Michael Mulgrew: Tip-toeing between Cuomo and de Blasio, the Scylla and Charybdis of Education Politics in New York
New York City is a mayoral control city, meaning that the school leader, called the chancellor, is appointed by school board members (the Panel for Educational Priorities), a majority of whom are appointed by the mayor. The chancellor is actually the deputy to the mayor for education. Chancellor Carranza’s tenure begins today – managing over 1800 schools, 1.1 million students and over 100,000 unionized employees. The chancellor’s chief of staff is Ursulina Ramirez who served in same role for the mayor in his previous elected office, Public Advocate. The agenda of the chancellor is the agenda of the mayor: both succeed or neither succeeds. Management models vary, from mayoral control (New York, Chicago, Boston, etc.) to Los Angeles, an elected board with millions spent on the elections to Houston, a divided nine-member board elected by geographic areas competing for resources; there is no right or wrong model.
The Mayor of New York City is an outspoken progressive who won a hotly contested 4-way primary election in 2013 and rolled to easy victories in the general elections in 2013 and 2017. Although de Blasio is firmly in the progressive camp the 51-member City Council is much further to the left. De Blasio is term limited, meaning he is building a national reputation for his next run for office, whatever it might be.
A hundred and twenty miles to the north is Albany, the state capital and the political home of Andrew Cuomo, running for his third term as governor. In spite a Republican-controlled Senate Cuomo signed one of the first Marriage Equality laws as well as the strictest gun control laws in the nation. No matter: he is being challenged from the left by Cynthia Nixon, an actor with a long resume of political activism.
De Blasio and Cuomo, both with progressive creds, are bitter enemies, each claiming the progressive mantle.
Tip-toeing between the two most powerful electeds in New York State is the leader of the New York City teacher union (UFT), Michael Mulgrew, who began his career as a carpenter and rather surprisingly became the fifth president of the UFT in 2009. Under constant attack from Mayor Bloomberg Mulgrew not only successfully thwarted the mayor’s attempts to erode the union’s contract, the public trusted the union more than the mayor. Sol Stern in the conservative City Journal reported,
… according to a poll of city voters … sixty-four percent of respondents rated school performance as either fair or poor, with only 27 percent proclaiming it excellent or good; 69 percent said that students in the city’s schools weren’t ready for the twenty-first-century economy. New Yorkers now trust the oft-maligned teachers more than they trust the mayor’s office: almost half of all respondents said that teachers should “play the largest role in determining New York City’s education policy,” compared with 28 percent who thought that the mayor-appointed schools chancellor should.
While the UFT did not endorse de Blasio in the primary Mulgrew has developed an excellent relationship with the mayor. After more than four years without a contract Mulgrew and de Blasio negotiated a contract with full back pay, de Blasio appointed Carmen Farina, a Department of Education lifer, created the 70,000 student pre-K for All program, and reaped constant praise on teachers. De Blasio and Mulgrew clearly like each other and de Blasio’s appearance at the UFT Delegate Assembly, a huge success – teachers like him.
The brand new de Blasio-Carranza administration faces negotiating a teacher contract; the current agreement expires on November 30th, although in New York State expired agreements remain in force until the successor agreement is agreed upon. One issue is paid maternity/child care leaves; teachers have to use sick days, there is no paid leave. Under Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) policies contracts must comply with “ability to pay” and “patterning bargaining.” Simply put: the union and the city will have to find dollars apart from the base salary increase or reduce the negotiated salary increase, which is unlikely. Another major issue that applies only to the UFT is the Absent Teacher Reserve, 700 plus teachers who were excessed from closed schools, each year every closed school pumps more teachers into the pool: a bad Bloomberg policy and an expensive policy. If the ATRs are returned to schools can the dollars saved be used for a paid maternity/child care leave settlement? Just speculating! I imagine this week, while teachers are on spring break, the new chancellor will be meeting with all the players on the NYC education scene.
The union’s relationship with Cuomo is far more complicated.
