First Person

The Buck Stops Elsewhere

I grew up in Long Island, and I’ll never forget the construction of a local park, named for a spectacularly corrupt local politician. For years, we rode our bicycles past the park, watched piles of dirt move from one side to the other, and nothing of consequence happened. As long as they kept shuffling back and forth, it gave the appearance of progress. When I hear talk of “reform” from Tweed, I always think of those ever-shifting dirt piles.

For example, snow is falling, and that can only mean it’s school-closing time again in New York City. According to Tweed, these schools are failing and must be replaced ASAP. It’s not their fault the schools are failing, because nothing is their fault, and anyway, it’s not their job to fix schools.  What is their job? Nobody really knows. And anyway, why should they bother fixing schools when they can simply rename them, fill them with different kids, and pretend the old ones never existed?

If schools they started specifically to replace closed schools don’t pass muster, that’s not their fault either. The folks at Tweed are ready and willing to close the schools they opened, and take no responsibility whatsoever. The important thing is they’re going to open even newer ones, and whether they end up closing is not their problem. It isn’t Tweed’s fault, it isn’t Chancellor Klein’s fault and it isn’t Mayor Bloomberg’s fault either. Here in New York City, that’s called “accountability.”

Chancellor Klein defends his decision to close Queens schools, saying there will be new ones. Yet even if you rely on a highly enthusiastic article about new Queens construction, you can only conclude the city’s plans are woefully inadequate. For example, it mentions a $71-million project that will provide 150 seats. But it’s clearly not going to make the slightest dent in the 33,000 seats needed for Queens high schools.

This same article suggests another $181 million will be spent, but gives no clue as to how many seats it will buy. Given the apparent cost per pupil, it’s highly doubtful Queens will see more than 500 seats total. There’s also a Catholic school in there bound for conversion, but I’m going to wildly speculate it will accommodate far fewer than the 32,000-plus we’re looking for. And here’s the kicker — not all the newly planned seats are for high schools anyway.

Tweed lucks out when articles don’t mention how many seats will be created, let alone how many are needed. It’s unlikely readers who rely on such reporting will have any idea how much the already unconscionable overcrowding will remain unaddressed.

In fact, it’s entirely possible, under the new plans, that overcrowding will be exacerbated. For example, Chancellor Klein plans to close Jamaica High School. Yet he doesn’t plan to devote the building entirely to high school students, opting to admit kids as young as sixth grade. Thus, there will be actually be fewer high school seats in a high school building under his proposed scenario.

Those of us who work with teenagers are acutely aware when change is needed. For example, if Tommy Hilfiger is deemed not as cool as Abercrombie and Fitch, your t-shirt needs to be replaced immediately. Teenagers need change, and passing trends must be respected. As the parent of a teenager, in charge of buying whatever new cool thing has suddenly become absolutely necessary, I understand exactly how this works. The DOE, though, not only buys into teenage-style trends, but seems willing to replace the t-shirt with a pair of socks, thereby making things even worse.

The main problem for which Tweed bears no responsibility is its chronic and utter unwillingness to repair, let alone acknowledge, what may be broken. On December 16, like a mantra, the DOE’s Debra Kurshan repeated that funding follows kids, that what schools they attended wouldn’t affect that, and that all kids got exactly the same resources in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York. You’d think that it made no difference whatsoever where kids went to school, and wonder why, therefore, any school anywhere would be closed for any reason. Nonetheless, they were closing this one. That Jamaica would be a neighborhood without a neighborhood school was of no consequence whatsoever, nor did it merit lip service from Ms. Kurshan.

Despite the claims about equal funding, speaker after speaker got up and compared the conditions in Jamaica to those at Queens Collegiate, the small school located in the same building. Why do they, with 163 students, have 20 Smartboards, while Jamaica, with 10 times that number, has only two? Why does Jamaica pay 25% more for teachers? Why haven’t Jamaica kids got regular teachers three months into the school year?

The big question, of course, repeated in various manifestations was this: Why couldn’t they fix Jamaica instead of closing it? Ms. Kurshan stated studies showed closing schools was more effective than fixing them, but didn’t bother to cite any sources. This indicated clearly, though, that they hadn’t bothered sending a team of experts to try improving the 116-year-old landmark school. Have they even got a team of experts capable of doing so?

Rather than fix struggling schools, what the DOE actually does is shoehorn small schools or charter schools into every available space. In the case of Queens Collegiate, they managed to prove the Jamaica building was not as scary or dangerous as people thought, and that with proper attention and resources, kids would come. Queens Collegiate is publicly touted as “developed in collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.” Is there anyone who actually believes that doesn’t entail funding above and beyond that which Jamaica receives? Don’t hold your breath waiting for Tweed to extend that experiment to neighborhood schools.

In the case of my school, Francis Lewis, they saw we did well, so they shoveled hundreds of additional kids in year after year. Though we tried many, many things to alleviate the overcrowding, the only response from Tweed, for years, was to continue filling every available space with every available kid. If we faltered as a result, does anyone believe they’d have hesitated one moment before closing us too?

Really, why should they? Doing so might mean they’d have to foot the bill for real improvements, like decent conditions or reasonable class sizes. It’s far easier to shuffle and hide problems, like so many piles of dirt, loudly scapegoat teachers and unions, and hope nobody notices.

So far, it’s worked like a charm.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.