Our priorities going into the November midterm elections were first, to work with our public school colleagues and retirees around the country to make sure there would be a check on the president and the privatization agenda of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and second, to flip the New York State Senate by electing candidates who would ensure that pro-teacher, pro-public school policies, stymied by Republican legislators in Albany, would be enacted.
We achieved both goals.
Making these Election Day victories even sweeter, two of the worst anti-teachers union governors, in Wisconsin and Illinois, were defeated. Kim Kohlhaas, the president of the Wisconsin-AFT who visited us last spring to talk about how public school educators are struggling in her anti-worker, anti-union state, was in tears on election night because they had pulled it off.
None of these victories were assured. All of it required relentless hard work: organizing, educating and getting out the vote.
Nearly all of the biggest anti-public school referendums on the ballot were defeated as well. Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to expand the state’s voucher program. Save Our Schools Arizona, the same grassroots organization that was behind the state’s teacher walkouts, collected the 100,000 signatures needed to put this terrible expansion idea before the voters.
In New York State, the Democratic Party needed to flip only one seat in the state Senate to regain control but, in the end, Democrats unseated five incumbents, including Brooklyn Sen. Martin Golden, and won three open seats. COPE dollars and volunteers from the UFT and our state affiliate NYSUT made the difference. The UFT coordinated effectively with union locals and NYSUT in Long Island and the Hudson Valley to help elect pro-public education candidates in those suburbs.
The result is that the teacher evaluation bill, which would permanently cut the mandatory link between student scores and teacher evaluations, is back on the table in the legislative session that begins in Albany in January. This spring, that bill had been held hostage by Senate Republicans, who wanted to tack on to the bill more funding for charter schools and a lifting of the charter cap.
We can celebrate that New York State is leading the way to a better democracy. But we have many battles before us, particularly on the national level. It will likely continue to be a nonstop rollercoaster for the next two years in Washington, D.C., with a divided Congress and an erratic president at the helm.
But remember that just two years ago, with a hostile new administration in the White House and with the Janus case bearing down on us at the Supreme Court, things looked much bleaker. We didn’t panic. We had a plan, and we took it one step at a time.
Our campaign to defeat the proposal on the November 2017 ballot to hold a constitutional convention, the formation of membership teams in schools and our door-knocking campaign to discuss the significance of the Janus case one-on-one with members, and our successful campaign for paid parental leave — all were important steps. Each was a challenge we met. Each helped us build unity and strengthen the union for these uncertain times.
We have to keep that energy and momentum going as we implement the new DOE-UFT contract. UFT-represented educators now have a greater voice in how their schools are run, from the expanded authority of the consultation committee in each school to resolve workplace issues to the Bronx Plan that takes a bottom-up approach to transforming the learning environment in schools facing the greatest challenges.
We need to exercise that new voice in every school. That is the challenge ahead of us.