During his 12 years as mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg made a valiant effort to loosen the grip of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the labor union representing most of the city’s public school teachers, on the city’s underperforming schools. Along with his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, Bloomberg fostered the expansion of nonunion charter schools, gave principals control over hiring and budgets, and ended the practice of automatically granting teacher tenure after three years. These reforms came at a huge financial cost, though, and the basic organization of the schools didn’t change much.

With Bloomberg gone, the political will to reform Gotham’s schools has collapsed. Current mayor Bill de Blasio opposes any reform proposals not endorsed by the union. His schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, exchanged hugs and kisses with UFT president Michael Mulgrew this spring at a press conference announcing an expensive nine-year contract. Mulgrew has said that de Blasio’s election constituted a “seismic shift” in the relationship between city government and its public school teachers. Though some tinkering may continue on the margins, the project of making the city’s schools better has been shelved. De Blasio will likely do little to overhaul the dysfunctional system, and students will continue to fail in city schools set up to protect the interests of adults, not children.

Teachers’ unions in New York date back to the late nineteenth century. Though these early groups sometimes called themselves unions and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, they didn’t enjoy collective bargaining rights until 1959, when Mayor Robert Wagner granted them to all city workers by executive order. Three years later, the recently formed UFT began pressuring the city for pay increases, work-free lunch periods, automatic payroll deduction of dues, and more. When the city refused, the teachers went on strike. Though the strike was illegal and less than half of the city’s teachers actually walked out, the UFT—thanks to the leadership of Albert Shanker—won big pay increases and other workplace rule changes. The 1962 action demonstrated to teachers across the country that union militancy could pay large dividends and that state laws prohibiting strikes could be flouted.

During the following 50 years, the UFT proved formidable in winning better salaries and benefits, bolstering job security, and reducing workloads for its members. As one Queens middle school principal put it, “The UFT is as well organized as the Prussian Army.” Its policy positions are simple: government control is essential to public schooling; performance evaluations are a pretext for unjustly firing older teachers; and standardized tests exist to discredit public schools. As New York’s teachers and their union see things, no gap exists between what’s good for teachers and what’s good for students.

The UFT has been especially effective because, unlike other interest groups in the city, it gets two bites at the apple—through collective bargaining and through politics. Three structural features of the collective bargaining process skew in the UFT’s favor. First, even in the best-case scenario, in which the city fights for the children’s interests and the union battles to protect its teachers, the result would be something in between—that is, an outcome not fully in the interest of students. Second, the city is a near-monopoly provider of education. Absence of competition reduces pressure on the city to drive a hard bargain with the UFT, while lessening incentives for the union to moderate its demands. Third, the UFT contributes cash and campaign assistance to the politicians with whom it negotiates. To the extent that the UFT backs winners, the union ends up on both sides of the bargaining table. Consequently, negotiated outcomes favor the UFT over time.

In the political arena, no group in New York City can rival the UFT’s manpower and money. Most of its 116,000 members hold college and graduate degrees, making them more likely to be politically active. The union also collects huge sums in dues, which are automatically deducted from members’ paychecks. Each UFT member pays, on average, approximately $600 a year in union dues, bringing the union’s annual revenues to about $70 million—much of it reserved for paying union officials’ salaries, contributions to state and national federations, rent for office space, and the costs of collective bargaining. The UFT also maintains a Committee on Political Education, sponsored by members who voluntarily donate anywhere from 50 cents to ten dollars out of their biweekly paycheck for explicitly political purposes. The fund hauls in more than $10 million a year, about $3 million of which goes for lobbying and protests.

Thanks to its massive war chest, the UFT has become the Democratic Party’s largest underwriter in New York City and State. (It is also a major donor to the left-wing Working Families Party.) Over the last two years, the union has given $1.7 million to city council candidates—all Democrats. According to the National Institute for Money in State Politics, in 2012 (as in most years before and since), the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), largely a state-level extension of the UFT, was the Empire State’s biggest contributor to candidates and parties in state politics. Seventy-nine percent of the NYSUT’s $1.2 million in contributions went to Democrats. In his book Special Interest, Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe found that from 2000 to 2009, teachers’ unions’ campaign contributions exceeded those of all other business associations in New York State combined by a ratio of five to one. And most business groups don’t try to influence education policy so single-mindedly.

