Andrew Yang vs. the UFT

The front-running candidate for mayor picks a fight with one of the city's most powerful unions

It all started last Thursday. In remarks published in Politico, Andrew Yang happily stepped on a third rail of Democratic politics in New York City. “I will confess to being a parent that has been frustrated by how slow our schools have been to open, and I do believe that the UFT has been a significant reason why our schools have been slow to open,” Yang said.

The UFT, for the uninitiated, is the United Federation of Teachers. The union represents nearly 200,000 people in the five boroughs, most of them the teachers in the city public schools. It is one of the “big four” unions—along with 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, and the Hotel Trades Council—that has traditionally dominated municipal and state primaries in New York. They don’t always align on candidates or issues, but having one of them on your side can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in mail and television expenditures, along with member-to-member contact. Though much attention has been paid to the swollen $6 billion police budget in New York City, the spending on education is far larger—in 2021, the Department of Education’s budget will probably top $28 billion. The school system, pre-pandemic, educated more than a million children. The stakes in these sorts of debates are incredibly high.

If Yang wins, he will be relatively unique among recent New York mayors because he will have kids currently in the city school system. In 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a very big deal of the fact that his son, Dante, was attending Brooklyn Tech. Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, did not send his kids to public schools. Neither did Rudy Giuliani or David Dinkins. Unlike the suburbs, most upper middle class and wealthy New Yorkers avoid public schools altogether, electing to send their kids to very expensive private schools. Yang, like de Blasio, will be bucking this trend, and in theory will have a lot of skin in the game if he wins the race and is empowered to make major decisions impacting public education.

Before I get to Yang’s comments and the UFT’s furious response, I want to pause and say I still don’t understand much about Yang’s education views. Beyond school reopenings, he has not taken many strong stances, and his current platform is rather vague. In the past, he has expressed support for charter schools, which proliferated in the city under Bloomberg. Speaking on a podcast in 2019, Yang called himself “pro-charter” and said that “there are excellent charter schools and terrible charter schools. We should just be pro-excellent school, and [stop] saying that this entire category of school is somehow problematic.”

“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re tenuring teachers at like the two-year mark or something, and make it so you can’t be paid or you can’t be disciplined or fired,” he continued. “Teachers’ unions are a very, very powerful constituency. And so some politicians have said ‘I’m better served by getting behind this point of view.’”

I’ll lay my cards out here: as a leftist and former public school teacher, I am deeply skeptical of charter schools, which are publicly-funded and privately-run. Some perform well, as Yang said, and others perform quite poorly. The trouble with charters is that they often co-locate with traditional public schools, taking away space and resources from them. Unlike public schools, charters do not have to accept all students: they can use lotteries and admissions exams to weed out English language-learners and students with disabilities. For some superior students, charters are a worthwhile option, but it is difficult to build a school system around the idea that struggling students should be shut out altogether. Worldwide, the charter model is not generally followed. Rather, top-performing countries pay their teachers a lot of money, allow them to join unions, and make the profession as elite as it can be. In an ideal world, public schools would be as attractive landing spaces for bright college graduates as Wall Street. Charters, of course, do not have to recognize unions, and some exist simply to circumvent union rules. It’s why they are popular with the Betsy DeVos wing of the Republican Party. Breaking the unions in big cities is a long desired goal.

On Monday, I asked Yang a simple question: would he increase the number of charter schools in New York City? For context, there are 401 charter schools that have been approved to operate in the entire state. Of that number, 351 are currently operating or have been approved but are not yet in operation. In the five boroughs, there are 290 charters, which is the current cap for the city. Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to raise the charter cap in the city by at least 20.

Yang did not say he’d advocate to increase the cap. He didn’t deny, however, he wouldn’t fight for it in the future.

“I’ve committed to using the already authorized charters that right now are not being utilized. That’s the current plan,” he told me.

Ultimately, on charters, leftists have less to fear from Yang than Bloomberg. Some of this is circumstantial. Though the Bloomberg veterans being paid to run Yang’s mayoral bid—Bradley Tusk is a top adviser—would probably like little more than reintroducing the Bloomberg education agenda to the city, the politics in Albany will head that off. For almost the entirety of Bloomberg’s 12 years, Republicans controlled the State Senate, where they fought aggressively to raise the cap on charters. Republican George Pataki, who first authorized charters for New York in 1998, was governor for all of Bloomberg’s first term. These days, Democrats dominate the State Senate, and they are uniformly hostile to charters. Carl Heastie, the Assembly speaker, has forged a close relationship with the state teachers’ union.

