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Teachers Union Grills 'Final Four' Candidates in Its Mayoral Race Endorsement Process

UFT Mulgrew schools

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) invited the “final four” Democratic candidates for mayor it is considering endorsing in this year’s election to a public forum on Wednesday as the New York City teachers union determines which of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang it will back in the primary set for June.

Union leaders and the candidates covered a range of topics, including charter schools, gifted and talented programs, high-stakes testing, mental health services for students, teacher retention rates, remote learning programs, WiFi and technology access, PTA funding, and more. Candidates discussed how the city should address learning loss and psychological trauma from the pandemic and closed schools and tried to pitch themselves as the most qualified to develop and execute a comprehensive and equitable educational plan that will address long-standing inequities that the pandemic exacerbated.

Michael Mulgrew, the UFT president, moderated the event, while he and numerous union members posed questions to the candidates and pushed them on the union’s priorities. Throughout the 90-minute forum, a rare such event as part of any labor union’s endorsement process, Mulgrew challenged the candidates to fully explain their viewpoints, often inserting his and the union’s point of view, and asking follow-up questions. Most questions were posed to specific candidates, including on multiple occasions where Mulgrew indicated the union’s skepticism of Adams and Yang, though there was overlapping subject matter.

The forum provided candidates an opportunity to impress the UFT Delegate Assembly, who will issue their endorsement soon, with the union among the last of the city’s largest to choose which candidate it is backing. The UFT has struggled to get its chosen candidate over the finish line in many recent mayoral elections -- in the last open race, it backed Bill Thompson, who lost the Democratic primary to Bill de Blasio, whom the union has mostly had a good relationship with, though it has been deeply strained during the pandemic.

Although Yang is leading in the early polls, he has come into conflict with union, particularly over recent remarks he made to Politico New York that put blame on the UFT for what Yang deemed as a too-slow pace of school reopenings. During his presidential campaign, Yang described himself as “pro-charter” school, which is anathema to the UFT, and questioned how quickly teachers are able to become tenured -- two stances Mulgrew pushed him on during Wednesday’s forum. Adams was also questioned over his support for charter schools.

Stringer and Wiley have stronger apparent alignment with the UFT on policy, and both have proposed expansion of the teacher workforce as part of their campaigns. Stringer is a long-time ally of the union, which helped him win both his highly-competitive first races for Manhattan Borough President and Comptroller. He has been seen as the favorite for the union’s endorsement in this race, but there are many considerations involved. Adams and Wiley have thus far won some of the other major union endorsements, while Stringer has also picked up some, including the union of school principals and administrators just this week.

“We've really robbed our children of the joy of learning with high-stakes testing,” said Adams, who kicked off the forum by describing his third-grade teacher, who “inspired me and placed the joy of learning inside me.” Adams decried the lack of resources available to teachers, saying, “Far too often our teachers must go into their own pocketbooks or pockets, or they have to do without in their classroom.” As mayor, Adams would “give them the tools they need.”

“We should be doing more to provide technical education, apprenticeship and vocational paths to kids in high school, in particular high school is when the rubber hits the road for a lot of these kids,” said Yang when asked how he would increase internship opportunities for high school students. Yang said he would partner not only with large corporations but also small business owners, citing his first job experience as a busboy.

During an early lightning round, candidates were asked to limit their answers to “yes” or “no,” though they often struggled to do so, and in some cases candidates were asked to elaborate on their answers. Candidates were divided in their responses on topics related to mayoral control of schools, the state cap on charter schools, and high-stakes testing.

Asked if they would keep the current model of mayoral control, Wiley and Adams said no, indicating they wanted mayoral control but with changes, and Stringer said, “Yes, with changes.” Yang gave the only unequivocal yes, explaining his belief it “has been a net positive for the city since the change was made.”

Candidates unanimously answered “no” when asked if they would continue testing kindergarteners for gifted and talented programs, although Yang specified, “When asked that way, no.”

Candidates also unanimously answered “yes” when asked if every school deserved a gifted and talented program, though Wiley specified, “Yes, redefined.”

Asked to explain his stance, Stringer emphasized democratizing access and resources, saying, “The ultimate way we're going to make every classroom and every school gifted and talented is by actually investing in the same resources gifted and talented classrooms have, and that starts with investing K-to-5, two teachers in every classroom, a head teacher and assistant teacher, just like they do in private schools.”

Candidates unanimously agreed to keep the cap on charter schools, though the answers held some nuance. “We don't need to increase the number of charter schools that we have,” said Adams. “There are some failing charter schools—people want to believe there aren't, but there are—and let's phase them out and allow those successful schools, those schools that are really focusing on achievement, and allow them to fill those slots.” Yang has indicated he believes that the currently unused but previously awarded charters should be re-issued, so not raising the cap but allowing for the creation of new charter schools.