The UFT and the Democratic Party in New York are intertwined in other ways. For example, the union provides office space—next door to its headquarters at 50 Broadway in Manhattan—to the State Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. Then–UFT president Randi Weingarten served as cochair of Hillary Clinton’s 2000 senate campaign. Not surprisingly, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Senator Clinton dismissed the idea of teacher-merit pay as disruptive. A revolving door of consultants, campaign operatives, and lobbyists connects the UFT and the campaign staffs of state legislators and city council members. Many liberal interest groups in the city—such as Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, and other public-employee unions—are, for the most part, UFT allies. The union also helps fund other advocacy organizations, such as U.S. Action and the NAACP, and think tanks, such as Demos and the Economic Policy Institute, whose loyalty it can rely on in a pinch.

The UFT’s membership constitutes the largest single voting bloc in mayoral elections. And because teachers and school paraprofessionals live in all parts of the city, they can be decisive in low-turnout city council races. The UFT’s get-out-the-vote operation is rivaled only by its ally, SEIU 1199. In 2013, de Blasio was elected mayor with just 752,604 votes in a city of 8.4 million people. Fully 42 percent of voters said that they belonged to a union household.

The UFT also spends millions each year lobbying city council members and state legislators. According to the New York State Ethics Commission, the union spent $1.86 million in Albany in 2012. And the New York Public Interest Research Group reports that the NYSUT, to which the UFT contributes substantial revenues, was the state’s second-biggest lobbying spender in 2010, plunking down $4.7 million. (The Healthcare Education Project, a vehicle of SEIU 1199 and the Greater New York Hospital Association, was first.)

The UFT’s extensive political activities ensure that the school system continues to serve the needs of teachers first. The union’s enduring objectives—better pay, benefits, and job protections for its members—are divorced from issues of student achievement, as New York’s declining school performance since the unionization of teachers in the 1960s makes clear. By 1990, nearly 40 percent of freshmen entering high school had been held back in earlier grades, while 23 percent of students dropped out of school altogether. In 1994, only 44 percent of students graduated from high school in four years. Only one in three third-graders could read at or above grade level in 1997. Basic order broke down, too. In 2001, Gotham schools reported 1,577 felonies and 2,765 violent crimes. Even today, with graduation rates up and violence down, 77 percent of high school graduates entering the City University of New York’s community college system need remediation in reading, writing, or arithmetic.

Education reformers of all stripes agree that high-quality teachers are essential for student achievement. Yet New York City’s schools are not designed to encourage the best teachers; historically, almost no teachers have been dismissed for ineffectiveness in New York City, thanks to the considerable resources that the UFT devotes to defending poor performers. In 2006–07, only eight teachers in a 55,000-employee system were dismissed for performance-based reasons. Each dismissal case required 25 days of hearings, four weeks’ worth of principals’ hours, and cost taxpayers $225,000. For years, New York maintained Temporary Reassignment Centers, also known as “rubber rooms,” for teachers suspected of criminal conduct or gross incompetence. As recently as 2009, some 700 teachers were housed in rubber rooms while being paid not to teach, costing the city between $35 million and $65 million a year in salary and benefits. Even these teachers could be dismissed only with great difficulty because of state tenure laws requiring litigious “due-process” hearings. Decisions in such cases took, on average, between two and five years, and almost never turned on the issue of merit—that is, whether the teacher was good or bad at the job—but rather on whether proper procedures had been followed. All the while, vast sums of money that could have been spent helping students were wasted.

The rubber rooms closed down in 2010, but the problem of nonworking but fully compensated teachers remained. In his first term, Mayor Bloomberg took steps to streamline large schools, close failing schools, and give principals more control over budgets and hiring. The result was a group of “excess” teachers whom principals refused to hire but whom they could not dismiss under existing union contract rules. At the UFT’s behest, under the terms of the 2005 contract, the city created the Absent Teacher Reserve, in which the nonworking teachers were soon enrolled. ATR teachers stay on salary with full benefits and are available as substitutes. In theory, these teachers can apply for new jobs elsewhere in the school system as they become available, but many never bother. Last year, some 1,200 teachers languished in the ATR, costing the city some $144 million a year. Since 2005, teachers in the ATR have received full pay and benefits, at a cost of roughly $1 billion.

