One of my favorite historical figures of all time, the great French diplomat Talleyrand. Talleyrand may have been a snake but he had the good sense to know when to do nothing.

One of my favorite historical figures of all time, the great French diplomat Talleyrand. Talleyrand may have been a snake but he had the good sense to know when to do nothing.

New York City is the largest school system in the nation. For the past few weeks the eyes of the education world have been focused on whether or not the city and the union can agree to a new evaluation deal. If they are able to do so, it will be touted as a great “achievement” for public schools and serve as a model for other school districts around the country.

Contrary to what many of us expected, the round-the-clock negotiations between the city and union two weeks ago was not the endgame. New York State Education Commissioner John King has set a new deadline of February 14 so the city can “submit a plan that shows it is prepared to implement large portions of an evaluation system.”

This does not mean the same thing as setting a deadline for the city and union to agree on a plan. King is clearly giving the city a few weeks to turn in a blueprint on what a plan would look like.

It gets confusing right about here:

If the city fails to submit a plan by Feb. 14 that shows it is prepared to implement an evaluation by March 1, King said he has the authority to take over more than $800 million in federal Title I and II funding and withhold more than $300 million in Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. King said the Title I and II money would still be spent in New York City classrooms, but that he would have control over how it is spent.

Say what? So the blueprint the city must submit by February 14 must show “it is prepared to implement an evaluation by March 1.” Again, this does not seem to mean the same as having an evaluation in place by March 1, only that the city must show it is “prepared” to do so.

If not, King says he has the power to take over 800 million dollars of Title I funding for schools and he can outright withhold 300 million dollars. What King intends to do with the 800 million is not clear, although he says it will “still be spent in New York City classrooms.”

I think they call this “bluster”. In reality, both February 14 and March 1 can come and go without much happening. The amount of money King can actually withhold (which seems to be around $345 million altogether), is not going to kill us. The 800 million in Title I funding does not seem to be very malleable in King’s hands, despite his threats to “take control” of it. What can King actually do if the March 1 deadline is not reached? Not a whole lot it seems, at least not now.

Meanwhile, the union wants an evaluation plan to have a sunset of 2 years and Bloomberg wants a plan that will go on indefinitely. How do the two sides compromise on this?

Bloomberg, never the greatest politician, painted himself into a corner by stating publicly he wanted an indefinite evaluation deal. He cannot now compromise on this because he will look incredibly weak and foolish. That is to say, he cannot compromise on this until the public forgets about it, which would certainly be longer than the March 1 deadline. However, Bloomberg is obsessed with his “legacy” and what better permanent legacy than a putative evaluation system that finally holds these lazy teachers accountable? Bloomberg will not moderate his stance on this anytime soon.

The union’s president, Michael Mulgrew, holds all the cards here. His agreement to a two-year evaluation deal, which would have been the longest-running in the state, makes him look like a conciliator. The interminable school bus strike and Bloomberg’s failed negotiations with the CSA hums in the background as a reminder of Bloomberg’s intractable stance during negotiations in general. King’s comments generally have given Mulgrew cover and corroborated his version of why the negotiations were torpedoed. The mayoral campaign will keep people like Christine Quinn off of his back for the foreseeable future, lest she wants to lose the ever-important UFT endorsement.

Mulgrew holds all of the cards. He holds all of the cards in the largest school district in the nation. If he had any morals, any conscience, if he cared about the teaching profession at all or cared about the type of precedent any type of evaluation deal would set around the country he would do one thing and one thing only: nothing.

Sure, he might “talk” here and there with the district about an evaluation but he would have no intention of agreeing to one. Outside of any nominal negotiations, Mulgrew would do absolutely, positively nothing.

February 14 will come and go. March 1 will come and go. June will come and go. The start of the next school year will come and go. King will continue to threaten, to wave his arms, to talk about “taking control” of funds and he will use every threat in the book to get Mulgrew and Bloomberg to play ball.

And all Mulgrew has to do is nothing.

Bloomberg will not pull back from his demand for a perpetual evaluation regime. He is a lame-duck, a billionaire, a media mogul and he cares not what he does or how he is perceived over the next year. Mulgrew can do nothing with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that Bloomberg will never pull back from the precipice.

So why would Michael Mulgrew, president of the largest teachers’ union in the country, do anything?

Perhaps over the summer, after everyone has forgotten about the failed negotiations of a few weeks ago, Bloomberg might moderate his stance on not having any type of sunset clause. He might moderate about some other things as well. He might be so overly obsessed with his “legacy” that he feels some sort of deal is better than no deal at all. At that point, Mulgrew would be well-served to head back to the negotiating table again with the intention of not coming to an agreement.

After all, how much will Bloomberg moderate his stance? He definitely will want an evaluation system more extreme than anything else in New York State. When negotiations fail, Mulgrew can say again that Bloomberg is being unreasonable by calling for unprecedented and unreasonable reforms. Who is going to call him out? The mayoral candidates? Not likely. King? What can he do? Cuomo? Is Cuomo going to take the side of an increasingly unpopular mayor when he has one eye on the White House?

Mulgrew holds all of the cards and he needs to do nothing. He needs to do nothing to set the first positive precedent to come out of New York City in decades. He needs to do nothing because the backlash to education reform is afoot all across the country, as the Movement of Rank and File Educators has illustrated. He needs to do nothing because it is the right and righteous thing to do. Doing nothing will ensure that the schools of NYC will not become testing factories and the teachers in NYC will not be subject to endless harassment thanks to “value added” and “Danielson”. On a nationwide scale, the failure of Race to the Top here in the country’s largest school district would be a black eye on Arne Duncan and his entire effort to “reform” education.

Unfortunately, teachers here in New York City know that he will eventually do something. He has done something at every stage of this process so far. He was willing to consent to an evaluation framework that made tests the vital part of a teacher’s yearly evaluation. He was willing to agree to an evaluation framework that would see thousands of teachers hauled into 3020a hearings to prove that they are not incompetent. He was willing to accept an evaluation that went on for two years, which is about twice as long as most other school districts in NY State have. He was willing to do these things despite the fact that his teachers’ union has no contract. He was willing to do these things despite the fact that what he agreed to was essentially an end-run around tenure rules that his very same union had won for us many moons ago.

In short, us teachers in NYC are too jaded to believe that Mulgrew will not end up caving to the dictates of education deform. This has been his and the rest of UFT leadership’s “strategy” for many years. There is no sense in believing that anything will change now.

Despite the fact that Mulgrew holds the cards. This despite the fact that he has a long track record to prove that he is not some intractable union hack out to protect “incompetent” teachers. Despite the fact that doing nothing is the right thing to do in this case, he will end up doing something and something means disaster.

If the House of Mulgrew does not eventually fall, then the rest of us surely will.


  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Don’t just do something: sit there!


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