Bowing to this reality, Cuomo—once such a fierce advocate for the charters beloved by his wealthiest donors that he headlined a rally for them in Albany—has mostly gone mute on the issue. Democrats are not moving to dismantle existing charters or repeal an existing law, forced through by Cuomo, that still orders the Department of Education to pay the rent of all charters or find free space in existing buildings—though many state lawmakers will not lift another finger to aid charters. If Yang is elected mayor, this is the kind of environment he will confront. And given his newness and lack of Bloombergian world-historical wealth, he will not be able to regularly tussle with the UFT. Expanding the footprint of charters was central to Bloomberg’s privatization worldview; for Yang, they’re nice curiosities, but nowhere near the center of his politics. Bloomberg, with his ability to buy off much of the political establishment, could govern comfortably as an anti-union mayor. Yang will not have such a luxury.

Which brings us back to Yang vs. UFT. On Monday, when I, along with another reporter, pressed the issue, Yang refused to back down from his earlier remarks. After citing the frustrations he and his wife had with the slow pace of school reopenings in New York City, he seemed to depart from the more buoyant rhetorical approach he has employed in interactions with the public.

“I think New York is tired of political candidates who will watch every word around something that many of us feel because it might antagonize a particular interest group,” he said.

Michael Mulgrew, UFT’s punchy president, did not hold back against Yang.

“Thanks to his limited knowledge of education and government, along with the ideological partisanship of his advisers, Andrew Yang suffers from a profound misunderstanding of the importance of our public schools and the role of teachers and their union,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “The members of the UFT devote their professional lives to educating people, and it is clear that Mr. Yang has a great deal to learn.”

Yang’s top rivals, delighted to capitalize on his willingness to attack UFT and simultaneously ingratiate themselves with Mulgrew, all blasted him.

“Perhaps Mr. Yang wouldn’t have said what he said if he stayed in New York last spring and seen an entire city of teachers make the best of the worst to teach our kids,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer in a speech last Friday, alluding to Yang’s decision to leave the city for his house in New Paltz last March. “Whether it’s an illegal casino on Governor's Island, housing for Tik Tok stars, or being baffled by parents who live and work in two-bedroom apartments with kids in virtual schools. We don’t need another leader who tweets first and thinks later.”

Stringer is the front-runner to receive the UFT endorsement at this point, as an establishment Democrat with a long record of backing progressive education policy. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has coveted endorsements from 32BJ and HTC, is less likely to win their support because he has a much closer relationship with the charter sector.

The UFT does not have a good record of picking winners in mayoral races. Bloomberg once mocked the union as the “kiss of death.” “I don’t know what goes through voters’ minds, but maybe they understand if the UFT wants it, it ain’t good and you don’t want that person,” he snarked back in 2013, his final year as mayor. Bloomberg beat the UFT three times, but he did it because he could always outspend them, dumping an unfathomable $109 million into his final campaign in 2009.

In 2013, the UFT backed Bill Thompson, not de Blasio, though the future mayor courted Mulgrew aggressively. What was key, though, is that the UFT never spent heavily against de Blasio. They had little to fear if Thompson lost and de Blasio won because he had a long track record of opposing charter schools and school co-locations. De Blasio also promised to give new contracts to teachers who had been left in the lurch by Bloomberg, who ignored the city unions in his final term.

Yang is flirting with danger. He is the front-runner, but the combined might of the city’s biggest unions could bring him down if they focus their attention on extensive television spending that attacks him directly. The UFT could easily lead the charge, benefiting someone like Adams. If there are weeks of anti-Yang ads on the airwaves, they could easily take their toll on what has been a sunny, almost winsome campaign.

There’s the second possibility, though, that this could backfire. New Yorkers, crushed by a year of the pandemic, are going to be in a more optimistic mood in May and June as the weather warms and people get vaccinated. Yang’s campaign senses this. This will not be a 2013 campaign, with candidates warning about the dangers of Bloomberg’s tale of two cities. Voters have lived through darkness and may be open to a happy warrior. Hence Yang’s enduring appeal.

But let’s put those horse-race politics aside—we’ll get a verdict on June 22nd—and go to the heart of the matter. Is Yang right or wrong? What remains fascinating about the school reopening debate is how it scrambles ideological lines. Absent the coronavirus pandemic, you would expect the left to argue for the virtues of in-person instruction in a classroom, while conservatives clamor for a Big Tech future with Zoom schools, at-home family instruction, and a diminished role for the unionized teacher. David Leonhardt wrote recently in the Times that polling data demonstrated how both Republicans and Democrats misjudged COVID-19. For the right-wing, we can imagine why: Donald Trump downplayed coronavirus repeatedly, turning mask-wearing into a destructive cultural debate, and early on attacked governors who implemented necessary lockdowns. Republicans naturally doubted the severity of the virus itself, as Trump and conservative media compared it to the flu.

