Michael Mulgrew stood in a drizzly rain last week outside Morris High School in the Bronx and grimly attempted to put a positive spin on what had just occurred or, at the very least, to mount a defense.
For the previous hour, thousands of heads in the high school auditorium had been scanning the seats for Mr. Mulgrew as Mayor Bloomberg delivered his annual State of the City address. Eight times in that address had Mr. Bloomberg mentioned by name the union that Mr. Mulgrew heads—the United Federation of Teachers—excoriating the city’s chief educators’ union as antistudent and the enemy of progress.
“When we sit down with the UFT, there are two groups in the room: the UFT and our school children,” Mayor Bloomberg said, adding that the latter group is “who we work for…We have an obligation to stand up for their lives, their futures.”
He called for merit pay, for more a more stringent teacher evaluation system, more (union-free) charter schools.
“It’s a legacy thing. Remember, ‘I am the education mayor.’ Two years left and [test] scores have been flat the whole time. Closing schools has not really worked out. We have the warehousing of students,” said Mr. Mulgrew. “Those are problematic, so I’m sure he’s worried about his legacy.”
A steady stream of reporters filed out, and Mr. Mulgrew, repeated over and over, with slight variation, his take.
“The mayor is very upset that we are outspoken about what we feel is going on with the schools and probably thinks we are trying to mess with his legacy,” he said, adding, “The mayor doesn’t like the teachers and the teachers union of New York City. It’s pretty clear. I don’t know how many times he mentioned us. All I heard—UFT, UFT, UFT.
“It’s clear it’s his political agenda. It’s not about what is good for the kids.”
The mayor’s tone was a little surprising. State of the City addresses are typically the time for energetic uplift and conciliatory gestures. The night before, the Bloomberg administration announced that it had a reached a deal with critic Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, to rebuild Kingsbridge Armory, a failed development deal that had plagued the administration for three years.
Even school reformers, usually antiunion and pro-charter school, were taken aback a bit by the language.
“It’s typically not a winning strategy for politicians to go after a union,” said one prominent reform advocate. “We advise them to make it more about their record than about the union.”
People close to the mayor say that he was genuinely angry at the teachers union after it failed to reach an agreement over a new teacher evaluation system. The breakdown in negotiations caused the federal government to suspend more than $60 million in aid to city schools.
And the breakdown put the teachers union firmly in the crosshairs not just of Mayor Bloomberg but of Governor Cuomo as well, and provided the state’s two biggest political players, currently in an all-out duel for supremacy, a rare moment of alignment. Governor Cuomo had taken up largely the same cudgel in his State of the State address earlier in the month, calling himself the “lobbyist in chief” for students—the implication being that the well-heeled union already has lobbyists aplenty.
If the teachers union suddenly finds itself getting it from all sides, it is not just because the evaluation system fell through—it is also in part at least because reformers finally feel that their moment has at last arrived.
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