pick me pick me

Candidates vie for UFT support, with varying degrees of success

Six of the mayoral candidates attended the United Federation of Teacher's mayoral debate on Saturday during the union's spring conference.
Six mayoral candidates attended the United Federation of Teachers mayoral debate Saturday during the union’s spring conference. Left to right: Bill Thompson, Adolfo Carrión, Jr., Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, Sal Albanese and John Liu.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn fought hard to distance herself from the Bloomberg administration during a mayoral debate hosted by the teachers union on Saturday, but she could not escape being the only candidate to be booed by union members angry at the mayor’s education policies.

When UFT officials asked the mayoral candidates at the teachers union’s spring conference whether they believed the next chancellor needs to be an educator, Quinn’s answer stood out from the chorus of “yes” responses.

“Not necessarily,” she said.

It was not a new stance for Quinn, who has said for months that she believes a qualified non-educator could successfully lead the school system. But when she cited as someone who fit the bill U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whose agenda overlaps with Bloomberg’s, she drew loud boos from the crowd.

It was a major misstep for Quinn, the Democratic frontrunner, as she worked to hit the right notes during the United Federation of Teachers’ mayoral debate, which came a month before the union — one of the city’s most powerful political forces — plans to endorse a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2001.

Like the other candidates who attended — the rest of the leading Democratic candidates and one independent, Adolfo Carrion, Jr. —  she pledged to take the city’s schools in a new direction as mayor. But the challenge was greatest for Quinn, who as the head of the City Council under Bloomberg rarely challenged the mayor’s most divisive education policies.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has characterized education under Bloomberg “a decade of disaster.” In a speech at the conference, he called for a “truth commission” to scrutinize Bloomberg’s claims of education success, which he said had been dramatically inflated.

After the debate, Mulgrew said he thought all of the candidates who attended had gotten the union’s message.

“It was clear that all these candidates have made the position that what has gone on is wrong, and that we need to make significant changes,” he said. “We heard very positive responses and things that would probably be favorable with just about all of us.”

Quinn won points with the union when she said she would reduce the weight of test scores in calculating schools’ annual grades and allow a “sunset clause” into the city’s teacher evaluation system. Bloomberg said he spiked a deal with the UFT on evaluations late last year over the union’s demand for an expiration date.

She also joined the other candidates in criticizing Bloomberg’s strategy of closing low-performing schools, in saying that the state does not need to give permission for more charter schools to open, and in criticizing charter school operator Eva Moskowitz. Quinn said Moskowitz, who once headed the City Council’s education committee, had “ripped us apart” with her fierce criticism of the union.

But she and Carrión stood apart from the other candidates when asked whether they would continue to use Bloomberg’s letter grading system for schools. When asked to explain her decision to maintain the evaluation system, Quinn said she would revise the system by making sure standardized testing didn’t account for such a large percentage of the grades. Carrión agreed, saying, “At the end of the day, we need to give an honest assessment to parents of the school they’re sending their children to.”

Other candidates landed closer to union positions when they said charter schools should not be able to open in public school space without community approval and that the city school board should be altered to provide a more substantive check on the mayor’s power. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who ran against Bloomberg in 2009, became the first candidate to say he would cede the majority on the board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy.

All of the candidates highlighted their commitment to the union and the educators it represents. Quinn, who mentioned that her father was in a union, said union contract negotiations would not be public and she would stay in a room with the UFT “until we get a fair contract.” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said the union “saved us in the 1970s” and now in Mulgrew, “we have another great leader here who’s going to help us out of this crisis.” Former city councilman Sal Albanese reiterated his 11 years as a public school teacher and dues-paying UFT member, while Carrion also highlighted his experience as a public school teacher, and Liu pointed out that he is a public school parent.

Mulgrew also asked candidates how they would restore workers’ job security after the school bus strike, which he said Bloomberg had forced. Comptroller John Liu said Bloomberg’s administration thinks all workers, whether they are bus drivers or teachers, are “commodity items,” which drew cheers from the crowd. Thompson went even further and said the strike was “a great example of this administration union busting.”

When audience members were given the chance to ask questions, two different teachers asked how the candidates would support the community schools pilot program that the UFT launched last year. (All the candidates said they would expand the program). Championed by Mulgrew as the ideal school model, community schools offer children and parents access to healthcare, tutoring, counseling, and social services. The four Democratic frontrunners — Liu, Quinn, Thompson and de Blasio — have all accompanied Mulgrew on trips to visit a community school in Cincinnati, while Bloomberg’s administration hasn’t shown much interest in the idea.

The debate did not leave the hundreds of educators who attended the union’s spring conference with a clear picture of which candidate would be best for city teachers.

Mavis Yon, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn, said she was most concerned about how the next mayor would handle the curriculum teachers need to teach the new Common Core standards. She said she hasn’t decided which candidate she’ll support yet, but “I think that they all in their own way understand that what we have is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

Evelyn Negron, a special education teacher in Queens, said she liked what she heard from de Blasio. “We have a lot of senior teachers who feel like they’re getting the shaft,” she said. “The way he’s been talking, it really seems like he’ll be supporting our teachers the way we need to be supported.”

For Cynthia Dowdy, a counselor at a Brooklyn elementary school, Liu and Thompson are her two favorites so far. “I don’t know about Quinn … there’s too much of a connection with Bloomberg,” she said.

Vandeen Campbell and Geri Ryan, two Queens teachers, said they enjoyed hearing Albanese and Thompson speak but they haven’t decided who they’re voting for yet.

“They all know what they should say because they’re talking to a group of teachers and they know what the controversies are,” Ryan said. “But I think anybody would be better than Mayor Bloomberg.”

Campbell jumped in, “Well, not anybody. I think Quinn would be continuing what Bloomberg did.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”