Last October, when the contract covering New York City’s 78,000 public school teachers expired, the chatter on the city’s political blogosphere was that a deal had been worked out behind closed doors between the Mayor’s Office and United Federation of Teachers that would be announced after Mayor Bloomberg had safely secured reelection on November 3rd. The teachers were going to get a raise of 4% for each of the following two years, so the story went, in exchange for the union agreeing to minor concessions and not endorsing William C. Thompson for mayor. At the time that they appeared, these rumors made sense. After all, each of New York’s other public employees’ unions had received the same pay raise, and the story solved the riddle of why the notoriously left-leaning UFT had remained mute all summer on the mayoral race.
That was then…..this is now. Now that city teachers have worked for four months without a contract, faculty room gossip about a 4% pay raise has ended. In February the state’s Public Employee Relations Board officially declared negotiations between the city and the UFT to be at an impasse and ordered both sides into non-binding arbitration. What’s the sticking point? Is it the much-maligned No Child Left Behind? Issues regarding teacher tenure and merit pay? Charter Schools? Not quite. Sadly, the gulf that separates the city and its teachers is not based on any of these 21st century reform issues, but on a 19th century one – money. Back in October a pay increase of 4% for each of the following two years seemed feasible because at the time both the state and city were still flush with cash from President Obama’s stimulus package. Since October, however, the stimulus money has dried up and the state budget is in such disarray that it is severely curtailing its education contribution to municipalities around the state.
The failure of the Mayor and the teachers union to come to terms creates an enormous tragedy – not for the teachers who have received a 43% pay increase since Mr. Bloomberg assumed office – but for New York City’s 1.1 million public school students. Understanding why this is so requires understanding the relationship that the teacher’s union has had with the mayor since 2002. Mr. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, have been more successful than any administration in history at getting the union to agree to concessions that have improved New York’s schools. In 2005, for example, they convinced then-union President Randi Weingarten to agree to do away with the most onerous seniority rules whereby principals were required to automatically hire teacher candidates with the most years in the system rather than allow them to interview and hire younger better qualified candidates. Bloomberg and Klein also got the union to agree to require teachers to provide 45 minutes of extra-help each week to their students after school. How the mayor and his schools chancellor convinced the union to agree to these much needed measures is simple – they bought them with those enormous (and at the time badly needed) pay increases.
There is still much to reform in New York City public schools and reforms require union consent. It should not be forgotten that union leaders are themselves elected to their positions. Unless the mayor can at least offer the same 4% pay increase he has given to the other public employees unions, he cannot realistically expect the new UFT President Michael Mulgrew to agree to any new changes in the system. For the sake of New York’s kids, let’s hope the State Assembly can get its act together, balance the budget and restore state aid to education.