Asked if they would keep the standardized Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) as the only criteria for admissions to the city’s eight specialized high schools, candidates had time to answer briefly then elaborate.

Wiley said “no,” explaining, “I think we should actually be talking about how amazing every last one of our high schools should be and how amazing every last one of our students are, and focus on what invests in all of their success.”

Stringer said no and specified that he would “end the SHSAT for specialized schools” and “replace the SHSAT with the seventh-grade test,” arguing it’s more reflective of the content teachers are teaching in classrooms. He noted that the SHSAT “denies kids of color opportunity,” and so replacing the test would “diversity the student bodies of the specialized schools.”

Adams said he would keep the SHSAT test but noted he would “use a cross-section of criteria” to make the admissions process more holistic. “We have a lot of children with special needs that are gifted that are being denied access, or English as a second language,” he said. Adams also called for the creation of five new specialized high schools, one in each borough, arguing, “We put too much of our oxygen in the room for eight schools, when we have over 400 high schools that need the assistance that they deserve.”

Yang took a similar stance to Adams, saying he “would keep the SHSAT, but use other criteria, as well.”

Tensions rose when Mulgrew pressed Yang to clarify his position regarding comments he made during the Politico interview, when Yang said, “I will confess to being a parent that has been frustrated by how slow our schools have been to open, and I do believe that the UFT has been a significant reason why our schools have been slow to open.”

Mulgrew also referenced Yang’s past comments calling himself “pro-charter” and saying, “I think it’s ridiculous that we’re tenuring teachers at like the two-year mark or something, and make it so you can’t be paid or you can’t be disciplined or fired.” Mulgrew asked Yang if he stood by all these stances.

“Mike, you and I had a productive conversation afterwards where you conveyed to me that it’s been a failure of leadership on the part of the mayor and that the teachers need a partner who’s committed to reopening the schools in a responsible way that protects teachers and makes everyone feel safe and secure,” Yang responded, though he did not explicitly amend or retract his original position, reiterating that he was speaking as a frustrated parent. “I agree that the mayor has failed the teachers and public school parents like me at providing the leadership that we needed to get our schools to reopen more quickly.”

Yang also reiterated his original remarks regarding tenure, saying, “I think that teachers are awesome. But there are a lot of teachers that I think could stand a bit more seasoning before you give them a certain degree of tenure or professional assurance, and that statement is something I would stand by.”

Mulgrew pushed back, explaining that teachers receive tenure in four years, not two, as Yang’s original statement suggested (though Yang was talking more broadly than New York City at the time amid his presidential run). “The position of tenure is one of the most misunderstood things, and it's constantly used as a political football against the teachers,” said Mulgrew. “The protection for tenure means that more than 50% of the teachers never reached the tenure decision because they don't last in the profession.”

Yang agreed that teacher burnout was “a structural problem,” saying, “As a public school parent, any parent would agree that we need to do more to support teachers and keep them in the profession.”

Asked how he would manage the Department of Education to lower the rate of teacher burnout, Yang suggested, “If teachers are delivering at a very high level, they should be getting paid more,” or teacher merit pay, on top of smaller class sizes and more teachers in the classroom.

Mulgrew took issue with Yang’s position. “I want to know why you would support something such as individual merit pay when all educational research on it now has proven it not to work for children,” he said.

“I'm not suggesting that the compensation necessarily gets matched to something like, for example, test scores. I'm not for that,” explained Yang. He continued, “If you look at the amount of money we're spending per student, it’s really significant. And then if you look at the proportion of that that's going to actual teachers, it's really low.” Yang went on to suggest “paying teachers more from year one.”

Adams was asked about his plan to fix inequities regarding access to the internet and technological devices for students. He began by citing his opposition to renewing Verizon’s citywide franchise on the grounds that the company has “ignored communities of color in i mpoverished areas.” Adams went on to criticize the Department of Education for failing to communicate with educators during the remote learning rollout, saying, “We need to really speak to the people closest to the action.” Adams called for “a real-time GIS mapping system to see where WiFi is located” and track when students receive devices. And he called for ensuring high speed broadband access, adding that he has “put over $130 million into our schools to help with technology,” in apparent reference to use of his capital budget as borough president.

Mulgrew pushed back on Adams’ proposals, saying, “If we're going to actually tackle this, there has to be a management plan in place because I'm letting you know there is not one in place to do this systematically.”

Adams suggested utilizing existing resources, such as the NYPD, which has demographics data for all schools, to deliver computers and tablets to students.

