost him his job.

This year in New York we witnessed Governor Cuomo renounce the deal he made with Iannuzzi as achieve legislative changes that will make matters even worse. I was encourages to see NYSUT President Magee embrace the opt-out movement, thereby recognizing that it is only through the collective action of educators and parents that we are going to be able to overcome the power of the corporate reform movement. We had over 200,000 students opted out of the exams this year, more than triple the number of last year. We are at work to triple it again. Our members invite you and the other members of our Board of Education to fully embrace this movement. Such an effort will be infinitely more productive than hurling unfounded accusations against union leadership. Our unions are being attacked by the same corporate interests. Friends of public education like you need to join with us not attack our leaders.

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In Search of a Unifying Vision

My friends in the both the opt-out and local teacher unions here on Long Island are upset this morning at the unanimous appointment of MaryEllen Elia to be the Commissioner of Education of New York State. Appointing someone too closely associated with the Gates Foundation and its poisonous impact on teacher evaluation tied to student test scores, merit pay, parent choice and other aspects of the so-called education reform movement is seen as a reaffirmation of the failed policies that have brought us to the present moment in which growing numbers of parents are voting by withholding their children from what they consider to be a plague of high stakes tests.

There is also considerable chagrin at the almost knee-jerk welcome to the new commissioner by NYSUT, AFT and New York City’s UFT. That welcome is being taken as evidence that the leaders of these labor organizations lobbied the Regents for a commissioner who supports the Common Core State Standards and the testing aligned with the standards. The UFT from whence Randi Weingarten rose to become the President of the American Federation of Teachers is a strong supporter of the standards and a tap dancer on the subject of high stakes testing. And here’s the thing, I do understand why these are difficult political issues for them.

Minority communities in this country by and large support the Standards and testing. They believe that for too long their children have been plagued by the low expectations society has had for them, low expectations born of the bigotry arising from America’s original sin of slavery. In their view, testing shines a light on what they see as their underperforming schools while the Standards will hopefully drive performance gains. The UFT exists in a city of minorities. To their credit, their membership reflects the diversity of the City. They understandably need to tread gingerly in the areas of testing and the Standards. But that’s not what they have done.

Whereas the suburbs with their higher performing, well- resourced schools, schools populated with students coming from families of higher median income , have increasingly come to question the Standards and their age appropriateness and have opted their children out of high stakes tests which they see as oppressive and a tool of a corporate reform effort, the City union has exerted political influence both in NYSUT and with the New York City legislative delegation to advance policy positions strongly opposed by local, suburban unions like mine.

State unions by their nature are coalitions whose members don’t agree on everything. The challenge to leadership is to define a unifying vision of such broad appeal as to make those contradictions appear secondary to the allure of the uniting vision. That has not happened yet in NYSUT. It can’t happen so long as its largest local, one that makes up a third of its membership, is willing to subordinate the needs of the rest of the state to its local interests. It can’t do that so long as UFT is seen as the tail wagging the dog.

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The NYSUT Convention

Last Wednesday, I wrote in hopeful anticipation that the NYSUT convention I was about to attend would be different than the ones I had attended in years past. I had the audacity to hope that this assembly of union activists would come together around a coherent plan to hold our political leaders accountable for what they have done to our profession in the name of accountability. I looked for a plan that would offer our membership hope, a membership whose anger over the dismantling of their profession is generating an anger that is gradually turning in on itself for lack of any other direction.

What I experiences instead was a masterpiece of hopelessness. That mood began to be generated at the Presidents Conference which preceded the convention. There President Karen Magee, completing her first year in office, chose to begin the meeting by trashing the previous union administration, coming just a hair short of accusing it of doing nothing to stop the attack on public education and the people who work at it. That depiction was contrasted to a litany of the great things the new officers have done in the span of one short year. In a matter of a few short sentences, Magee managed not only to stir up the residual anger that had slowly abated from last year’s hotly contested election, but she even found a way to piss off many of her own supporters who were enraged by her complete lack of tact. That tactlessness was repeated both in her speech to the convention and in the tone and demeanor as the presiding officer of the meeting. As the meeting wore on, the term solidarity grew increasingly ironic. From time to time, various speakers tried to address the situation by appeals to unity and solidarity. But solidarity is about the bonds that connect people. It must be created, not simply called into existence. Sadly, nothing at this convention furthered the tightening the bonds that connect us.

The 1900 union activists who schlepped to Buffalo for this meeting went home with no clear plan for them and their members to implement, no greater confidence in the strategy and tactics of their state leaders and most importantly no greater hope to share with their local’s members. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more pointless meeting.

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The NYSUT Convention and Hope

It’s NYSUT convention time again. This will be the first convention organized by the team of officers elected last year. I’m hoping the meeting will be radically different, less oriented towards a seemingly endless series of speeches by the political leadership of the state and more towards using the time in Buffalo to organize and motivate the assembled activists to leave to implement a coherent action plan. Frankly, I don’t want to hear Chuck Schumer tell me how much he loves us, when I know full-well that he loves his Wall Street backers more. While I have always liked Tom DiNapoli very much going back to the days when I lobbied him for the old NEA-New York, his stories about the teachers who were important to his life have little meaning at a time when today’s teachers are increasingly wondering why they entered the profession.

Were I running the show, I would turn it into the launching of the Politician Accountability Plan. Our members are fed up with our political class finding ways to hold them accountable for things they have little control over. It’s time for us to use our numbers in coalition with the opt-out movement, the anti-Common Core Standards movement, the economic justice movement and other progressive groups to hold the political leaders responsible for the war on public education accountable to us. We need a plan to make every assembly person and senator who voted to double down on the link between student test scores and teacher evaluations answer for what they have done to the students and teachers in their communities. We need to bring the NYSUT counter attack on Governor Cuomo down to the local level in a tireless effort to depress his polling numbers to the point where he becomes the political has been he deserves to be. We should be issuing a challenge to Hillary Clinton to tell us exactly how a Hillary administration will undo the damage to our schools the Obama/Duncan crowd has wrought. We should be using this meeting to send a message that we will not be taken for granted any more.

There are surely other things our convention could organize to do. The important thing is that when our activists leave Buffalo, they do so committed to a plan that offers hope to the members back home that their profession can be saved and that sanity can be returned to their classrooms.

I’ll be back on Monday, May 4, unless something happens in Buffalo that can’t wait until then.

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Can Merged States Be Appropriately Represented in NEA?

It’s not often thought about but 50 percent of the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are also members of the National Education Association (NEA). That’s as a result of the state mergers that have taken place in recent times. They belong to the NEA, but most do not have the representation at the NEA’s convention that their numbers would entitle them to. My own local of over 700 members isn’t entitled to even one representative under the current apportionment of delegates. That’s because a condition of their mergers demanded by the NEA was that merged states would only get the representation that had in NEA prior to their coming together. Merged states with large memberships like New York get only a fraction of the representatives their membership of some 600,000 would normally entitle them to owing to the fact that there were only about 30,000 NEA members at the time of the merger.

The July NEA Representative Assembly will see the introduction of a proposed constitutional amendment that would give merged states the voting strength their numbers entitle them to in an electoral system honoring the principle of one person, one vote. The proposed amendment will require a two thirds secret ballot vote, a very high bar, but just the fact that it will be up for discussion suggests a change in sentiment and a realization that the NEA has nothing to fear from enlarging the representation of its membership to its highest policy making body.

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