Reformers Aim To Shake Up the New York City Teachers Union
MORE members (including Jia Lee, second from left) at this summer's Labor Notes conference. (Labor Notes / Facebook)
Manhattan special education teacher Jia Lee just couldn’t take it anymore.
New York state Common Core testing standards, implemented in January of 2011 under the first Andrew Cuomo administration, not only tied teachers’ careers to student scores, but forced those teachers to focus solely on taking exams and diverted all educational energy toward rote memorization.
“They’re little human beings, not test scores,” she says.
Lee was frustrated. But she says her union, the United Federation of Teachers (Local 2, the largest affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) had agreed on implementing new testing requirements in order to negotiate with the state on how that regime would go forward.
When Lee announced that she and her colleagues would protest by not administering the required test in 2014, having pulled her own son out of testing as a parent activist the year before, the union regarded it as an unsanctioned action and gave her no support, she says. Lee claims they decided not to impose the test on their students, and no disciplinary charges from the school administration ever came down, either.
Her claims do, however, fly in the face of the UFT’s official stance on testing. UFT president Michael Mulgrew said as early as 2011 that testing requirements harmed students and teachers alike. “The relentless march onward of the testing obsession represents the complete triumph of ideology over evidence,” he stated.
Nevertheless, Lee was unimpressed with the union’s stance, and as a result of her activism, was invited to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on the subject of testing, which she said shifted all resources in education away from social studies toward rote memorization, and that arts and musical education rested on outside funding from parents. Now a public face in the nationwide movement of teachers and parents resisting rigorous testing in schools, she is vying to become the president of one America’s most important teachers unions.
This month, she’ll face off against two-and-a-half term incumbent Michael Mulgrew as the lead candidate for the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, the local branch of the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators that has affiliates throughout the country who are inspired by the reformers who took control of the Chicago Teachers Union and successfully led the 2012 strike.
Lee, 39, admits that the task seems insurmountable: the Unity Committee, or Unity Caucus, which Mulgrew is a member of, has held uninterrupted power in the UFT for five decades—in part through the key voting bloc of retirees. In most unions, retired members don’t vote in union elections.
But she’s hopeful despite the odds. “We see the election as an organizing tool,” Lee told me while taking a break from an all-day MORE organizing meeting earlier this year. “The real challenge is to build a rank-and-file movement.”
MORE formed a slate in 2013, and lost, with members from previous dissident caucuses. The difference with MORE is that it seems to build of the militancy in Chicago as well as the reform slate takeover of teachers unions in Los Angeles. As Lee sees it, the upcoming MORE push is the latest beachhead in a nationwide rank-and-file teacher reform movement.
Calling Mulgrew and AFT President and former UFT President Randi Weingarten “co-conspirators” in the privatization of public education, Lee cites the trend of accepting mayoral control of schools and defense of Common Core testing as a way to get a proverbial seat at the table to mitigate the impact of such proposals rather than oppose them outright. In the past, Lee says, both the UFT and the AFT received money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, compromising the unions’ ability to oppose privatization. (The foundation is one of the principal funders of free-market education reform efforts around the country.)