Headlines

Weekend Reading: Can we reinvent school accountability?

  • Ignore the politics. The Common Core will “live or die” by how well it works in classrooms. (Vox)
  • Why should preschoolers get suspended? One teacher explains. (Greater Greater Washington)
  • Providence, R.I. teachers rejected a tentative contract that allowed for layoffs and altered the pay structure. (Teacher Beat)
  • A teacher wonders whether her well-intentioned advice on reading has hurt her students. (Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension)
  • Education and medicine used to be quite similar and they could become that way again. (The Atlantic)
  • We need to rethink how we hold schools accountable, three columnists argue. (Flypaper)
  • Philadelphia will borrow $30 million to fund its schools, on top of $27 million borrowed earlier this year. (The Notebook)
  • A Colorado teacher is refusing to administer the state’s Common Core-aligned test. (Answer Sheet)
  • A teacher reflects on what it takes to get students to learn — and giving them their hardest quiz of the year. (The Jose Vilson)
  • In Mississippi, some Teacher for America alums are sticking around to make the changes they felt they couldn’t as teachers. (Hechinger Report)
  • An attempt to turn around low-performing Detroit schools run afoul of education technology and a lack of transparency. (Metro Times)
  • African-American girls face an long list of barriers to succeeding in school. (Huffington Post)
  • In honor of Banned Book Week, a look at what books Jefferson County, Colorado — currently embroiled in a controversy over censorship — has banned from schools. (Chalkbeat Colorado)
  • A collection of tweets on the student protests against the board’s actions in Jefferson County. (Buzzfeed)

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.”

National newsletter

Chalkbeat’s national newsletter: The new testing debates look a lot like the old testing debates

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Want to receive this in your inbox? Subscribe here.


The big story

Betsy DeVos’s education department has been on an ESSA plan approval tear. Last week, the department approved 16 states’ (and Puerto Rico’s) plans for complying with the federal education law, bringing the total number of plans that have gotten a green light to 35.

Some of those states have promised to use new metrics, such as absences and suspension rates, to help measure schools. But underneath talk of new ideas lurks the same old debates about how to use math and English tests.

We recently talked to Harvard professor Daniel Koretz, whose new book “The Testing Charade” makes the case against the way tests were used during the Bush and Obama administrations. His concern is that ESSA doesn’t change “the basic logic of the system” — the idea that pushing schools to boost test scores will improve the schools themselves.

Critics of testing in New York echoed those concerns yesterday. State officials there had hinted that they would apply for a federal program to give their tests a more radical makeover, but this week announced that they had abandoned the plan, in part because it would have been expensive. “I am frustrated,” one opt-out advocate said.

Others are skeptical about state plans for different reasons. “States mostly produced plans that are vague and noncommittal about how they will support low-performing schools,” according to a review of by Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm.

Those issues are holding up approval of California’s ESSA plan, the L.A. Times reported this week. Colorado is still waiting for a decision, too, months after appearing to bow to federal pressure to penalize schools where many students opt out of testing.


Local stories to watch

  • Poor families are leaving Denver — and charter schools may soon follow. KIPP says it’s looking to add schools outside the city where priced-out families are clustering.
  • Detroit is the latest city to rethink admission to its elite high schools. A placement exam has been the only factor; now the test will count for only 40 percent of admissions decisions.
  • New York City has a low bar for some turnaround schools. Graduation rates and test scores can actually fall at some schools and still land within the city’s targets.
  • In Memphis, the superintendent has raised the possibility of bringing charter operators into struggling district schools. That’s a big shift, since the district has battled openly with the charter sector. The state’s Achievement School District has been absorbing Memphis schools (and state dollars) and turning them over to charters for six years.

Matt’s research roundup

  • Scores (and hard work) on international tests pay off. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which shows that a country’s overall performance predicts economic growth — but so does students’ persistence over the course of a lengthy exam, which the researchers see as a measure of their “non-cognitive” skills. That give more credence to concerns from a long list of policymakers — including, most recently, Betsy DeVos — about the U.S.’s mediocre international rankings.
  • The worst principals aren’t sticking around. School principals don’t get studied nearly as much as teachers do, so a recent paper caught our eye. Focusing on Tennessee, the research found that less effective school leaders were especially likely to leave the job, often to take an assistant principal or classroom teacher position. That’s good news for students, as long as new principals are better than the ones they replaced. The best principals also had slightly higher-than-average turnover, in part because they were often promoted to central office positions.
  • Update: CHIP gets a six-year extension. Last week, we wrote about the research showing that children benefit educationally from health insurance programs. This week, as part of a deal to end the government shutdown, the Children’s Health Insurance Program was extended for six years.

Names to note

TNTP President Karolyn Belcher is stepping down in April and says she hopes to “lead an urban school district.” Jeffrey Villar will be the state-appointed “receiver” of schools in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Angélica Infante-Green is the subject of a campaign to make her New York City schools chief. Erika Soto Lamb is Democrats for Education Reform’s new national director for strategic communications.


DeVos watch

At an event held by a conservative legal group last week, DeVos was asked what she would do to promote the teaching of evolution in schools, presumably as opposed to creationism. “I’m not an advocate of any kind of national curriculum,” she said in response. “I continue to encourage the most local level to be able to have the kind of flexibility to meet individual students’ needs.”


The portfolio push

In Indianapolis, where the central school district is a darling of portfolio model advocates, nearly 4,000 students used a unified enrollment system for district and charter schools — the system’s first test. The state also released new data this week showing that only 55 percent of students who live in the Indianapolis Public School boundaries attend district schools.

Denver Public Schools has faced criticism from from national portfolio advocates and local charter leaders for not calling for new schools or expansion of charters this year. Our reporter Melanie Asmar breaks down the debate with responses from charter schools and the district.

The Memphis Education Fund — a member of a network of groups known as Education Cities, which supports the portfolio model — is working on principal training, teacher recruitment, helping single-site charter schools, and boosting reading skills among the city’s youngest students.


What we’re reading

  • Teen pregnancy has plunged, but students who have kids of their own still struggle to graduate. Hechinger Report
  • The school board in Evanston, Illinois, is hiring a “director of black student success.” Daily Northwestern
  • Bullied students may soon be eligible for private-school vouchers in Florida. Tampa Bay Times
  • A leader of the Democracy Prep charter network is in a public debate with students about the importance of “standard English.” Democracy Prep
  • San Antonio is set to allow Democracy Prep to take over a low-performing district school. Folo Media
  • Nearly 12,000 students are scrambling after the closure of online charter school Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. WOSU
  • KIPP is headed to Miami, even as one of its charter schools elsewhere in Florida has struggled. WLRN
  • A helpful (and wonky) overview of research on race and school discipline. Brookings
  • The head of the National Council for Teacher Quality says education reformers should keep the focus on improving schools, rather than addressing poverty or racism. NCTQ
  • Los Angeles’s school board may aim for a compromise pick for new schools head. EdSource