It’s On! Bloomberg Picks a Fight with Teachers Union

Adam Lisberg for City & State with additional reporting by Andrew J. Hawkins |

“I loved the children in the beginning, the singers and the dancers. Weren’t they wonderful?”

That was the nicest thing United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew could think to say about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address yesterday, which was studded with education initiatives that reformers love and the union loves to hate.

At his State of the City address on Jan. 12, Mayor Bloomberg announced several measures that were seen as targeting the Teachers Union. Photo courtesy of City & State.

Bloomberg proposed a $20,000 merit pay boost for teachers rated highly effective two years in a row – provoking gasps from the audience at Morris High School in the Bronx – and said the city would unilaterally move ahead with a new teacher evaluation system at 33 struggling schools that could remove up to half the teachers there.

“We are raising the bar for teachers, just as we are for students,” the mayor said. And this year, we’ll do more to make sure every classroom has an effective teacher and to remove those who just don’t make the grade.”

Mulgrew didn’t clap when the rest of the audience did. He had been given a heads-up about the mayor’s initiatives just a few minutes before the speech began, and was still fuming at being punched in the nose in front of an audience.

“I don’t understand what he’s doing. Basically, it’s a fantasy world,” Mulgrew said afterward. “We’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the school system and the children … and if that gets him angry and he wants to come at us, so be it. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo loved it, in his own fashion – praising the mayor for following in his footsteps.

“As I said in my State of the State address, and Mayor Bloomberg reiterated in his State of the City today, we need an education system that puts students first,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I look forward to working together to create an accountability system that puts the interests of students ahead of the interests of the education bureaucracy.”

Other politicians were much more critical of the mayor’s moves, however.

“I do worry tactically that this Lone Ranger approach to education is not going to get him the results he thinks,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a likely candidate for mayor in 2013.

“To come out charging and create a schism with the teachers, it’s just not an effective tactic,” Stringer said. “I was hoping to hear something different … a much more collaborative, governmental approach that could show us that City Hall can play chess with Albany, not checkers with Albany.”

City Council Finance Committee Chairman Domenic Recchia had a different criticism: Who’s going to pay for all those bonuses, and a separate program to pay up to $25,000 worth of student loans for new teachers?

“Some of the programs he was talking about today are very costly,” Recchia said. “I don’t know where he’s getting the money. I spoke to the chief operating officer of the [Department of Education]. I asked her if she has, how are they going to pay for this. They have money socked away somewhere?”

What did she say?

“She says, ‘We have to talk.’ ”

Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel said he expects the dangling carrot of a $20,000 salary boost will appeal to plenty of teachers, even if their union hates the idea.

“They have to work together, and from what he’s offering, I think it’s a pretty good deal,” Rangel said. “It looks like they may have more to deposit in their bank accounts too.”

Still, even as the issues are ironed out in months ahead, New York’s political and education establishment were left buzzing about the mayor’s full-frontal attack on Mulgrew – almost everyone, that is, except City Council Speaker (and likely mayoral candidate) Christine Quinn, who repeatedly ducked reporters’ attempts to pin her down on the battle between two allies.

“The mayor has to defend how he does and doesn’t get things done,” Quinn said. “I think working together is always a good thing, and I think you should always try to do it even if you are in disagreement about some things.”

Read the full report on City & State.


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