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Why Bill De Blasio’s Election Won’t Change NYC Schools

Even if Randi Weingarten isn’t NYC’s next school chancellor, she might as well be.

Rumor says newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering hiring the president of the nation’s second-largest teacher union as his schools chancellor. Expect some complaints about this obvious conflict of interest for Randi Weingarten, but not much will be different if she doesn’t get the post.

Unions are supposed to advocate for their members against management that has other priorities: making a profit, pleasing stockholders, etc. But when government employees can unionize, they effectively sit on both sides of the table during negotiations. This is why President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed government unions: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

It’s now traditional for teacher unions to elect the school leaders they will bargain with. Accordingly, school boards and chancellors typically feel beholden to union demands, not taxpayers. This is certainly the case with de Blasio’s election. After supporting another candidate in the primary, the United Federation of Teachers (which Weingarten used to lead, and is one of the dominant locals within her national union, the American Federation of Teachers) quickly pivoted and chipped in $250,000 to a de Blasio PAC

Not just financially, but policy-wise, de Blasio’s education platform is in line with union fantasies. He suggested charging charter schools rent, which is nonsensical since charters are public schools so charging rent would literally entail sending them tax money and then taking some back. (In a recent poll, New Yorkers said they support charter schools and want more.) He also has proposed taxing the wealthiest New Yorkers more to pay for full-day preschool for all, a proposal of dubious value to children but likely to increase the number of unionized education workers. De Blasio is against merit pay for teachers, and so are unions. He’s spoken about reducing standardized testing and publicly grading schools, centralized accountability mechanisms that unions also despise.

This all seems to be a dramatic contrast to de Blasio’s charter-friendly predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who styled himself “the education mayor.” But Bloomberg’s actual accomplishments are far smaller than his press, as Fred Siegel and Sol Stern pointed out in 2011:

Bloomberg also began dipping deeper into the city treasury for more and more tax dollars for the schools. From fiscal 2003 to 2011, the education budget grew from $12.7 billion to $23 billion annually—almost a 70 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. Most of the money was paid out in 43 percent across-the-board teacher-salary increases in just the first six years of Bloomberg’s tenure. He also added more than 4,000 teachers to the payroll, reaching 80,000—one teacher for every 13 students in the system. But the mayor who prided himself on his business acumen in managing the city’s workforce obtained almost nothing in return from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) for this unprecedented bonanza…

In other words, despite the pretense that UFT was damaged by Bloomberg’s policies, the union maintained its financial and political influence over the city. With de Blasio, none of that will change. It will just be admitted more openly.

What would that mean for the kids? Well, one could take a look at the charter school UFT opened in NYC. Seven years after it opened under Weingarten’s direction, the school is one of the lowest-performing in the city (which is saying a lot), which puts it at risk of being closed by city officials. “Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average,” Gotham Schools reported last year

I go to that school and I’m very, very happy with what we see,” current UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the nonprofit news site.

Financial realities in New York City will make it difficult for de Blasio to follow Bloomberg’s union-favored tax-and-spend-without-results policies without steering the city closer to Detroit.

“Mr. de Blasio will also face an important battle with the city’s unions,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “All 152 employee bargaining units, representing almost 300,000 workers, have been operating under expired contracts for as long as six years. The unions—which include teachers, police and firefighters—have said they would seek retroactive raises. That could cost billions of dollars a year when adjusted for inflation and coupled with future raises, according to city calculations. Mr. de Blasio said relationships he has built with union leaders over his career in government will help him broker a solution.”

So far, “relationships” with unions have meant New York City spends approximately $20,000 per K-12 pupil (if not the most in the country, that’s close) while two in five of their fourth graders essentially cannot read, and less than one third of fourth and eighth graders are “proficient” readers.

So even if Randi Weingarten isn’t NYC’s next education chancellor, she might as well be. Either way, the academic beatings will continue, and morale will likely not improve.

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