I am a staunch supporter of unions as a powerful force for the mobilization and protection of workers, and in the case of teachers’ unions, for the protection of public schools and the students they serve. I stand in awe of the bravery, solidarity, and sacrifice of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and other unions across the country who have stood up not only for their members, but for the communities, schools, and children they serve. And over the past few years I have been inspired and humbled by the work of the local unions across New York who have taken a strong stand against the harmful education laws and policies that threaten our public schools. So I hesitate to once again call attention the misdeeds of the current NYSUT leadership. But at the end of the day, solidarity does not and should not come at the cost of looking the other way.
As a NYSUT member, I was shocked and dismayed when I recently learned that in 2016 NYSUT contributed $109,600 to the NYS Senate Republican Committee, a huge increase from NYSUT’s 2015 contribution of $24,500 and zero contribution in 2014. My first instinct was to contact our union leaders and seek an explanation, but I have yet to receive a response.
Funded by the individual contributions of thousands of New York teachers, VOTE COPE donations are ostensibly earmarked to support political campaigns and candidates who will enact legislation that supports educators. And as the war on public education and teachers has ramped up, educators in New York have been encouraged to increase their VOTE COPE contributions as a means of safeguarding the profession. Following this logic, one would infer that such a large contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee is reflective of the Committee’s support of NYS educators and public schools, right? Wrong.
While one can argue that there are heroes and villains on both sides of the aisle, Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader John Flanagan, have worked against the best interests of students, schools, and educators at every turn. Over the past few years the Republican-led Senate has:
Refused to fully fund foundation aid
Pushed for an Education Tax Credit which would further divest public schools of much needed resources
Sponsored legislation expanding the charter school cap
Refused to reverse harmful APPR legislation
NYSUT has been a vocal opponent of the expansion of charter schools in New York State, citing their negative impact on traditional public schools, students, and educators. You can read NYSUT analysis here and here. This makes such a sizeable contribution to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign Committee even more perplexing.
It’s no secret that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, along with many other Senate Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) Senators have received substantial political donations from wealthy charter school supporters and as a result, Senate republicans have served as staunch allies of those who would privatize public schools, deprofessionalize the teaching profession, and rob public schools of resources.
Examples of the cozy relationship enjoyed by charter supporters and NYS Senate Republicans are not hard to find. In June of this year, Senate Republicans introduced a provision that would allow charter schools to employ more non-certified teachers and provide SUNY with the authority to exempt charter schools from certain rules and regulations,- regulations that specifically adversely affect charter chain juggernaut, Success Academy. Read more about that here.
Consider the Senate’s 2015 and 2016 Bullet Aid allocations. Bullet Aid distribution is based on politics rather than need or merit and legislators are not required to justify their allocations. Under the sponsorship of John Flanagan, the NYS Senate passed resolutions allocating millions of taxpayer dollars to reform groups while giving some of the most fiscally stressed schools in the state less than $20,000. The Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) is a nonprofit education organization based in New York City that provides services such as charter school design and development, restructuring of large schools into smaller learning communities, and turnaround support for low performing schools. In 2015, CEI received two bullet aid grants from Senate Republicans totaling $1,057,000 and in 2016 they received another grant of $1,566,000. Another organization with a vested interest in the privatization of public education, Agudath Israel, received $850,000 in both 2015 and 2016. I have written extensively about this here.
Both of these organizations are also members of the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a coalition of pro-privatization and “reform” groups responsible for an aggressive and expensive lobbying campaign in support of Governor Cuomo’s failed Invest in Education tax credit, which would have funneled millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools. It should be noted that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan is also one of the Coalition’s top campaign donation recipients.
So the question remains, why did NYSUT contribute over $100,000 of teacher-funded VOTE COPE money to the NYS Senate Republican Campaign committee? How do an education tax credit, diminished regulation of charter schools, refusal to fully fund foundation aid, and support of a harmful teacher evaluation law benefit those who pay dues and contribute their hard earned money to VOTE COPE funds? Is this the cost of a seat at the table? If so, $109,600 is a large chunk of change to sit at a table where we are being served up.
If our union leaders cannot sufficiently answer these questions, or do not feel obliged to answer them, perhaps it is time to opt out of VOTE COPE. More importantly, perhaps it is time to demand new leadership that will respect the union’s mandate to stand up for its’ membership, engage in transparency, and restore the integrity of these important positions.