Other union-imposed organizational structures drive up costs and push down teacher performance. As journalist Steven Brill has noted, New York City teachers are contractually bound to work only 179 days a year, 35 hours per week, six hours and 57.5 minutes a day—between 8:30 AM and 3:25 PM, with a 50-minute lunch break. (Compare that with a full-time private-sector worker who spends, on average, over 240 days a year and 40 hours per week on the job.) Teachers also get 13 paid sick or personal days, which roll over from year to year if not taken. When teachers retire, they can cash out unused sick days.

Many teachers work above and beyond what the contract specifies, of course, but they do so for their own reasons. Nothing incentivizes them to put in extra hours or call a parent on the weekend. Conversely, teachers can’t be punished for working to the letter of the contract—and many reportedly do just that. New York’s public school teachers enjoy robust job protections, but thanks to union-negotiated work rules, they have less classroom independence, less of an impact on school organization, and less administrative support than do private school and charter school teachers. Burnout rates are high, especially in the early years of a teacher’s career. Teachers get paid according to a rigid salary schedule based on longevity and educational credits. Classroom performance counts for nothing.

Put simply, New York City lacks control of its teacher workforce. It cannot structure pay incentives to spur performance and reward excellence; it cannot easily transfer, reassign, or dismiss poorly performing teachers; and it cannot hold teachers accountable for student achievement. No wonder such a poorly designed organizational structure—one compounded by the fact that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack parental support, proper nutrition, and a good night’s rest when they arrive at school—produces such disappointing results.

In Bloomberg, the city had a mayor dedicated to education reform, but his successes came at a great price to city taxpayers. He began by seeking mayoral control of the schools, a goal that had eluded his predecessors. The state legislature—heavily lobbied by the UFT, which wanted the compliant Board of Education to stay in charge—thwarted the earlier efforts.

Bloomberg succeeded where previous mayors had failed, not by weakening the UFT but by offering the union terms too generous to pass up. In exchange for 16 percent to 22 percent salary raises for teachers, the UFT agreed in 2002 to support mayoral control. With his newfound power, Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein, a former Clinton administration antitrust lawyer, as schools chancellor, and together they embarked on an ambitious series of reforms. They converted the district’s 32 local districts into ten divisions to eliminate bureaucracy, corruption, and incompetence, and, with help from the Gates Foundation, they converted some of the largest, most impersonal high schools into smaller, more intimate schools. Bloomberg and Klein also encouraged the growth of charter schools by letting them use space in existing school buildings, shepherding their applications through the bureaucracy, and championing them in Albany.

SETH WENIG/AP PHOTOUFT leader Michael Mulgrew, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announce the lavish new teachers’ contract, which includes unprecedented back pay.

Mayoral control allowed Bloomberg to bypass the collective bargaining process to achieve these goals. That changed in November 2003, when Eva Moskowitz, then head of the city council’s education committee, held open hearings on the New York City School District’s teacher contracts. In the past, union officials and council members had negotiated the 200 pages of detailed work rules behind closed doors. Some witnesses, fearing UFT reprisals, refused to testify. Others agreed to do so only anonymously. Moskowitz’s hearings sparked a media frenzy. Even the union-friendly New York Times wrote: “Work rules need to change for schools to work better.” Infuriated, the UFT backed Moskowitz’s opponent for Manhattan borough president in 2005, who defeated her and derailed her political career.

Nonetheless, Moskowitz’s hearings spurred Bloomberg and Klein, in their next round of contract negotiations with the UFT, to eliminate the most detrimental work rules—particularly the use of seniority in hiring and transfer decisions. They also wanted to let principals pay performance bonuses to effective teachers and make it easier for them to fire ineffective ones. The UFT countered by demanding big salary increases, a no-layoff provision, and the hiring of more teachers to reduce class sizes. Both sides dug in, and negotiations stalled. Only the pressure of the 2005 mayoral election broke the logjam. After working without a deal for two years, the UFT ran a $2 million ad campaign demanding a new contract and threatened to strike or endorse Bloomberg’s opponent. Bloomberg settled, giving teachers a 15 percent salary increase over four years (the deal was retroactive to 2003). In return, the UFT sat out the mayoral election, agreed to end seniority in hiring and transfers, and granted principals the authority to decide who worked in their schools.