The UFT is the largest local in NYSUT, the state teacher union organization. There are 700 school districts, 700 local teacher unions in the state. From New York City, to the other “Big Five” (Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers), to the high tax, high wealth suburban districts to the hundreds of low wealth rural districts that struggle to pay heating bills. The gap in funding among school districts in New York State is among the greatest in the nation. That’s right: we lead the nation in racially segregated schools and the inequality of school funding.
NYSUT represents all the locals and lobbies for more education dollars for all schools, Cuomo added a section to the budget requiring districts to phase in a dollar by dollar accounting of all education expenditures: a first step to equalizing state education dollars?
Bruce Baker in his superb School Finance 101 blog is concise,
To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher-quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve. Furthermore, in the absence of money, or in the aftermath of deep cuts to existing funding, schools are unable to do many of the things they need to do in order to maintain quality educational opportunities. Without funding, efficiency tradeoffs and innovations being broadly endorsed are suspect. One cannot tradeoff spending money on class size reductions against increasing teacher salaries to improve teacher quality if funding is not there for either – if class sizes are already large and teacher salaries non-competitive. While these are not the conditions faced by all districts, they are faced by many.
While good for New York City, equity in school funding could set school district against school district across the state and “wealthier” local teacher unions versus “poorer” local teacher unions.
NYSUT opposes the use of student data to assess teacher performance, the current matrix system that combines supervisory observations with measures of student learning is supported by UFT, the new system sharply reversed the Bloomberg era – over 3000 adverse rating.
NYSUT comes close to endorsing the opt-out movement, 20% of parents, heavily concentrated in the suburbs are the opt-out base, very few opt-out schools in NYC and the UFT position is: a parental choice.
The elephants will continue to trample the grass: Is Cuomo maneuvering for a 2020 presidential run, and, if so, how will he situate himself on progressive, educational and teacher union issues?
De Blasio is term-limited, what are his political aspirations?
Although de Blasio is on the left; the furthest left since La Guardia, not far enough to the left for his political rivals within the Democratic Party.
Cuomo has a progressive resume and continues to push toward more and more anti-gun measures and has forced the city to cough up millions for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and to repair the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), aka low-income housing, using the budgetary powers of the governor to pre-empt the powers of the NYC mayor.
There is a long history of political rivalry in New York; back in 1804 after tossing insults back and forth Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton “settled” their dispute on the Palisades. While dueling pistols are now museum pieces the modern equivalent is alive and well. Joe Prococo, Cuomo’s closest assistant, whose father Mario called my “third son,” is convicted of taking bribes while working as son Andrew’s closest confident, A strong supporter of de Blasio, Cynthia Nixon, is running against Cuomo in the September democratic primary. Cuomo forces de Blasio to budget hundreds of millions for MTA repairs even though the MTA is a state agency, and, also forces de Blasio to budget 250 million for NYCHA repairs overseen by an outside monitor.
In midst of the boulder throwing Mulgrew has to work with the two Megatrons, a daunting task.
Even within the union the political caucuses urge moving to the left, supporting or opposing this candidate or that candidate. The union meetings, the monthly Delegate Assemblies give Mulgrew and opportunity to “teach,” to float ideas, to interact with local school union leadership.
In my early days as a school district union leader a new superintendent, with a tough reputation was selected, some school union leaders argued we should picket his office on his first day, show him we’re as tough as he was reputed to be. I was fortunate, I was mentored by union leadership who spent a career in the foxholes of politics, dodging bullets and bombs from both sides. I realized I didn’t only represent the militants, I represented all the members. My day-to-day job was responding to their needs: getting a salary or health plan issue resolved, an emergency leave approved, getting a principal off a teacher’s back, and I needed a nod from the superintendent. We worked out a “mature” relationship, we “agreed to disagree” on issues, no surprises, always gave him a heads up if I was going to be publicly critical, and public acclaim for doing “the right thing,” and, not to slighted, we were both avid Mets fans.
On a much larger stage Mulgrew has navigated the political landscape, both praising and criticizing city and state leadership, and, teaching his membership, politics is a romance with good days and not so good days.
If he can get de Blasio and Cuomo to hug, I have a problem in the Middle East he can tackle next.