The New York State United Teachers, one of the state’s most powerful unions, got almost everything it wanted in this year’s budget. The union, with more than a half-million members, was able to defeat proposals to reduce the amount of foundation aid to local school districts, cut BOCES aid, and won passage of a measure prohibiting school districts from denying tenure to a teacher based on student test results.
NYSUT aggressively pursues its agenda in Albany. Since 2007, it spent more than $2.1 million on lobbying, including more than $500,000 on 12 full- and part-time lobbyists, and more than $700,000 in campaign contributions. That was enough to rank NYSUT as the top spender in 2007-08 of all lobbying groups in the state, according to the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying.
Two other education advocacy groups — United University Professions, a labor union representing 34,000 public college and university employees, and the United Federation of Teachers, another lobbying group — ranked second and third on the list, respectively.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY — a nonpartisan organization that advocates for clean elections and ethical standards for elected officials — said it’s not unusual for teachers’ unions to be active players in the political scene.
“There are people that would argue, ‘they’re in [government] pitching for the kids’ and there are other people who would argue that ‘they’re in there pitching for their members,’ ” she said.
Lerner believes there is too much of a “pay to play” atmosphere in state government, where money yields favors and influence. But that’s true of both business and labor, and of both political parties, she said. Common Cause advocates for public funding of campaigns and restrictions on campaign contributions made by lobbyists during the legislative season.
Terry Weiner, professor of political science at Union College and a Niskayuna School Board member, said one of the reasons why the union has such influence it that has so many members and they are distributed in each county in the state. “They constitute a political force that has to be reckoned with and that has an enormous impact on state politics,” he said.
Weiner said the union’s influence has grown dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s when it sought to improve wages for teachers relative to New York professionals. Instead of just focusing on working conditions, however, the union has taken the lead in other educational policy initiatives such as reducing class size and raising standards.
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi defended the number of lobbyists on the payroll.
“We have a really solid core of probably a thousand local leaders, who know how to pick up the phone and [stay] in touch with our legislators and [let] them know what is important,” he said.
He noted that the more than $6 million raised for lobbying all came from voluntary contributions from members, not from union dues.
The union was not able to accomplish all of its goals in this budget session; higher education funding is less than last year’s level, which Iannuzzi said was “totally unacceptable.”
Some critics have accused the union of being an obstacle to education reform initiatives, such as merit pay for teachers. Iannuzzi said the union is not totally opposed to some form of performance pay, but he is not sure what criteria people would use to decide that some teachers are meritorious. Also, the union opposes use of test scores to determine tenure or merit pay.
“There is no connection between a student performance exam and what you would be looking for to define a quality teacher,” he said. “It’s simply not a instrument that was designed to evaluate a teacher’s performance. It’s like using a vehicle emissions test to decide whether or not the brakes work on a car.”
Contrary to being an obstacle of change, Iannuzzi said the union has probably been more of an agent of reform than anyone else.
“I would point to all of the work that NYSUT has done itself on addressing the achievement gap,” he said. The union has invested massive amounts of time, energy and resources into this initiative to help raise the education level of students in low-income areas to match those of wealthier communities, Iannuzzi said. In the fall, the union held a conference on the topic as part of its effort.
“Very often the simplistic response, especially from the School Boards Association, is that the union is in the way, and that response is generally their way of rolling up their sleeves and coming to the table to work collaboratively to make things happen,” he said.
David Albert, spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association, said most of the time NYSUT and his organization are on the same side of the issues.
“We’re both looking to improve instruction, get higher graduation rates, advance public education in general,” he said.
Both also oppose tax caps. One issue where they disagree is teacher tenure. The School Boards Association believes that the local school boards should have discretion in deciding who gets tenure and be able to take into account factors like whether the teachers are involved with extracurricular activities after school or provide mentoring.
The School Boards Association believes the “one size fits all approach” of having the Board of Regents establish a statewide criteria for tenure will not work. The association also wants schools to be able to use student test scores as a criteria. “We don’t think that testing should be the sole criteria for granting tenure, but we think that school boards ought to have the ability to use that as one of the criteria,” he said.
Kajal Lahira, distinguished professor of economics at the University at Albany, said tenure is an important issue. Since teacher salaries are relatively low, minimizing the risk that teachers would be let go is important.
Lahira said the union has worked aggressively to restrict efforts to impose tax caps.
“It hurts schools since the school’s major expenses is teacher salary,” he said.