Negotiating the next contract for 2007, Bloomberg and Klein set their sights on tying teacher salaries more closely to classroom performance. But the city wound up with a watered-down version of performance pay, in which bonuses went to entire schools rather than to individual teachers. As Terry Moe noted, the deal cost the city “a hefty $27 million in bonus payments, and virtually every participating school got the bonuses, whether they were good teachers or not.” And the UFT agreed to the school-based performance pay only with the promise that the city would shell out $160 million to cover disputed health contributions while sweetening the pension system to let thousands of teachers retire with full pensions at age 55, with 25 years of service. Bloomberg and Klein quietly disbanded the performance-pay program after a few studies suggested that it had no effect on student achievement.

The financial crisis and its aftermath cut short the next round of collective bargaining between Bloomberg and the teachers, who worked without a contract until this year’s deal with de Blasio. As always, however, teachers continued to receive their regular “step” salary increases during this period. As E. J. McMahon of the Empire Center has shown, for nearly 60,000 of the city’s 80,000 teachers, salaries rose between 2009 and 2013 by an average of $8,000 per teacher—or nearly 12 percent. The step increases added $1.2 billion to city operating costs. The 2014 contract includes retroactive raises costing the city $3.6 billion, and 1 percent to 3 percent raises over the life of the contract, in exchange for unspecified savings in public employees’ health-care plans. Base pay will jump 19.5 percent over the next five years, with no serious changes to work rules or school organization.

All this spending means that the New York City school system now lays out $20,226 per pupil—double the national average of $10,608—based on census data released in May 2014. Under Bloomberg, per-student spending in the city increased from roughly $11,000 in 2001–02 to $14,000 in 2004–05 and then skyrocketed to about $19,000 in 2010–11 before reaching its current level.

Bloomberg’s efforts did yield some positive results. Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests administered to fourth- and eighth-graders, considered the gold standard in educational testing, improved between 2003 and 2013. Graduation rates jumped 19 percent between 2005 and 2011. In 2011, 66 percent of high school students graduated within four years, up from 44 percent in 1994. Dropout rates declined. School felonies also decreased significantly: violent crime fell 42 percent between 2001 and 2008.

Yet even after all the political battles with the UFT, only 25 percent of the city’s public school eighth-graders have reached or exceeded proficiency in reading and math—about 10 percent below the national average—according to the NAEP. And while more students are staying in high school and graduating, only 23 percent are actually college-ready, as measured by scores on the state Regents exam, which explains the three-quarters of CUNY community college freshmen needing remediation. CUNY’s community college system, legally bound to accept any New York City student with a high school diploma, now spends more than $33 million a year on remediation—more than double a decade ago. Social promotion in lower grades may have been eliminated, but it persists at the high school level.

One provision of the new contract constitutes the de Blasio administration’s backhanded admission that union orthodoxy hampers productivity: the creation of 200 Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE), which can opt out of union work rules and directives from the city’s department of education. How many schools will take advantage of this option remains to be seen. Sixty-two have had proposals accepted so far. Yet even if the 200-school maximum is reached, 90 percent of New York City public schools would still operate under the old arrangements.

Still, the quasi-charter aspect of PROSE indicates that the UFT understands the popularity of charter schools. The number of charters in the city has increased tenfold in the city since 2003, to 183, though still only 6 percent of city students attend them. New York State began allowing charters only in 1998, over opposition from city and state teachers’ unions. (To show that it was worthy of grant money from Race to the Top, President Obama’s school-reform initiative, Albany has raised its cap on charter schools in the state from 200 to 460.)

Charter schools might be more plentiful in New York City today if the UFT hadn’t used its political power to limit their expansion. Weingarten, now president of the American Federation of Teachers, has offered rhetorical support for charters, and the UFT runs its own charter school in Brooklyn, but what the unions really have in mind is to free schools from district control—not union control. In Weingarten’s view, charter schools are fine as long as the teachers are unionized and enjoy collective bargaining rights—in other words, as long as the schools operate under the UFT’s aegis. Parents can exercise school “choice” but only from a menu of unionized public schools.

