Unions on the run, part 2: Cuomo and Bloomberg take the offensive*
It was a bit like watching tag-team wrestling. The governor of the nation’s third-largest state public education system and the mayor of the nation’s largest single school district taking turns body-slamming teacher unions; governance at its rawest.
First, on January 4 Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a bold State of the State address, promised to be the state’s lobbyist for students and “wage a campaign to put students first and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.”
Then, the next week, Michael Bloomberg delivered an equally hard-hitting State of the City address, his penultimate as mayor of New York City, most of it devoted to education. He proved, as Crain’s Business Review put it, that he was “not resigned to the malaise of a lame-duck term or the limitations of a constrained budget” and “made clear his frustrations with the city's teachers' union, which has long resisted reform.”
Indeed, the Bloomberg speech made it clear that Gotham’s three-term mayor was intent on making the remaking of the city’s public education system his legacy.
Nine years ago this month, on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I gave a speech outlining our plans to transform a badly broken school system. Back then, the graduation rate had been stuck at 50 percent or less for decades. Violent crime, social promotion, hiring based on political connections – they all plagued our schools. Parents had too few choices about where to send their children to school, and they had even less information about how a school was performing. And the worst part was many people had stopped believing that anything in our schools could get better.
Well, I know you didn’t believe that. And we didn’t believe that either. Together, we took on the broken system, and by stressing accountability and innovation and ending social promotion, we’ve made real progress turning it around.”
Bloomberg ticked off a list of his accomplishments over those years, including increasing graduation rates by 40 percent and cutting the dropout rate nearly in half. (See my 2008 Education Next story on Bloomberg’s first six years, with Chancellor Joel Klein beside him, in the reform saddle.) In 2012 he admitted that “we have only climbed halfway up the mountain, and halfway isn’t good enough.” But, he continued, “we cannot allow obstacles to slow us down, and we cannot allow those who prefer the comforts of the base camp to the exhilaration of the summit to hold us back.”
Bloomberg proposed five steps for getting there, including paying an extra $25,000 over five years to those teachers who had graduated in the top tier of their college class and awarding $20,000 raises to those teachers rated highly effective for two consecutive years; closing 25 schools and opening 100 new ones, including 50 charters; requiring “every public school student [to] complete new study lessons and assignments in both Math and Literacy”; and providing financial aid to students wanting to go to college.
But by the far the most controversial – and most surprising – statement was Bloomberg’s challenge to the union on teacher evaluations.
A real evaluation system that is based on measurable improvement in student performance and principal assessment and allows us to make real changes is the only way we can do that. We have a model that works well in deciding tenure – and this should be exactly the same process.
The evaluation stakes had been raised considerably the previous month, as New York’s commissioner of education, John King, had withheld funds to nearly a dozen large school districts across the state (including New York City and 33 of its high-need schools) that had not completed their teacher evaluation agreements with the local teacher unions, a requirement of the state's winning $700 million Race to the Top bid. Many, including Bloomberg, blamed union intransigence for the failure to come to an agreement. Said the mayor,
[T]he UFT [United Federation of Teachers] insisted on provisions that would make it even harder to remove ineffective teachers. Not easier, but harder. As a result, those 33 schools lost $58 million in School Improvement Grants from the State. And if nothing changes, it could cost students in every borough hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds.
We’re not going to accept that. We’re not going to wait around while ineffective teachers remain in those schools.
Those who had watched the button-down billionaire mayor over the years could have predicted that Bloomberg had more than rhetorical fluff up his sleeve: he announced that he would invoke a rarely used power granted him by law – and was, he said, “consistent with a provision of the existing union contract” – and would create “school-based committees to evaluate teachers on merit and replace up to 50 percent of the faculty” in the 33 schools. Bottom line: he would, essentially, close the schools and reopen them with a new staff.
It was a nifty end-run around the UFT, which the next day begged to get back to the bargaining table.
As Fernanda Santos wrote in the New York Times, the mayor…
…showed a willingness to confront his most powerful and relentless opponent: the United Federation of Teachers. In a speech defiant in tone and ambitious in content, he announced a plan to sidestep the union, ignore its demands and take matters into his own hands.
There was little doubt that Bloomberg and Cuomo had put the unions on their heels.
The speech, said the Wall Street Journal, was a "volley of attacks at the union."
Meanwhile, back in Albany, Cuomo was preparing a budget address that he had promised would put some meat on the State of the State bones--or was it teeth in the jaw? And he did not disappoint. Yesterday, in his $133 billion executive budget proposal the governor came through with his own dare to the unions: school districts that did not negotiate meaningful evaluations in the next month would lose the governor’s proposed 4 percent state aid increase to school districts. “No evaluation, no money. Period,” said the governor.
Recall that Cuomo sent a forceful letter to the Board of Regents last year, enticing that body to up the ante on the importance of student performance in the evaluations (from 20 percent to 40 percent). The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) sued. (Jason Brooks, research director of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability gives good background on the saga.) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had increased the pressure on the unions two weeks ago with a blunt warning that New York had “hit a roadblock” by failing to adopt a system to evaluate the work of teachers and principals, warning that “backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Peter Murphy of the New York Charter School Association noticed the odd irony of Duncan issuing his warning to New York State on the same day that NYSUT’s chief, Richard Ianuzzi, was standing on the steps of the state education building shouting “bully.”
But there was little doubt that Bloomberg and Cuomo had put the unions on their heels.
Said Brooks, Cuomo “demonstrates a commitment to take on the state’s education establishment to bring about the dramatic reform needed to improve New York’s most-expensive school system in the nation…. The teachers unions in New York no longer have an absolute veto power over measures they oppose as they once enjoyed.”
A New York Times editorial praised Cuomo’s evaluation proposal. And Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, who was called the go-to guy for Cuomo during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, emailed me, “What is rather amazing is that both Bloomberg and Cuomo have decided this issue is such a no-brainer that they're willing to expend quite a bit of capital to push it forward. For the union to fight it now means it isn't just fighting the mayor and the governor: it is also fighting President Obama.”
This doesn’t mean that the match is over. But this round has surely gone to the governor and the mayor – and to public school students throughout New York State.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified New York's commissioner of education as John White, rather than John King, and stated that Cuomo's executive budget proposal was for $138 billion, rather than $133 billion.
blog comments powered by Disqus
About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
June 13, 2013
Sign Up for updates from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
- Daniel Willingham: Science and Education Blog
- National School Board Association’s School Board News Today
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
- Texas Association of School Boards
- New York State School Board Association
- Florida School Boards Association
- California School Boards Association
- Program on Education Policy and Governance
- The Center for Research on Education Outcomes