But Democrats were wrong about coronavirus too. “When asked how often Covid patients had to be hospitalized, a very large share of Democratic voters said that at least 20 percent did. The actual hospitalization rate is between 1 percent and 5 percent,” Leonhardt wrote. “Democrats are also more likely to exaggerate Covid’s toll on young people and to believe that children account for a meaningful share of deaths. In reality, Americans under 18 account for only 0.04 percent of Covid deaths.”

“Democrats’ overestimation of risks explains why so many have accepted school closures — despite the damage being done to children, in lost learning, lost social connections and, in the case of poorer children, missed meals,” Leonhardt continued. “The states with the highest share of closed schools are all blue states: California, Oregon, Maryland, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada, Massachusetts and New Jersey.”

There is much we’ve learned about COVID-19 over the past year. Unlike the flu pandemic of a century ago, it’s a virus that is more fatal to the old, not the young. Children, as of now, are far less likely to get sick than the elderly.

This was not known in March 2020. At the time, teachers and politicians were right to demand school closures because coronavirus was new and spreading everywhere. In Seattle, school closures were employed to shock the populace into taking coronavirus seriously. In New York, both de Blasio and Cuomo dragged their feet in shutting city schools, even as teachers pleaded for their lives. De Blasio’s reluctance was somewhat defensible because schools, for poor children especially, are such a lifeline: they offer free meals, various support services, and vital social interaction. Many parents and guardians can’t easily afford childcare. At the same time, due to health and safety concerns, students and teachers had to be sent home. At the start of the pandemic, there was really no other way.

But a lot has changed since then. By even the summer, it was clear remote learning, largely, had been a disaster. This wasn’t an issue limited to New York. Across America, students struggled to stay focused at home, grappling with numbing screen time and spotty internet connections. Disadvantaged students were more likely to be learning remotely, falling further behind wealthier peers. Learning gaps have emerged that may shadow certain students for years. Students with disabilities and those in need of socialization suffered mightily. In states like California, where schools have been shuttered for a year, attendance has dropped off catastrophically in some school districts. School administrators have been forced to comb neighborhoods, physically searching for chronically absent students.

In New York, de Blasio has unveiled a variety of halting, confused plans to reopen the public schools, sending in different grades at different times. He has pursued a hybrid model and a difficult to parse opt-in schedule that has flustered parents and teachers alike. But de Blasio, for all the criticism he has drawn, did far more for the city public schools in the pandemic than the elected officials and administrators in other Democrat-run states. Last fall, he was steadfast that schools would, in some form, reopen, and over protests from the UFT—at one time, they threatened a strike, pushing the start date back more than two weeks—he was able to send some students back.

School systems in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego did not open at all. On Tuesday, high schoolers in New York City were finally allowed to return, joining their younger counterparts who had been in physical instruction already. A majority of students, though, will continue remote instruction. In part, this is because even when students go back in-person, there’s the possibility they’ll be learning from a computer screen without a teacher anyway. At some city schools, students are taking all-remote classes even if they are physically in school because of teacher shortages, with a certain number opting out to only teach remotely.

Many parents are still afraid to send students back. In December, the Times reported there were nearly 12,000 more white students returning to public school buildings than Black students, though there are many more Black students in the system overall. Since the pandemic ravaged poorer, nonwhite areas in the city, parents there were more wary of sending their children back to school. Latino students, the Times noted, were returning to school at a rate about proportional to their representation in the school system. For all the talk of teachers holding back the reopening of schools, it’s inarguable that many thousands of parents have not felt comfortable with in-person instruction. There are school buildings that lack proper ventilation. Classrooms could become too crowded.

Teachers themselves, knowing colleagues who got sick or died at the height of the pandemic in New York, are rightfully skittish about getting back into the classroom. But it’s here, as Leonhardt and others have written, where Democrats—yes, most schoolteachers lean that way, and UFT is certainly a union dominant in Democratic politics—must update their thinking. There is no need to obsessively scrub surfaces anymore; we’ve learned fomite transmission is exceedingly rare. Coronavirus is spread through the air, through aerosols. It can be effectively mitigated through mask-wearing, preferably with N95 or KN95 masks, which are now—in the case of KN95, certainly—widely available. If all teachers and students wear strong masks and wash their hands, they can be in a classroom together in relative safety. Last fall, at NYU, I taught a small class in an unventilated room, wore a mask, and didn’t get sick.

