A deal is reportedly in place that will give Mayor Michael Bloomberg authority over the city's public schools, and responsibility for them. A teacher's contract should soon follow. Indeed, things are suddenly moving so fast that, by the time you read this, both may already have happened.
Under the plan, the mayor will be able to select the chancellor, and will choose eight members of the Board of Education, whose membership will be expanded to 13. The five remaining members will be parents appointed by the borough presidents.
If the mayor is getting something that he long has sought, the teachers have been seeking a contract for even longer, some 19 months. Teachers have been working without a contract since November 2000 and without a raise since December 1999.
Indeed, the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, called for a strike vote at the end of May, to express the union's frustration with the ups and downs of the negotiations.
Last year, the union found itself at an angry impasse with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who rejected its demands for raises that would make city teachers' salaries competitive with surrounding suburbs and who instead asked teachers to accept a merit-pay agreement.
When Michael Bloomberg became mayor, negotiations quickly began again. A state fact-finding panel offered recommendations that both sides agreed were reasonable. The state budget earmarked some funding for teachers' salaries. But just when a contract seemed within reach, progress stalled.
Publicly, Mayor Bloomberg said that negotiating a change in school governance was a higher priority than the teachers' contract. Teachers started to worry that the mayor was holding their contract hostage to the governance deal. Whether to appease her membership or to pressure the mayor or both, UFT president Randi Weingarten then took steps toward authorizing a strike.
Most observers thought a strike was never a likely outcome. Teachers' strikes are illegal in New York. The Taylor Law, which gives public employees the right to unionize also prevents them from striking and authorizes penalties for employees who break the law (for example, it requires employers to withhold two days' pay for each strike day. The teachers union has had only five strikes in its history, four of them in the 1960s when the union's status as a bargaining agent for educators was being established. Ten years ago, the membership, by a large majority, gave the leadership authorization to call a strike, but a contract agreement was reached over the summer before a walkout was called.
HIP PROTEST AT THE HALL
But, whether a strike was actually ever going to happen, there surely was a lot of noise about it. At a rally in front of City Hall on June 4th, organized by the UFT, the
Alliance for Quality Education, and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, tens of thousands of people, including many students, braved crowds, barricades, and police-blocked streets to protest Mayor Bloomberg's proposed education budget cuts. Teachers carried signs that read "Don't Force Me To Strike."
Celebrity speakers at the rally included Russell Simmons, LL Cool J, Erykah Badu, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Chuck D., the Lost Boyz, Wyclef Jean, and Cynthia Nixon (via videotape). The rally culminated a month's worth of smaller demonstrations and civil disobedience at City Hall by parents, teachers, advocates, and students opposed to the budget cuts.
The three organizing groups pledged that this was not a one-time alliance, but that they would continue to work together for a quality education for the city's students. Alliance for Quality Education executive director Regina Eaton said, "These young artists recognize their connection with New York youth and are willing to use it and their access to the media to work to improve education."
Protest Against UFT Honoring Governor Pataki
Last month, the UFT quietly presented Governor George Pataki with the John Dewey Award to Friends of Education, its highest honor, granted in years past to Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall, and last year awarded to President Bill Clinton. A number of teachers and advocates have registered disappointment at the UFT's choice.
In presenting the award, Randi Weingarten said that Governor Pataki "stepped into the breach to provide funds to help solve our contract dispute. . .." She also praised him for his support for teachers' pensions.
Outraged teachers and advocates remember the governor instead for his insufficient education budgets; for his insistence, in the Center for Fiscal Equity school-funding case, that New York students were entitled to no more than a 8th-grade education, and for his appeal of the court decision in that case, which holds that New York's school-funding system violates students' constitutional rights.
No organized protest was mounted against the award.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.