state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.