Mayor De Blasio and UFT: How Close is Too Close? (plus a personal reflection)

I’ve been awfully tough on NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his apparent lack of urgency in addressing the city schoolchildren’s need for meaningful change and I’m not the only one piling on. Just this week a Wall St. Journal editorial described the city schools as a system “where black lives don’t matter” while the NY Post castigated him for condoning an “obscene status quo” by rewarding “UFT with a fat contract that reduced classroom-instruction time. His hand-picked schools chancellor jumps when the UFT says 'frog.'"

There are few stories older than truly good people who rely on political influence. Who was Moses, after all, but a representative of special interests who lobbied Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt? But surely there’s a line between the quotidian practice of being respectful towards supporters and allowing that respect to undermine strategic planning.

Has de Blasio crossed that line? Does his indebtedness to labor unions like UFT (and we’re talking real money) undermine his commitment towards improving NYC public schools?

Yes. But let me explain.

Unlike some commentators,  I don’t believe that Blasio is racist. I do believe that he cares about the city’s school system and must be distraught that 478,000 children, 90% of them minorities, are relegated to what Families for Excellent Schools called “pipelines to failure” and others call dropout factories.  I think that he must grimace at his school improvement plan’s lack of ambition, as well as its  timeline, which projects changes out to 2026, well beyond the trajectory of  those half a million children who will have already traversed that pipeline.

But a good heart and a metrocard will get you a ride on the subway. Right now the Mayor is allowing UFT to exert an unhealthy influence on his educational agenda.

That sounds pretty tame.  But you have to understand where I’m coming from. My parents were both UFT members (my dad was a high school teacher and my mom was a high school social worker) and we practically davened to Albert Shanker, AFT’s founder. I knew all the words to Woody Guthrie's labor hymn, “There Once was a Union Maid” (who never was afraid of goons and ginks and company finks…). I sang it to my kids too. What do you expect from an education-obsessed New York Jew from a union household?

During the 1960’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s there was no divide between education reform and union fidelity. If you were a UFT member than you were devoted to improving student outcomes. Everyone, or almost everyone, was on the same side.

And now we’re here, fraught with division. De Blasio ran on a platform that explicitly opposed the “creation of new charter schools” or the “co-location of charter schools within public schools” despite a waiting list of 43,000 names. He’s made enemies of Gov. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, almost entirely through divergent education agendas, and Eva Moskowitz, who runs the most outstanding and popular group of charter schools in the city. Most importantly, he appears willing to sacrifice minority children’s educational opportunities to stay within the good graces of UFT.

We live in a political world of lobbyists and special interests, of PAC’s and Citizens United. But elected representatives, especially the leader of one of the most educationally-troubled cities, have an absolute obligation to separate politics from policy. I think de Blasio is a good man but I think he’s crossed that line.

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