Bloomberg and the Teachers' Union

It's (almost) summertime, and the Mayor's campaigning is easy. So easy, he can roll over the union this time—and should.

The union insisted on economic gains for itself as compensation for allowing the creation and expansion of charters, compounding the cost of reform. In her Voice interview, Weingarten replayed that strategy: "I may not be as embracing of lifting the cap as the President is without pre-conditions," she said, saying that school systems "have to first and foremost deal with turning around low-performing schools," another possible show-me-the-money demand.

David Paterson is now the third consecutive governor to support charters, as does Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, making Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver the last Albany heavyweight in Weingarten's corner. Instead of using the charter issue as an argument for diluting mayoral control when it comes up for a vote soon, as Weingarten ally Jackson openly urged, it is becoming a strong part of the case for continuing it, with 67 percent of New Yorkers favoring more charter schools.

Weingarten, who is also concerned about her progressive reputation, recognizes that the long-standing UFT effort to paint charters as a right-wing plot is wearing treacherously thin. She has attempted for years, far more than either of her predecessors, to mend the rift between her union and minorities, born in a convulsive strike in 1968 over an experiment in community control of local schools in three small demonstration districts, including Harlem.

The mayor has given historic raises to the teachers represented by UFT President Randi Weingarten.
Newscom
The mayor has given historic raises to the teachers represented by UFT President Randi Weingarten.

But she has reached out only on her own terms, never flinching on the key question at the heart of that decades-old dispute, the unaccountable "due process" protections that make it almost impossible to fire bad teachers. Only 10 of the city's 55,000 tenured teachers were terminated for poor performance as recently as 2006, with another 25 of the roughly 6,250 who became eligible for tenure denied it at the end of their three-year probationary period. Despite a candlelight vigil protest at the DOE that was organized by the UFT, Klein has in recent years stepped up efforts to deny tenure to poorly performing probationers (164 in 2008) and to dismiss tenured incompetents (all Cerf would say was that the number of terminations was "up multiples" over the paltry prior record).

Nevertheless, the DOE spent $65 million in 2008 to pay hundreds of teachers that are facing charges, who do nothing but play cards and doze, often for years, at Teacher Reassignment Centers called "rubber rooms," while their cases wind their way through the labyrinthine procedures enshrined in the UFT contract and state law. Bloomberg won rather a minor adjustment in these procedures in the last contract, but the issue remains a bone of contention that, like charters, threatens Weingarten's alliances with Bloomberg and minority groups. Weingarten calls this wall of protections an "anomaly," conceding that it is an instance when the usually mutual "interests of children and teachers" diverge, but insisting nonetheless that maintaining it is "our obligation."


The mayor was greeted with laughter when he said at a press conference announcing his new budget of tax hikes and service slashes that "it never occurred" to him that he was serving up such gruel in an election year. At some level of self-delusion, he still believes he's the "Mayor Merit" he was dubbed in his first term. On charters, he's earned that title—but his contracts with the UFT have always fallen far short of Chancellor Klein's productivity hopes, nibbling away at incompetence protections, for example, instead of securing gains worthy of the salary boosts Bloomberg has granted. He said, when he first ran for mayor, to judge him by what he does for schools, and while he can claim some progress, his rollover to Randi at the bargaining table has limited the structural change he's been able to achieve.

This is a watershed year in the relationship that is a political and governmental keystone in Bloomberg's public life. His legacy promise to transform schools depends on what he can get from Weingarten and her legislative allies; his electoral margin could depend on what he gives her. It's already clear that Bloomberg, especially after his "school reform" meeting with Obama last week, has an immensely popular Democratic ally in the White House on charters and bad teachers, an ace he never had before.

Weingarten says that "Eva and Joel" are "throwbacks to 50 or 60 years ago" when it comes to respecting teachers, boldly trying to separate Bloomberg from his chancellor and his charter allies. Circumstances have Weingarten back on her heels, dispatching contradictory spin from minute to minute, wearing national and city hats that tug at her in sometimes-conflicting directions.

If all Bloomberg wants is a repeat of 2005—a neutralizing deal that widens his electoral win—he will have sold the city and himself short. Another big check and comfy wink won't do. This time, he really should forget that it's an election year.

wbarrett@villagevoice.com
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