state of the union

Seven moments in UFT history maybe more pivotal than this one

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Even as many unions nationwide are struggling to retain their clout, the United Federation of Teachers is still flexing considerable muscle in New York City. But with a teacher evaluation deal still up in the air and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s last months in office approaching, the teachers union is nonetheless at a crossroads.

Just how much the current moment translates into change for the UFT will not be clear for years. Other turning points in UFT history have been more obvious. Here are a few:

1960: The UFT is born out of rival factions

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Teachers Guild President Charles Cogen, addressing a rally in Manhattan, later became the UFT’s first president. (Courtesy of UFT)

The Teachers Guild, a group made up primarily of older teachers, and the more confrontational High School Teachers Association merged in 1960 to create the UFT. Relations between the two groups, which were not the only unions representing city teachers, had thawed after members picketed together the previous year. The UFT’s future hegemony was not at all obvious then, as the union didn’t have collective bargaining power until December 1961 and the Teachers Guild didn’t dissolve until 1964. The UFT would play a crucial role in the education upheaval later that decade, including the 1968 teachers strike precipitated by the firing of teachers in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

1968: Teachers strike for months

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Teachers embarked on a series of strikes in 1968 over race tensions in schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. (Courtesy of UFT)

Books have been written about the conflict that raged after the school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn fired 18 white teachers without cause. In response, UFT President Al Shanker called a series of strikes, first in May of that year and then at the beginning of the next school year, which in total shut most of the city’s schools down for 36 days. That strained the relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York, made Shanker one of the best-known men in the city; and, when the teachers were rehired, ultimately strengthened the UFT. (It was also a decisive blow to the concept of community control of schools.) But the victory did little to address the underlying issues of the racial and ethnic make-up of the city’s teaching force or the city’s funding priorities that would make the 1970s a turbulent time for city schools and the union.

1969: Paraprofessionals join the union

The UFT has continued to gain strength by representing groups other than traditional classroom educators, a practice that has allowed it to grow its ranks even when the number of teachers in the city stagnated. In 1969, in one of the first major augmentations, 1,000 paraprofessionals joined the union, even though they had different concerns from other educators. The move created a precedent for expansion that led to school psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, secretaries, and other employees who are now included under the UFT umbrella, as well as employees who don’t work with public school students at all — such as nurses at Jewish Home and Hospital and a few other hospitals in the city. The UFT’s largest boost came in 2007, when city child care workers voted to be represented by the UFT, with the hope that the union would be able to negotiate to increase their salaries. That added 28,000 members to the UFT’s rolls and swelled the union’s representation to include those taking care of children before they even reach the city school system.

1975: The UFT keeps the city from declaring bankruptcy

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UFT President Al Shanker led a march across Brooklyn Bridge from the Board of Education to City Hall to protest school budget cuts in 1975, a month before lending union funds to the city to save it from bankruptcy. (Courtesy of UFT)

This oft-cited moment of cooperation between the union and the city was not without considerable tension — the year had already seen a five-day strike in September and thousands of teacher and paraprofessional layoffs that would reshape education in the city for years to come. But $150 million in UFT pension funds provided for city bonds did allow Mayor Abraham Beame to avoid declaring bankruptcy in October 1975. According to “Tough Liberal,” Richard Kahlenberg’s 2007 biography of Shanker, Newsweek at the time quoted a Bank of America vice president calling the union president “the most powerful man in the United States” in the lead-up to that decision, which Shanker made following the intervention of New York’s governor. The city made it clear that the union’s money was New York’s only option, and the union earned widespread praise for its actions.

1986: Sandra Feldman takes over

CAP (Courtesy of UFT)
Sandra Feldman taught fourth grade at P.S. 34 in Manhattan before becoming a union official and, eventually, its president. (Courtesy of UFT)

After 25 years at the helm of the UFT, Shanker resigned to focus on leading the American Federation of Teachers, the national union. Feldman had worked closely with Shanker for decades, playing a crucial support role in the strikes of the 1960s, and she continued his brand of unionism. But Feldman also turned the union’s attention more strongly than ever to the way that teachers were treated as professionals — and to the quality of the education that union members were providing to city students. Under her leadership, the union significantly ramped up the professional development it offered its members through its Teacher Centers; secured state funding for mentoring; and negotiated a contract that allowed for teacher input in school management. Feldman also proposed new ways to deliver instruction, suggesting, for example, that schools offer ungraded “primary units” for students who enrolled with inadequate preparation. The emphases on teacher practice and student outcomes have remained central to the union’s self-identification ever since.

1995: Teachers reject a contract agreement

Feldman negotiated a new contract that included a 13 percent, five-year salary increase and a temporary ban on layoffs — but it also froze wages for two years. Resenting the wage freeze, particularly as city officials were giving big raises to themselves, teachers voted down the contract by a 56 to 44 margin. It was the first — and still only — time in the union’s history that teachers rejected a contract negotiated by their elected leaders, and the stunning defeat signaled dissent within the union at a moment when the city’s financial situation made the union especially vulnerable. Teachers didn’t approve a contract for another year, and when they did, they signed off on many of the most controversial provisions.

2002: Weingarten helps enact mayoral control

Randi Weingarten testifying at a mayoral control hearing in February.
Randi Weingarten testified at a hearing about the renewal of mayoral control in February 2009. (<em>GothamSchools</em>)

Now that the union leadership and Mayor Bloomberg, more often than not, are trading jabs and filing lawsuits against one another, it’s clear that mayoral control of city schools has proven to be an extraordinarily controversial policy decision. But Bloomberg won centralized authority over an education system that had been decentralized for 33 years only with support from Randi Weingarten, the last UFT president, in 2002. As one New York Times analysis phrased it, “Ms. Weingarten and her union are scrambling to keep their foothold in the power structure,” which they did by presenting the union as partners with the city on improvements. The implications of that decision are likely to shape the union’s future, especially as it reconsiders its school governance platform after more than a decade of mayoral control.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 [email protected]

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