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JUNE 2005

It’s Time to Stop the Blame Game

By Randi Weingarten

Public officials who falter on a pledge generally have two choices: They can admit the task was too tough and promise to work harder, or they can blame someone else. Sadly, the current school system administration has chosen the latter.

During his first mayoral campaign, Mike Bloomberg asked the public to hold him accountable for the schools. He deserves credit for that. Since taking office, he and Chancellor Joel Klein have proposed various policies and initiatives that made big news splashes and reorganized virtually everything. But, if public opinion polls are any measure, no one believes the schools are better. In fact, teachers and parents, by and large, think they are worse.

Now with the mayoral election just a few months away, some, including the chancellor, are taking every opportunity to blame the system’s woes on the contractual provisions the city previously negotiated with the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

The fact is our teachers have been without a contract for two years now since the previous pact expired on May 31, 2003. Even so, we soldier on. Our teachers earn 15 to 20 percent less than teachers in the surrounding suburbs while teaching classes that, depending upon the subject, can be up to 60 percent above the state average. We work in buildings that are overcrowded and dangerously dilapidated from years of deferred maintenance and neglect.

All we want is a fair contract and the support we need to educate the city’s 1.1 million students. Aside from fighting for competitive salaries and better learning and teaching conditions, the union has proposed a number of reforms that could directly help kids in a number of ways.

For example, in recent months, the UFT has:

Sought salary incentives to attract the best teachers to the lowest-performing schools.

Proposed a zero tolerance plan to fire any teacher proven to have had a sexual relationship with a student.

Offered ideas to streamline the process to help, and failing that, remove, incompetent teachers.

Instead of negotiating in good faith, the school system’s administration has rejected our proposals and embarked on a media campaign to demonize the union and strip away most of our contractual rights and protections.

For example, the administration says it wants more productivity from teachers even though we are among the lowest paid teachers in the region with the highest class sizes. We responded by proposing to add 10 percent more instructional time—the equivalent of four weeks—but the administration rejected the idea.

The administration says it wants the best teachers assigned to the worst schools. A year ago we proposed a school enterprise zone for the 200 lowest-performing schools in the city. The proposal included a 15 percent pay differential for everyone working in the zone. The administration said no.

The administration says it wants to get rid of incompetent teachers. We offered a way to streamline and expedite the process, but the chancellor and the mayor rejected that, too, determined instead to strip teachers of the due process protections that shield teachers from cronyism and patronage.

We have always maintained that any kind of sexual relationship between a teacher and a student is unacceptable and that any teacher proven to have engaged in such activity has no place in a classroom. Last November, the union proposed a zero tolerance policy on this issue that would ensure the safety of children and safeguard teachers against false accusations. The city rejected it.

The City Council Commission on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity—headed by Anthony Alvarado, an educator who turned around District 2 and District 4—recently issued a report saying that quality teachers, smaller class sizes and a laser-like focus on the lowest-performing students are the key ingredients to improving student performance. Numerous studies have shown that children in smaller classes have higher test scores, better grades and a greater appetite for learning.

Despite the findings of the commission—and a $3.3 billion city budget surplus unveiled earlier this month—Mayor Bloomberg has said the city does not have the resources to give raises to teachers, police and firefighters beyond the 5 percent over three years he offered other municipal workers who were willing to reduce the starting salaries of workers hired after these latest contracts were approved.

The New York Times noted last fall that the UFT has been a partner to every positive school reform over the past 40 years. We want to keep that track record going strong. But because the school system administration has squandered opportunities for real educational reform, it has resorted to playing the blame game and scapegoating. And that means that any productive contract proposals from the UFT are likely to be rejected in the months ahead.

Sadly, the biggest losers in this game are the city’s 1.1 million school children. They and their parents deserve better, and we are determined to fight to see that they get it.#

Randi Weingarten is President, United Federation of Teachers.



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