In addition to technology, Adams said schools should be places where students can have a range of other health and wellness needs met. “Schools should be the focal point for the full development of the full personhood of our children—eyeglasses, or food pantries in every school, washers and dryers, toiletries, so many things are barriers to education,” said Adams.

Wiley offered a similarly sweeping vision for the public education system, pledging to “build out the community school model...so that they’re also wraparound services for the entire family.”

Yang and Stringer took different stances on accommodating families who want to participate in fully remote learning for the foreseeable future as the city still battles with COVID-19 and new variants.

“We have to recognize that not one size fits all for parents and for students, and we should build that system out,” Stringer said.

Yang, who has been the most vocal of the candidates about reopening schools faster, was reluctant to commit to building out a remote learning program. “I think it's too soon to tell whether a child is thriving,” he said, pushing back against Mulgrew’s assertion that teachers say some small population of students has done very well with remote learning and Stringer’s assertion that one of his two sons has done well with remote learning. Yang noted that the decision to participate in remote learning varied along racial lines. “We can’t force people, obviously, to do something. But we should be doing everything in our power to convey the information, which is that in-person instruction is a better approach,” said Yang, citing studies that have shown “in person-instruction is 30% to 70% more effective at content-based learning.”

Wiley was asked if she would support housing subsidies for teachers. “I am actually putting forth a plan whereby we are going to create much more affordable housing and at the levels of affordability that our essential workers can actually pay,” said Wiley. She noted that she would repurpose at least some of the city’s vacant land to create affordable housing, an idea that has been central to Stringer’s housing framework for several years and he reiterated during the forum as well.

Candidates were asked about utilizing the coming infusion of funds from the federal and state governments.

Stringer voiced support for UFT’s recommendation that the city allocate $1 billion in federal covid relief funds for students’ mental health. He spotlighted his child care plan, which would “triple the number of kids in child care” by specifically targeting households making up $100,000 a year. He said the city should fund “full after-school programs,” a position he elaborated on later in the forum: “Under my education plan, we're going to equalize after-school funding. If one school gets chess, every school gets chess. One school gets robotics, every school gets robotics.”
“I'm going to make sure we're hiring 1,000 new teachers in order to bring class sizes down,” said Wiley, who noted doing so would “help us confront the reality of a traumatized community because we have to start individualizing our learning for our kids.” Wiley emphasized cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapy for students and “more summer youth employment.”

Adams pledged to provide every first-time mother with a doula who will provide nutritional education and prevent “irreversible learning disabilities.” He stressed “real dyslexia screening in schools,” citing data that 30% of detainees at Rikers Island have dyslexia. He said he would expand the plant-based nutrition pilot program that he spearheaded at Bellevue Hospital “that’s reversing chronic diseases. He also mentioned providing children with healthy foods, ensuring every child in the foster care system has a home, and rebuilding trust with law enforcement.

Although Yang decried the departure of what he said was 300,000 families from the city as a result of the pandemic, as well as the loss of 600,000 jobs, he did not directly explain how he would utilize the city’s flush coffers for its recovery.

Wiley was asked to explain her stance on eliminating gifted and talented programs and improving integration in the city’s schools. Although Wiley chaired the School Diversity Advisory Group empaneled by Mayor de Blasio and has reiterated her support for the panel’s recommendations to replace gifted and talented programs with broader models, redraw district lines, and move away from from admissions screens to drive integration in the public school system, she has not yet emphasized school integration in her campaign so far.

Wiley used her response time to primarily explain the panel’s recommendations regarding gifted and talented programs. “We have to expand the opportunity for gifted education, for helping invest in supporting the talents of all our kids, recognizing they all have one or some, and that there are far too many that don't get the benefit of the investments, and we don't have enough programs,” said Wiley. “What we saw was a proliferation of things called gifted and talented in low-income communities of color that actually weren't. That's what we wanted to avoid was the idea that because you slap the label on something, that that's what it was.”

Educators who posed questions to the candidates raised concerns throughout the forum about addressing children’s mental health and trauma in the wake of the pandemic.

“We have to triple the number of social workers in our schools,” said Stringer, who repeated his endorsement of the UFT’s proposal to provide more mental health services in the city’s schools throughout the forum.

Yang joined the call for increased mental health services, saying, “The ratio right now of guidance counselors, social workers, mental health workers, per school, or per child is terrible, particularly when we know our kids are going to be coming back with learning loss, and in some cases trauma, emotional problems.”

Mulgrew quizzed candidates on the UFT’s five-point pandemic recovery plan. While Adams and Stringer confirmed they’d read it, Wiley said she “read the Cliff’s Notes” and Yang said, “I confess I have not read it.”

