In New York’s Mayoral Race, Who Will the Teachers’ Union Endorse?

Update 2, 5:50 pm: The UFT has endorsed Bill Thompson.

Update 1, 5 p.m: The UFT executive board has recommended Bill Thompson for mayor. Now the 3,400 Delegate Assembly will vote.

This evening, the United Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers' union, will endorse a candidate for mayor of New York City. Most close observers believe the pick will be either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Thompson is the former city controllor and former head of the now defunct Board of Education, which was abolished when Mike Bloomberg gained mayoral control of the city's schools. In 2009, Thompson shocked New York politicos when he came within just a few points of defeating Mayor Mike Bloomberg in his bid for a third term. Yesterday, Thompson was endorsed by the principals' union, and he had already won the support of Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers, to which the city UFT belongs. Bill de Blasio is the current city public advocate and a former member of a Brooklyn community school district board — another body abolished by mayoral control. He is running generally to the left of the rest of the field, and has already received a major union endorsement from SEIU 1199. (The candidate with a modest lead in the polls, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, has been booed at UFT events, and is seen as overly aligned with union foe Bloomberg.)

On education, Thompson and de Blasio have staked out many similar positions. Both are in favor of continuing mayoral control, but with checks and balances from a more independent Panel for Education Policy. Both are skeptical of standardized testing and are in favor of "moratoriums" on school closings and charter school co-locations within public school buildings. Both have said they would end the Bloombergian practice of appointing school chancellors who built their reputations in fields other than education. Both say they might continue the experiment in weighing student test scores in teachers' evaluations, but in reality, this is not a city-level issue; New York State's new teacher evaluation law, crafted in response to President Obama's Race to the Top competition, requires that student data be included. Thompson's campaign chairwoman is Merryl Tisch, a state education official who strongly supports Race to the Top. 

The candidates' divergences on education policy are ideologically idiosyncratic. De Blasio says generously endowed charter school networks, like Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies, should pay rent if they use space in public school buildings, a position in line with a failed lawsuit filed in 2011 by a group of parent activists who often ally with the teachers' union. Thompson opposes rent for charter schools. But de Blasio also supports ending seniority-based teacher layoffs. Here, he is agreeing with the education reform movement embodied by Mayor Bloomberg and often opposed by the union. Thompson's position on seniority remains unclear. 

To my mind, the major education policy difference between Thompson and de Blasio is that de Blasio supports raising taxes on city residents who earn more than $500,000 annually — from 3.86 to 4.3 percent – which could theoretically provide a way to fund the many education extras he is proposing, such as universal pre-K, community and health services within public school buildings, and more arts education. Thompson, on the other hand, has said, "Let me be blunt, so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m not raising taxes."

You'd think this would swing the UFT endorsement toward de Blasio, but that may not be the case. For one thing, only Albany has the power to raise taxes, and there is scant evidence that Republicans and moderates there would be willing to take the lead of a progressive Democratic mayor on this issue. Last week I interviewed Peter Goodman, a veteran UFT teacher, organizer, and staffer, who remains active in the union's retiree chapter. Within the UFT, there is a concern that should de Blasio win the Democratic nomination, it could strike so much fear in the city's tax-averse corporate elite that "they would pump money" toward the campaign of Joe Lhota, the leading Republican, Goodman said. Union leaders are also cogniszant of the coalition-building that could come from allying with a strong, black Democratic mayor. "Having an African American candidate is a good idea," said Goodman, who was a strike leader in 1967 and 1968, when the city schools convulsed with conflict between union teachers and black and Latino activists and civil rights groups, who supported more parent control over schools. 

"If you look at Tweed," Goodman said, the headquarters of the Department of Education, "and who works there, they are very white. And I think things like that, you have to be very sensitive to. To ignore it is at your own peril, and I think this [Bloomberg administration] leadership has done that. To me, that’s one of the great failings. This is an enormously multi-ethnic city and demographics are destiny."

Civil rights organizations are split in their approach to teachers' unions. The NAACP, for example, has joined the UFT in suing New York City to stop school closures and charter school expansions in low-income neighborhoods. From Washington, however, national civil rights-oriented advocacy groups, like Education Trust and the Children's Defense Fund, have been more supportive of charter schools and the push for teacher accountability. 

New York's mayoral election will have big implications for school reform nationwide. Have parent activist opponents of standardized testing and charter schools — who generally support "millionaire's taxes" to fund community schools — organized themselves into a force strong enough to sway a major union endorsement toward a left candidate like Bill de Blasio? Or will pragmatism prevail? The shape of the race will be clearer after tonight's UFT endorsement. 

For more: Read Philissa Cramer on the union's endorsement process.

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