ATRs, the unrepresented -- no elected representatives in the UFT

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"To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another."
Thomas Paine, First Principles of Government


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Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Open Letter to Dissent Magazine

As teachers in the ATR Chapter Committee and UFT members, we offer our congratulations to Dissent magazine for sixty years of progressive commentary and debate. Some of us are longtime readers and most would agree that the magazine has provided a strong voice in defense of teachers and against the neoliberal assault on public education. 
We write this letter because the magazine's choice of venue, the UFT headquarters, for its sixtieth anniversary celebration makes us wonder about a few things. 

We are concerned that the host of the celebration, AFT President Randi Weingarten, has done less than an adequate job of resisting the corporate school reform that Dissent writers have eloquently deplored. 

A headline in the current issue reads, “Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy.” Joanne Barkan reports that a flood of corporate profits coming through the mega-foundations has helped to dictate public policy and distort the priorities of public education. She argues that it threatens to completely stifle the creativity of civil society and our democratic values. She also observes that the mainstream media are mostly “failing miserably in their watchdog duties.”

We agree that such watchfulness is warranted. That is partly the purpose of this letter. There seems to be a serious disconnect going on. The progressive press is all too circumspect with regard to unions officials who have benefited from the largesse of foundations and are promoting the goals of the financial elite. 

In an era of union-bashing one might be tempted to be polite about such shortcomings. However, the teacher union's alignment with the corporate school reform agenda is an essential part of the picture. It is a little hard to understand the situation otherwise.

In recent years the AFT and NEA have accepted tens of millions from the Gates Foundation to support the Common Core curriculum and initiatives around teacher evaluation. In March 2013 Weingarten, as president of the AFT, co-wrote a piece with a Gates Foundation director that appeared the New Republic as “sponsored content.” The main thrust of the message was that there were problems with teacher evaluation systems because of a too-hasty roll-out. While expressing concern about the problems of the evaluation being set up clumsily, Weingarten boasted that the AFT's model for teacher development and evaluation is being used in scores of school districts across the country. The language of the statement is replete with managerial terms like effectiveness and performance.

Weingarten has promoted the value-added evaluation, rightly called “junk science” in a way that may take years to undo.

Similarly, she is also trying to save the Gates-funded Common Core curriculum from a groundswell of parent opposition. She complains about the inadequate quality of standardized tests or materials, while implicitly affirming the need for standardized business-model solutions in general. 

As a 2009-2010 report for the Broad Foundation: We decided at the onset of our work to invest in smart, progressive labor leaders like Randi Weingarten. That investment was money well spent. A few years ago Broad awarded the UFT a million dollar grant to set up two charter schools in New York City. 

We believe unions have a vital role in reclaiming public education. As member-financed institutions they have the potential to act as a counterweight against the power of the corporations. This is obviously undermined when a union leadership takes corporate funding and acts as a mouthpiece.

Of course, it is up to union members to elect leaders who follow better principles. Our point is that the media influences teachers and for a magazine to critique the pernicious influence of corporations and then celebrate its anniversary with Randi Weingarten it is disappointing. It seems a little like somebody mourning the scarcity of wild herd animals in North America and then having dinner with Buffalo Bill. Thank you for reading this. Please rethink the omissions!

Sincerely, 

ATR teachers and other Department of Education workers,
New York City

Who We Are

Over 2,000 New York City employees are currently working with the status of Absent Teacher Reserve teachers or ATRs. We are teachers, librarians, guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and speech and hearing therapists. Many of us were displaced by school closings, co-locations and shrinking enrollments. Others were excessed because of budget cuts and administrative decisions to eliminate programs in their license areas. Instead of having regular assignments we move in weekly rotations that many of us find demeaning and unproductive, a plan that the UFT agreed to in a hastily called Delegate Assembly meeting on the last day of school in June, 2011. We consider our status one of age discrimination, as our internal survey indicates that over 85 percent of us are over 50 years of age.

Our ranks also include whistle-blowers banished from schools by improper excessing or on trumped-up charges of misconduct. Some of us have successfully had charges overturned but remain ATRs because DOE policy does not allow for a return to our schools even following favorable judgments. Absent Counselor Reserve workers (guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists) have been displaced by out-sourcing their work to “service providers.”
Dozens of schools have been closed and replaced with Gates-funded small schools. Concessions in the 2005-2007 UFT contract took away seniority rights for teachers and the Fair Student Funding formula for school budgets began to penalize schools that hired senior teachers with higher salaries.

The UFT does not officially have a chapter for ATR teachers. Unlike teachers permanently assigned to schools we lack any union delegates or chapter leaders to represent us.


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