De Blasio's Debt to UFT's Mulgrew Comes Due

Councilmember Daniel Dromm, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Education, appeared this week on MSNBC’s “Ed Show” to lend support to the administration’s war on charter schools, as personified in the figure of Eva Moskowitz.  Dromm corrected the host’s assertion that Moskowitz’ Success Academy is a for-profit enterprise, but stressed that charter schools nevertheless foster “inequality” through the “corporatization and privatization of our schools.”  The councilmember added that he is not opposed to charter schools per se.  In fact, Dromm asserted that he is in favor of “unionized” charter schools, including one in his district.

Councilmember Dromm thus cuts right to the heart of Progressive opposition to the charter school system, which is that their teachers are typically non-union.  He acknowledges in his interview that charter schools perform at least as well as standard public schools, but claims that the three Success Academy schools marked for extinction have “problems,” though their metrics are substantially higher than average, according to Department of Education data.  Dromm, painting a bleak picture of co-location, claims that sharing building space highlights “inequities” between charter and standard public schools, though a recent study by Marcus Winters for the Manhattan Institute shows no correlation between test scores and co-location.  Furthermore, many of the unionized charter schools are substandard, in particular one called “The UFT Charter School,” which ranks in the bottom percent of all city schools.

Indeed, while there are legitimate concerns that can be expressed about the charter school system, the Progressives currently running the city haven’t bothered to make a strong case against them.  Rather, much of the debate has been driven by either vituperations about Eva Moskowitz personally, or fear-mongering about the supposed “privatization” of the public school system, although all of the city’s charter schools are, as a rule, non-profit entities.  The real reasons for opposing charter schools, hinted at by Councilmember Dromm, can be found on the UFT website, which says that “the ideological goals” of the charter school movement are “privatizing public education and breaking the power of teacher unions.”

Why is the de Blasio administration, aided by his cats’ paws in the Council and Public Advocate’s office, putting so much political capital into this fight?  After all, unlike the UPK tax hike battle, the only people who will be negatively affected by his policy are his ostensible base: primarily black and Latino working-class people who are committed to getting their kids the best education possible.  The “optics” of the faceoff cannot be good for the Mayor, who no doubt is gnashing his teeth over Governor Cuomo’s skillful triangulation of the issue at the pro-charter rally in Albany on Wednesday.  Cuomo, praising Republican Senator Skelos, standing in front of a crowd of cheering minority parents, is using de Blasio as a pivot to cast himself as a moderate on the national stage, preparatory to a 2016 run for President.

It is hard not to conclude that the charter school battle is another step in de Blasio’s massive program of payback to labor.  Recall that in the Mayor’s first appearance before the legislature, to ask for UPK money, he admitted that the city has $2.5 billion in surplus, but that he is essentially holding it in reserve for contract talks with the unions.  It is prudent to reserve a surplus, but telegraphing how much one is willing to give away prior to negotiations is the height of foolishness. 

Following the disbursement of retroactive raises to 200 Environmental Protection officers, UFT boss Michael Mulgrew made it clear that he is expecting the same for his 200,000 members.  The teachers, who have famously not had a “raise” since 2009, have nevertheless had cost of living increases that have substantially outpaced inflation.  Mayor de Blasio has been preparing a counter-narrative of the Bloomberg years, in which what many mistook for managerial efficiency was in fact gross mismanagement and deferred maintenance.  “There will be a cost to pay,” de Blasio told the legislators in Albany.  “A cost that should have been handled over years is now going to be handled in many ways in the here and now. So that challenge makes clear to us we are in a troubled fiscal environment.”  In this retelling of the last twelve years, Bloomberg feasted on money that rightfully belonged to the workers, and which de Blasio is now going to restore to its proper owners.

One could argue that de Blasio in fact owes little to the UFT, which after all supported Bill Thompson with millions of dollars.  But consider the immediate timeline post-primary.  On the Saturday after the election, when de Blasio’s 40% threshold was tenuous, with tens of thousands of paper ballots yet to be counted, Thompson and de Blasio met with Michael Mulgrew.  Mulgrew characterized the meeting as “refreshing.”  Monday morning, Thompson announced his decision to drop out of the race, sparing Democrats a bloody runoff.  Two days later the UFT voted to endorse de Blasio, and Mulgrew revealed his part in the negotiations, saying Thompson’s withdrawal was “a result” of his intercession.

The current full-press, two-front effort--to pass UPK and simultaneously go after the most prominent anti-union charter school proponent--is likely part of de Blasio’s end of his bargain with Mulgrew.  In striking a deal to avoid an electoral runoff the Mayor signed another series of debits to add to his hefty stack.  It is richly ironic that the ones who have to pay these Progressive accounts are working people desperate to enhance their children’s life chances.