New York State United Teachers (NYSUT): Impeding Student Progress and Education Reform or Defending the Rights of Students, Parents and Teachers?

Last weekend I was a delegate at the New York State United Teachers Representative Assembly (RA) along with 2,000 or so teachers. As the delegates debated constitutional amendments and resolutions my twitter feed pinged away as the legislature and the governor wrestled in the mud over the state budget. For some, the union was selfishly holding up the budget to prevent dollars for charter schools; for the union, fighting for equitable public school funding. The pro-charter school Republican  state senators oppose charter schools in their districts; however,  they support providing dollars for charter schools in exchange for political contributions from charter supporters.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows (and visa-versa)

NYSUT is a complex organization, an amalgam of hundreds of associations, large and small, urban and rural, K-12 and college, in many ways deeply rooted in the American culture.

In 1834 Alexis de Tocqueville toured the nation and upon return to France wrote Democracy in America, a foreigner’s impressions of a new nation.

I do not wish to speak of those political associations with the aid of which men seek to defend themselves against the despotic action of a majority or against the encroachments of royal power …  It is clear that if each citizen, as he becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable in isolation of preserving his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

And, unions, are the modern day associations.

The National Education Association (NEA), was founded in 1858 and the American Federation of Teachers, in 1916; the two teacher associations merged in New York State in 1972.

The history of the AFT, of particular interest to me, become communist dominated in the heart of the Great Depression, and factions within the union, communists, socialists scores of other factions vied for power. In the early 50’s McCarthy period, the Feinberg law in New York State forced teachers to sign a loyalty oath, to swear that “…they were not and had never been a member of the communist party.” The communist faction faded away.  In 1960 the Teachers Guild and the High School Teachers Association merged to form the United Federation of Teachers. The nascent union plunged into the civil rights movement and support and opposition to the war in Vietnam, strikes in 1967 and 1968 and the merger with the NEA in 1972: a turbulent dozen years.

If you want dig deeper: The Communists and the Schools, R. W. Iverson, 1961,  Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights and the NYC Teachers Union, Clarence Taylor, 2011, Richard Kallenberg, Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, 2009 and Phillip Taft, United they Teach: The Story of the united Federation of Teachers, 1976.

NYSUT, with 600,000 members in each and every political subdivision of the state, proudly announced that voluntary political donations, the Committee on Political Education (COPE) reached $10 million in 2016. Yes, NYSUT is a political force in New York State.

The membership of NYSUT is extraordinarily diverse. The 70,000 members in the UFT, college teachers in the City University system, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and college teachers in the State University system, the United University Professions (UUP). Teachers in the “Big Four,” Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers; teachers in high wealth districts, the low wealth rural districts, the districts with single schools; an incredibly diverse membership.

The 700 school districts across the state, with 700 collective bargaining agreements, are represented at the state level by NYSUT.

The RA elected new leadership, Andy Pallotta the new president has New York City roots, although he has been an officer in NYSUT for ten years. Pallotta is only the fourth president, the former leaders all came from out of the city.

Pallotta has to blend the needs of teachers in Buffalo, teachers in villages deep in the Adirondacks, adjunct (part time) college teachers: how do you serve such a many faceted membership?

Driving members together:

* opposition to “test and punish” policies that are reviled by teachers across the state.

* the property-tax cap that restricts bargaining and erodes contracts

* opposition to the constitutional convention ballot initiative

* supporting increases in state funding

* electing school/teacher friendly legislators

* opposing the Washington De Vos agenda

As well as on the positive side: exploring authentic assessment of student progress and detaching student test scores from teacher evaluation.

175 years ago de Tocqueville saw an American uniqueness, creating associations,  as the most effective tool to fight tyranny.

In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.

Among the laws that rule human societies there is one that seems more precise and clearer than all the others. In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions increases.

And another reason to admire de Tocqueville, his views about American women,

I do not hesitate to avow that although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.

de Tocqueville was prescient.

One response to “New York State United Teachers (NYSUT): Impeding Student Progress and Education Reform or Defending the Rights of Students, Parents and Teachers?

  1. Peter, once again astounding, a historical perspective with important current implications. Thanks for being a rep & all your work in the good fight. Kathleen from the G. Store.


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