Talk of what a new UFT contract negotiated with Bill de Blasio will look like is rampant. Teachers have a sense that, finally, we can deal with a mayor who negotiates in good faith. At the last Delegate Assembly our fearful leader, Michael Mulgrew, alluded to a contract filled with dollar signs. My advice to New York City teachers is: DON’T FALL FOR IT.
I know we are all poorer than we were three years ago thanks to stagnant salaries and a skyrocketing cost of living. It is easy to salivate over the prospect of a wage increase that can keep up with the rent. For my part, having to move several times in the past few years and family issues have put me squarely in the pauper’s house. I will gladly remain a pauper and forgo loads of money in exchange for a contract that restores some form of dignity to the teaching profession. Below are just some of the things for which the UFT should fight in the next contract.
1. Anti-Bullying Clause
Every school now seems to have signs warning people against bullying behavior. At the same time, many of these schools have seen systematic harassment of teachers at the hands of administrators. It is not just that administrators face no repercussions for bullying teachers. It is that there are some administrators who believe that the more teacher heads they deliver on platters, the more brownie points they win with Tweed. Any anti-bullying campaign is meaningless without a clause in our contract that protects us from the bullying behavior of administrators. The UFT should make their vast legal department available to teachers who wish to file lawsuits against administrators who discriminate based upon age or race, or who sexually harass members of their staff with impunity. Schools should no longer be fiefdoms where petty bureaucrats wield absolute power.
2. Complete Opting Out of Race to the Top
Some school districts have already started opting out of New York State’s involvement in the Race to the Top debacle. We should look to these school districts as examples. First, opting out will protect sensitive data about our students from being the plaything of private corporations. Second, it will get rid of the ridiculous evaluation system that requires administrators to check off boxes, students to fill in bubbles and teachers to be rated by test scores of students they never taught. Third, it will prevent the horror that is Common Core from overtaking our schools. Kindergarteners will not have to learn fractions, teachers will not have to worry over whether or not they are using enough “informational texts” and some semblance of joy can be preserved in teaching and learning. Finally, opting out of RTTT will help stem the charter school craze that was a hallmark of the Bloomberg Administration. If Bill de Blasio wants to solidify his credentials as a true progressive, opting out of Race to the Top is the easiest way for him to do it. The only question is: will the UFT even push for this at the negotiating table?
3. No More Circular 6
Circular 6 has been the bane of many-a-teacher’s existence for some time now. This is the provision that requires teachers to do meaningless make work during certain times of the day instead of grading or preparing lessons. Cafeteria duty, hallway patrol, bus duty and the rest have enabled administrators to cut back on deans and other support staff. This might be good for slashing budgets but it has helped erode discipline and school tone. Circular 6 is one of the largest morale-crushers in the DOE and it will not be missed by anyone aside from administrators who enjoy making their staffs jump through meaningless hoops.
4. Restore the right to grieve letters in the file
The “letter in the file” is one of the most popular disciplinary tools administrators have at their disposal. There was a time when administrators reserved letters in the file for rather serious infractions. This was partially due to the fact that teachers had the right to grieve them, which could end in getting the letter removed. Ever since Randi Weingarten negotiated away the right to grieve letters in the file, administrators have seen fit to write teachers up for things like talking at staff meetings, smoking near (not within) the 100 feet from school grounds required by Chancellor’s Regulations or any other silly “infraction” dreamed up in the minds of petty bureaucrats. It is important to note that Randi negotiated this right away in exchange for more money. This contract should totally reverse Randi’s blunder: sacrifice the money for the protection.