The UFT’s opposition to charter school growth clashes with the preferences of most New Yorkers, only 18 percent of whom, according to a 2013 Quinnipiac University poll, want fewer charter schools. This gulf between the union and the public contributed to one of de Blasio’s few early political defeats. On the campaign trail, de Blasio promised to roll back Bloomberg’s policies supporting charter schools. In particular, he wanted to stop the common practice of locating charter schools in buildings with traditional public schools—he claimed that they had a “destructive impact” on the traditional schools—and to charge charter schools rent. He attacked Moskowitz, now leader of the Success Academy charter school network, saying that she had “to stop being tolerated, enabled, [and] supported.” Success Academy operates 22 schools in the city, serving 6,700 students, 90 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. Moskowitz’s schools consistently outscore traditional public schools on state tests by wide margins.

Once settled in Gracie Mansion, de Blasio reallocated $210 million from a charter school expansion fund to prekindergarten programs. Then he canceled agreements that Bloomberg had made for three Success Academy charters to share building space with existing public schools. The three charters had already hired principals and teachers and were recruiting students. De Blasio also signed a bill requiring all charters located in the same buildings as traditional public schools to publish regular reports on student demographics and academic records.

The backlash was swift. The usually politically astute de Blasio had stumbled into one of the central cleavages in local progressive politics. On one side are the teachers’ unions, the Working Families Party, and allied urban interest groups. On the other side are minority parents, wealthy liberal philanthropists, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Minorities had supported de Blasio’s election, but his position on charters clashed with the views of a growing coalition of African-American and Latino charter school parents. In some neighborhoods, such as Harlem, as many as 33 percent of students attend charters. Their parents form a political constituency that de Blasio underestimated.

It came down to a public-relations battle between Moskowitz and the mayor. She led a protest of mostly minority students and parents in a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, and she organized an Albany rally, at which Cuomo gave an impassioned speech supporting charter schools. A charter advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, launched a $3.6 million advertising blitz attacking the mayor. The tabloids had a field day covering this Democratic civil war.

The result was a political humbling for de Blasio. After his first two months in office, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that only 38 percent of voters approved of his handling of the city’s schools, while 49 percent disapproved. The poll also showed the mayor’s approval rating falling from 53 percent of voters just after his inauguration in January to 45 percent in March. To top it off, the state legislature passed a Cuomo-backed law forcing the city to find space for the three Success Academy charter schools to which de Blasio had denied co-location—and to offer rent-free space in city buildings to new charter schools, effectively pulling the plug on the mayor’s plan to slow their growth.

While the city’s charter school advocates won the first round against de Blasio, they may be on the defensive for the remainder of his mayoralty, as the UFT and its political allies will try to stifle charters with new regulations. More broadly, the de Blasio years will likely see trench warfare in education policy, with neither side gaining much ground. Reformers can look to few officeholders for support for other measures that would expand choice and accountability in the schools. The road won’t be entirely smooth for the UFT, either: the union will confront litigation modeled on the Vergara case in California, which seeks to eliminate the state’s “last in, first out” layoff policy, weaken ironclad tenure protections, and do away with other rules that distort allocation of the best teachers within the school system. Friction will also continue over the national Common Core curriculum and teacher evaluations.

Yet, on balance, the UFT made it through three terms of a reform-minded mayoralty while giving up remarkably little. Most teacher protections and work rules that the union won over the years remain intact, and the UFT now has an ally in Gracie Mansion. Education reform is not a de Blasio priority, while the mayor’s universal prekindergarten initiative will add 2,000 new members to the UFT’s rolls and funnel $1 million in annual dues to its coffers. In New York, the reformers came and went; the UFT, arguably the nation’s most powerful teachers’ union, keeps grinding along.

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.

Top Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for National Education Association

UFT leader Michael Mulgrew, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announce the lavish new teachers’ contract, which includes unprecedented back pay. (SETH WENIG/AP PHOTO)


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