First Person

Can the Comptroller End the Space Wars?

The big questions about charter schools are not the real issue in current fights over co-location with traditional public schools. Charter schools with their own buildings are being left alone. Like most wars, the dispute is about territory, not policy. This is not about long-simmering disagreements about charters’ instructional strengths, whether they cream more able students, lack of services for English language learners and students with special needs, segregative effects, and other important if wonky questions. This is about real estate.

In its zeal to support charters and other small-school alternatives, the Bloomberg administration has opened the doors of neighborhood schools to entities without community roots, an imposition understandably resented by many already housed there. Though Department of Education capacity estimates tend to be wildly inflated and the space needs of current schools undervalued, there might very well be room for two or more coexisting programs in some buildings. But the mayor’s and chancellor’s heavy-handed actions, treating current occupants like squatters and shunting them aside in favor of preferred institutions, create unnecessary antagonism between students, parents, and administrators.

This resonates with the old New York story of class warfare engendered by developers and landlords clearing out tenants. In schools, issues of gentrification, perceived religious school encroachment on public school space, and redrawing of district and attendance boundaries have long set off political fireworks. There were only sparks when the DOE moved regular public schools into these spaces. But with charters, these sparks are fanned into flames because of their association with moneyed interests and managerial profiteering.

Whose school is it anyway? Charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, in her now infamous series of emails with the chancellor over space, argues it is the larger public’s schools, that previously sited schools have no more right to space than her Harlem Success chain of charter schools. While she’s right that public schools are not the exclusive domain of parents and teachers, her political argument is specious. What would this self-described “relentless” advocate for her own agenda do if her desks were heaped in a gym, as she did to the school furniture at PS 123? Even when establishing the highly segregated Eleanor Roosevelt High School for her former Upper East Side constituency, the one-and-only Moskowitz message was clear: Whatever Eva wants, Eva gets, no matter what principles (or principals) get rolled in the process. It is Moskowitz, herself, who ramped up the military metaphor with her calls for “armies of parents” to lobby on HSA’s behalf.

With this attitude by charter operators and the Mayor, attempts at conciliation and legislative solution have failed. Even calls by some charter parents to end divisions over the issue have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. Legal strategies by the UFT and parents are now in the offing. But a quick-fix administrative strategy, one that resuscitates our flagging separation of powers, remains to be fully investigated.

While the chancellor has discretionary power over siting regular DOE schools subject to new procedural requirements, his power over district-sponsored and non-district-sponsored charter locations should be contested. Charters are publicly funded but privately-organized entities. Their right to occupy public space is arguably regulated by current city contracting mechanisms. To my knowledge, the comptroller’s office has never subjected the DOE to these rules which, at a minimum, require notice and competitive bidding or challengeable reasons for exemption. While DOE-sponsored charters are a gray area, those without DOE sponsorship would seem no different than any other not-for-profit seeking public space through requisite arms-length dealing. The Comptroller is responsible for monitoring, regulating, and approving these contracts.

Simply put, there are rules. Public space, as Moskowitz argues, is public. But the Mayor is not free to give away public space to non-competitive private entities just because he likes the cut of their jib. The substantial subsidy for these private operations revealed last week by the Independent Budget Office should subject them to substantial scrutiny. State legislation mandates public payment of charter expenses on a per pupil basis. But the city’s discretionary decision to pay many charters’ capital costs, as well as other potential subsidies, requires the comptroller’s investigation.

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.