5. Restore the integrity of the 3020a and investigation process
One of the dirty big secrets of Bloomberg’s DOE has been the exponential growth of the teacher trials unit. There are more lawyers, arbitrators and investigators employed by the DOE than ever before. All of these people have one job: to destroy the careers of teachers. The stories of Christine Rubino and David Suker should be proof enough for the union that the 3020a process needs serious reform. First, Richard Condon must be fired. He is the Special Commissioner of Investigation and is responsible for sending the goon squads over to the houses of teachers to rummage through their garbage and stalk their teenaged daughters (both of which have happened). SCI’s staff needs to be cut at least in half, if not more. Second, the rule that any teacher under investigation must be taken out of the classroom and reassigned needs to go. That rule was originally put in place for teachers who were accused of things that potentially made them dangerous to children. Now, as the case of Francesco Portelos proves, teachers can be reassigned for any infraction, even if none of them have to do with children. This is one of the most lethal weapons at the disposal of administrators and SCI and has ruined the careers of too many good educators. Finally, the arbitrators need to be properly vetted and qualified. DOE arbitrators used to have reputations of solid gold. Now, many arbitrators do the bidding of the DOE knowing that they run the risk of not getting paid if they do not. Arbitrator salaries need to be reduced and guaranteed so they cannot be cowed to do the DOE’s bidding.
6. Placement of all ATRs
The other dirty big secret of the DOE is the Absent Teacher Reserve. Teachers who managed to not get fired after being hit with frivolous SCI charges or teachers who were given the axe when Bloomberg saw fit to shut down their schools have been forced to rotate schools month-to-month in a sort of teacher purgatory. Since reliable statistics about ATRs do not exist, we do not know exactly how many of them are in the system and what their age and racial makeup are. It is amazing that in the era of data, do data on ATRs is available. Is this because these statistics would leave the DOE and UFT open to all types of discrimination lawsuits? All ATRs should be placed in schools with openings immediately. Furthermore, an investigation into how many ATRs are over 50 and/or minority should be conducted so that teachers can join in a discrimination lawsuit if they so desire.
7. Iron-Clad Contract
It needs to be clarified that contracts that have been collectively bargained have the force of law that can only be abrogated by another collectively bargained contract. This would prevent another set of laws from passing the state legislature like the ones passed to bring New York into compliance with Race to the Top. The Race to the Top’s laws regarding teacher evaluations and tenure rights effectively changed provisions in the existing contract. This set a dangerous precedent. Something like this should never happen again. The union needs to maintain the integrity of collective bargaining. They failed to so the first time around. Let us see if they can get it right this time. As an addendum to this, the nature of “binding arbitration” should also be clarified. Arbitrators need to be independent and neutral, meaning they cannot be part of management at either the city or state level. This will prevent another John King-imposed evaluation debacle that was the result of the UFT’s failure to defend their collective bargaining rights. Again, how likely is it that the UFT will push for this come contract time? The fact that they have so willingly compromised the integrity of collective bargaining, which is the fundamental right of all labor unions, should be a cause of concern to every teacher in NYC.
8. Rational Path to Tenure
New teachers are being denied tenure at a ridiculous rate. It has become the unwritten policy of the DOE to deny tenure to as many teachers as possible, the so-called “four-year-and-out” rule. The entire portfolio system needs to be scrapped. If an administrator needs to see a portfolio to determine if a teacher who has worked under them for three years is deserving of tenure, then they are not much of an administrator. Tenure needs to be based on administrator observations and possibly the observations of veteran teachers. Over 60% of the teachers currently teaching in NYC came in under Bloomberg, which speaks to an absurd rate of turnover. We need to retain dedicated and capable people. Systematically denying new teachers tenure makes as little sense as systematically granting them tenure.
These are just some of the things for which I would forgo money in the next contract. Of course, many of these things depend on reforms that need to be made in the DOE itself, which is a matter for another post. Sadly, my biggest worry is that our union will not even fight for these provisions. It is a shame because Bill de Blasio could score some political points if he could turn to the media and say he did not give teachers a fat raise or retroactive pay. He could avoid accusations of being a squishy, union-coddling liberal. At the same time, the UFT could strengthen their own position with all of these provisions. Most importantly, these changes would restore some dignity and independence to the teaching profession. This would end up improving education for all children in NYC, which is what really matters in the end.