“We are blessed that we have a mayor who will stand with every single public school teacher to defend our profession and the right to be unionists.”
That’s Mike Mulgrew, president of the New York City teacher union, announcing UFT’s endorsement of Bill de Blasio after a short debate at last Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly. After the vote, the Mayor, who had been waiting in the wings, appeared on stage to shouts of “four more years!” and echoed Mulgrew’s gladiatorial sentiments of “the battle ahead.”
“We’re going to be fighting now for the soul of public education,” [de Blasio] said. “We are teetering on the brink of: Are we going to stay committed to the one thing that has always worked — a good public education — or are we going to let them slice it apart? That’s what’s at stake.”
Whoa, Nelly! As a fan of The Walking Dead, I appreciate apocalyptic tropes. But “teetering on the brink”? At the mercy of ginormous cleavers? (I wasn’t there, but maybe he brought Michonne’s machete with him as a prop. Or maybe a stake.) What or who exactly does the Mayor view as the culprit scheming such wanton destruction?
The answer is twofold. First, UFT is worried that a reconfigured U.S. Supreme Court will overrule the 1977 Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education decision, which requires all unionized teachers who live in thirty-two states without “right to work” laws to pay annual fees to unions even if they disagree with the union’s political agenda. Abood was challenged last year in the U.S. Supreme Court by Rebecca Friedrichs, a California teacher who argued that all unions are political in nature and that mandatory dues was a violation of her first amendment rights. Then Justice Scalia died and the Court split 4-4, upholding Abood. However, some SCOTUS scholars regard the overturning of Abood as a question of “when,” not “if.” And if they’re right — if teachers get the right to choose whether or not to pay dues to a union — then AFT would presumably have a harder time making a $350,000 contribution to Bill de Blasio’s campaign chest moments before he handed UFT a sweetheart contract worth an additional $9 million. And UFT would have a more difficult time justifying Mulgrew’s annual salary of $283,000 .
(For more on this, see Mike Antonucci, who was told by some attendees at the Delegate Assembly that Mulgrew flat-out conceded that the country was on an inevitable path towards right-to-work. Or look at the anonymous blog NYC Educator whose author attended the Assembly and gives a blow-by-blow description, including this quote from Mulgrew: “we will all be right-to-work sooner or later.”)
Speaking of blows, the second end-of-the-world scenario involves — you guessed it — public charter schools. They’re the real zombies in teacher unions’ collective unconscious, bloodthirsty grotesques seizing the market share of traditional schools and slicing apart a once-inviolable monopoly with razor-sharp teeth. Hence, Mayor de Blasio’s thinly-veiled references to charter mythology:
We need a public school system, De Blasio said, “that doesn’t turn away a student with a disability, that doesn’t turn away a student who doesn’t speak English. Our mission is to reach out to all students and help them any way we can — proving the naysayers wrong every time we succeed. Let’s go forward together.”
Certainly, there are bad actors in the national charter school sector who do indeed “turn away” students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Certainly, there are traditional schools that do the same, like NYC’s network of magnet schools. (Bronx Science: 0% ELL and 1% special needs, 2% Black students. Stuyvesant: 0$ ELL, 1% special needs, 1% Black students.) All public schools, charter and traditional, can do better at serving historically-disenfranchised kids.
So let’s all take a deep breath. There is no zombie infestation.. There is no battle for the “soul of public education.” We are not “teetering on the brink” of apocalyptic destruction.
But we have embarked on a new educational landscape where some parents exercise their right to choose to send their children to non-traditional public schools. (Not all parents have this right because there aren’t enough seats to satisfy demand; according to the New York Charter School Center, 44,400 prospective students are on NYC charter waiting lists.) We also may embark on a new employment landscape where teachers will be able to exercise their right to choose whether or not to pay union dues. Scary? Maybe. Different? Sure. Survivable? Just ask Rick and Michonne who, along with their Walking Dead compadres, are challenged and changed yet alive and well in this brave new world of choice.