The other day a friend told me that a mutual acquaintance, a private school teacher, had fallen seriously ill. The teacher’s friends and colleagues, he said, were raising money for her through GoFundMe, the online site for charitable giving, because the expenses she faced were almost as daunting as her illness. A few days later, I learned the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, also had opened a GoFundMe site to raise money for itself and members. It too, apparently, faces a daunting fate.
The health problems faced by a person are, of course, more compelling than the financial problems faced by a public employee union. Still, when an organization on which thousands of men and women rely for essential services– like medical insurance—seeks charity, then those men and women should be concerned.
John Abeigon, the NTU president, views the effort as a sort of David vs. Goliath effort.
“The corporations that have been funding the attack on teachers have very deep pockets,” he says. “In the case of charter schools like KIPP and Northstar, they are using public funds. No one can say the union has deep pockets.”
Abeigon speaks mostly of the efforts by state administrators running the Newark district to use the new tenure law—a weakling compared to prior job security measures—to fire tenured teachers. Under former state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson and then her successor, former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf, the state-operated district sought to dismiss a score or more of tenured Newark teachers by using a patently wrong interpretation of the new statute.
The law and accompanying regulations called for a year of experimental use of the new law before any district could begin using its punitive elements to dismiss tenured teachers. Newark began immediately to fire teachers. In virtually all cases, state arbritrators rebuffed the efforts and, for a year at least, the teachers under attack kept their jobs.
“But they came after them again,” said Abeigon. “Those legal cases cost a lot of money.”
For those districts eager to break what’s left of job security and union support, the weakened tenure law provides potent weapons. Two consecutive negative evaluations can trigger a dismissal. The state-operated Newark district has relied on public funds—diverted from programs and instructions—to pay its lawyers to pursue these cases, even when the law was against the state. The NTU had to rely on income from dues.
Abeigon sees the hand of private, corporate interests behind this onslaught—and he is not wrong. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), until recently headed by Newark’s Shavar Jeffries, receives much of its funding from private corporations and uses its clout to pursue an anti-union agenda. Unions, says DFER, represent a “dam” holding back school reform, a dam that must be “burst.”
With backing from DFER and others, Anderson and Cerf—and Gov. Chris Christie, the governor who appointed both of them—have relentlessly pressed for privatization of public schools in the cities, especially Newark.
The saddest part of this story is the dashed hopes inherent in the election of Ras Baraka as mayor in 2014. The NTU and other unions were essential in his victory over Jeffries—and then Baraka turned on the very organizations that made him mayor. And, in the process, cut a deal with Christie that provides for a gradual return of the state’s largest school system, not to popular control, but to mayoral control. That’s what it’s called when key members of the elected school board—including its president—are employed by the mayor.
But the NTU, too, has been compromised by its ties with Baraka. Its leaders apparently believe they do not dare anger the mayor—especially now, when the union is entering its second year without a contract and the union is counting on the support of City Hall if there is an impasse.
Abeigon insists his silence about Baraka’s seizure of control of the Newark schools will end if the union believes Baraka’s policies are harmful to teachers.
But it’s already clear Cerf, now Baraka’s ally, is out to destroy the union—the administrators’ union was all but destroyed by Anderson and Cerf. The NTU was powerless to prevent attacks on the power of the union’s welfare fund. By its resort to hopes for charitable fund-raising, the union has shown it is facing difficult—maybe desperate—times.
The collapse of the union will eventually mean desperate times for its members.
I don’t know the circumstances of the private school teacher whose friends and colleagues are raising money to meet health care costs. I hope she comes through this soon and returns to her classroom. Teachers are precious to children and deserve our support.
I do know the NTU has fallen on hard times–primarily because of the power of the governor and those with whom Christie struck bargains. Including the mayor of the Newark. I hope the teachers of Newark find a way to right the terribly unfair balance of power in the city’s schools.