Adams has been a vocal supporter of charter schools and parent choice regarding where they decide they want their children to go to school, so he was asked if his stance had changed at all in light of a disability discrimination case concerning Success Academy, by far the city’s largest charter school network and which was court-ordered to pay $2.4 million. Adams clarified, “It was not a position on Success Academy. It was a position on charter schools. Charter schools—the successful ones, the ones that have scaled up excellence—we should duplicate just as we do our district schools that are doing an amazing job.”

Stringer said he would implement a teacher’s residency program to reduce teacher turnover and improve diversity.

To this point, Wiley flagged high-stakes testing as a significant cause of teacher turnover. “We've got to stop teaching to the test, and start teaching to our kids,” said Wiley, who said her kids’ favorite teacher left the profession “because of the tyranny of testing, she couldn't teach.”

Asked how he would reduce the number of homeless students, Yang offered the notion of converting vacant hotel and office buildings into affordable housing units, an idea he has supported during other forums, as well. “If you look at a hotel, you can convert it in half the time and at half the cost than if you had ground up construction, even if the incentives were in place,” said Yang. “Even though I'm an optimist about the pace of New York City's recovery, I don't think that these hotels are going to be 100% utilized,” he said. He also called for increasing the value of housing vouchers.

Stringer was pushed on his shifting and complicated stance toward taking real estate industry donations. Stringer took real estate donations until making a new policy to decline funds from large developers. Although Stringer said he has returned some donations, he largely defended his war chest, citing the economic pressures of running as a mayoral candidate against well-funded competition, referencing without names former Wall Street executive Ray McGuire and former federal housing secretary Shaun Donovan.

“The reality is I'm now running against a guy who's not in the campaign finance program; 20 billionaires are running super PACs. We have another candidate, who is not here tonight—his daddy is putting in a million dollars a week. And I gotta win this race,” he said of McGuire and Donovan, respectively.

“The issue here, though,” said Mulgrew, “is that we've had 20 years of mayors telling us they’re fixing the homeless problems.”

Stringer reiterated his promise to center affordable housing as mayor, citing his aggressive housing plan, which would require affordable caps for 25% of the housing in any new housing development anywhere in the city and focus on city subsidies to create housing for very low-income New Yorkers.

In another lightning round section, candidates were asked if they would keep the current choice system for high school admissions more broadly, to which candidates unanimously said “no.” Candidates also unanimously said “no” on whether they would keep the current system for funding student sports programs.

Candidates unanimously agreed that the Regents exams should not be reinstated next school year.

Asked if wealthy PTAs should be required to share funds with less-wealthy PTAs, Yang was the only candidate who said “no,” explaining, “it should be voluntary.”

In the final section of the forum, candidates were allowed to pose a question to another candidate of their choosing.

Yang asked Stringer to explain more about his kids’ pandemic experience, noting they both have children around the same age, which led to a friendly exchange about a potential playdate.

Adams asked Yang to explain controversial remarks he made about the difficulty of parenting and working in small New York City apartments during the pandemic, part of his explanation for spending many of the city’s worst covid days at his upstate home, as well as his point of view that UFT was a “significant factor” regarding delayed school reopenings.

“I just need to understand why you felt as though these teachers didn’t put their lives on the line and those who are living in difficult surroundings did not leave the city and why you felt it was okay to do so,” said Adams.

Yang explained, “I care deeply about what families of every circumstance are going through every day,” adding, “You’ve been in this a long time, so you understand what one quote pulled out of context in an interview actually is.” (There is no indication Yang’s quote was taken out of context, and the New York Times reporter whom he said it to disputed his assertion on Twitter.)

Yang also said he had been out of the city campaigning to help elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, then to help Democrats win the two Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs, all of which were successful, though that travel did not occur until after the worst months of the pandemic in New York.

Stringer challenged Adams to explain a position he expressed in a Bloomberg interview that one teacher could teach several hundreds of students remotely. In the interview, Adams said doing so “would be cost-effective,” but during the forum, Adams characterized the position as a “misquote.” Instead, he endorsed the UFT’s proposal of extended summer hours and hiring additional teachers. Although he did voice support for “utilizing remote learning,” he did not go into further detail.

Wiley asked for Yang to clarify his stance on high-stakes testing given his experience as the founder of a test prep company (which was largely for helping people with entrance to graduate school programs, like the GMAT business school exam). “We’re actually outsourcing judgment that would be better in the hands of teachers,” said Yang, who argued that teachers “know who could use an enrichment program” and “you shouldn’t need to, frankly, have that kid sit for a test.” He also said the school system should “lighten up in terms of the kids’ perception of it,” but did not explain how that would be accomplished. He reiterated his point that other factors, such as teacher recommendations, interviews, extracurriculars, and background should inform the admissions process into the specialized high schools.

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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