Who would have thought in November that we would be where we are now? We celebrate the conclusion of a successful school year for public school educators, but the fact is it didn’t look so great just seven months ago.
Facing an administration hostile to public education and the labor movement, we recommitted to our core principles and ideals. We doubled down and did the work that was required of us. As educators, we made sure students had an opportunity to discuss their fears and be reassured that school would be a safe space for them. And as concerned citizens, we linked arms and joined millions from around the country in the Women’s Marches that took place in January. It was a great reminder of the solidarity and new alliances that take shape in a time of crisis.
We also helped to get the word out about the threat to public education posed by billionaire Betsy DeVos. Her name and reputation are toxic now. U.S. senators were flooded with calls opposing DeVos’ appointment as education secretary. Her nomination was nearly derailed when two Republican senators joined the opposition; ultimately Mike Pence had to cast the historic tie-breaking vote — the first time ever that a vice president had been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination.
In January, we brought a Michigan parent and a school official to Albany to give first-hand accounts of the damage DeVos left behind in her home state and the failure of charter schools and voucher schemes to improve student outcomes. Legislators and their staff told me it was an eye-opener for them.
The UFT continued as fierce advocates for our schools and our students in the budget battle in Albany this year. The result was a $1.1 billion increase in state education aid and the extension of the millionaire’s tax, which preserves billions of dollars in revenue for schools and other vital public services. We were also able to make sure the charter school cap remained in place (that battle reared its head again in late June as the legislative session drew to a close).
In the city budget passed in early June, we won a substantial 63 percent increase in Teacher’s Choice — bringing the program’s funding back to its prerecession high of more than $20 million. The City Council also provided significant funding increases for our other education initiatives and programs, including Community Learning Schools, the BRAVE anti-bullying program, the Positive Learning Collaborative and the Dial-A-Teacher homework helpline.
We remained committed to our most vulnerable students and families. Our first-ever conference for educators of English language learners in October drew some 800 members who wanted to learn and share strategies for reaching these students. We held our first immigration forum in May to help vulnerable families obtain correct information about the rights and protections their children have in our schools. And the union organized several prom boutiques in May so high school seniors from low-income families were able to dress to the nines on their big night.
While we close out the 2016–17 school year on a high note, serious challenges loom on the horizon. DeVos shows no sign of letting up in her quest to privatize public education through charters and vouchers. She evaded questions during congressional hearings on the president’s education budget and remains a formidable foe.
Here in New York State, we must continue to get the word out about the dangers of a state constitutional convention. Please tell your friends and family members about the importance of getting to the polls in November and voting “no” on that ballot question. So many of the rights and benefits we hold dear would be put at risk if a convention were held.
In September, we expect the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Janus v. AFSCME case, which challenges the “fair-share” fees that public-sector unions collect from workers who don’t become members. The case makes the same legal arguments as the Friedrichs case, which ended in a 4-4 deadlock in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. President Trump has since appointed a new justice, Neil Gorsuch, who is expected to rule against the unions.
We will continue to fight back and hold the line against attacks on public schools, labor unions and working people. The fact is that strong unions lift the boats of all workers. We are all in this together.
I hope you enjoy your well-deserved summer break. We’ll need you back, rested and ready, in September to fight these new battles.