The problem with public sector unions is that they represent not just the workers for a government entity but also the elected leaders’ constituents. That gives them unique leverage that their private sector counterparts do not have. It can get even more complicated when the elected leaders must contend with multiple different unions within the same area of government. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is getting an object lesson in just how bruising this can be thanks to the current controversy over the opening of the city schools.
The mayor has been struggling for weeks to come up with a plan to reopen the city’s public schools that passes the muster of the powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT). “Nothing replaces in-person learning,” de Blasio emphasized during a September 1 press conference. Middle and high schools are set to open this week, but on Friday, de Blasio agreed to UFT‘s demand to allow all teachers to work remotely from home rather than at their school.
The schools’ principals were apparently not consulted on this. They claim they didn’t know until they heard about it in the news. Well, those principals have their own union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA). The principals claim that they have teacher shortages and insufficient technology for remote learning, including inadequate bandwidth, so Friday’s agreement undermines everything.
The CSA on Sunday passed a “no confidence” vote on de Blasio, stating his administration has “entered into grossly irresponsible staffing agreements that fail to prioritize the needs of school children and their families.”
“This level of uncertainty and risk is every principal’s nightmare,” tweeted Henry Rubio, executive vice president of the CSA.
The principals have a point. So, what then is the CSA’s suggestion? Cede control of the city schools to the state’s Education Department. That is, take power away from the mayor’s office and give it to the permanent bureaucrats, at least until the COVID-19 crisis is over, though there’s no clear end date on that. In other words, ensure the mayor has even less oversight over the education system. The Wall Street Journal ’s headline was admirably blunt: “New York City Principals Union Calls on Mayor to Cede Control of Schools to State.”
Mayor de Blasio is himself progressive and pro-union, but like any chief executive, he’s also not eager to erode the power and authority of his office. He shouldn’t. It would be a terrible legacy for him to make the city’s education system even less accountable.