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. 

Said Bloomberg:

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.

Vowed Bloomberg,

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.

-------

*Part 1 was here.
Unions, however, are hardly done
for
.

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.

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