To the annoyance of friends on the left, I continue to argue that Trump poisoned this debate and shaped the thinking of most Democrats on school reopenings. Last July, Trump tweeted many times that schools had to reopen. He made wild threats, of course never followed through upon, that he would slash federal funds to states that didn’t reopen schools on his terms. “The lower they are in age, the lower the risk,” Trump said in July at the White House. “We have to remember that there’s another side to this. Keeping them out of school and keeping work closed is causing death also. Economic harm, but it’s causing death for different reasons, but death. Probably more death.”

Trump was fretting about the “economic harm” as his re-election neared, worried first and foremost about his political survival. But broken clocks are right twice a day, and much of what Trump said that day is not wrong in light of what’s understood now. Indeed, the lower the age, the lower the risk. There is another side to this issue, as there are to all lockdown policies. All across America and the world, school closures have alienated an entire generation of students, creating the sort of mass mental health crisis that may ripple outward through this entire decade. “Probably more death” is debatable, but schools themselves have not fueled enormous outbreaks in America.

In a study published in February, researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the City University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences collaborated on a mathematical model that analyzed how coronavirus spread between New York City residents. After thousands of simulations studying the social distancing behaviors of different age groups in various settings such as home, public facilities, and offices, the scientists found that school closures alone weren’t greatly helpful at preventing serious COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Yet the debate, polarized along political lines since last year, has created a warped perception of this reality. Heading into last fall, progressives and leftists joined teachers’ unions in attempting to slow down or scuttle school reopenings altogether. Again, given the COVID-19 death toll, this was understandable. But even by then, there was enough data to suggest in-person learning could be conducted safely if protocols were followed—mask-wearing in particular. With many students learning remotely, there were smaller physical classes, allowing for more social distancing.

Teachers who showed up would have to take a risk. But unionized workers in other fields had been doing this for many months. Grocery clerks at unionized supermarkets had been on the front lines since March 2020. So had train operators, bus drivers, and other essential workers. With teachers now fully eligible for vaccinations and the supply increasing, there is no reason most teachers can’t safely return to classrooms in the next few weeks. If they still don’t, even after getting their shots, they deserve criticism.

Here we return to Yang. Was it wrong, objectively, to blame UFT for how schools reopened? Yes and no. Put into a national context, Mulgrew’s union was far more willing to engage in the reopening conversation than other teachers’ unions. By July, the teachers’ union in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, was demanding full-time remote-learning. They got it. It’s possible, with a different kind of local political system and mayor, the UFT could have pushed de Blasio to that point. But New York City, unlike cities in California, has no elected school board and the mayor wields great control over the school system. In decentralized school systems, where the mayor cannot exert tremendous pressure to open or close schools, reopening schools appeared to be far more of a challenge. The UFT supports the mayoral control system, which was championed by Bloomberg, but it’s plausible they’d have even more clout if elected school boards with the old Board of Education was making these determinations.

The politics of all of this is knotty. Yang is speaking up for a frustrated constituency— public school parents—and he will probably earn, at the minimum, as many votes from parents as he loses from angry teachers. He should blame de Blasio’s Department of Education too for their shoddy messaging and confusing approach to bringing students back. Yet it is notable that de Blasio, who clearly favors Adams over Yang and would be furious to see old Bloomberg hands occupying City Hall again, did not criticize Yang when asked about his UFT comments.

“I think the important point is that all candidates need to speak their truth and then it needs to be judged. If it’s someone talking about the way they think is the best way to open schools, that's a valid discussion,” de Blasio said Monday. “Now, if it's any candidate being disrespectful of our municipal unions, that's a different matter. I haven’t seen the comments, so I’m not going to speak to the specific comments.”

Subtly, perhaps, this was a recognition that de Blasio, as head of the city’s school system, understood some of what Yang said. If he had his druthers, he would have sent more children back in September. The real trouble with Yang’s comments, both from 2019 and this year, is how they embody pure anti-union rhetoric. The charter school movement has long blamed unions for the ills of the public education system and sought, whenever possible, to weaken teacher work rules. If only we broke these unions and liberated the students, they will say, public education could truly flourish. A school system without unions, however, would be a worse place because the quality of teachers would inevitably decline. There is no school system among the functioning democracies of the world that has succeeded by cutting the benefits and workplace protections teachers enjoy. We need to create a system where the best and brightest in America go into teaching. This won’t happen if charter schools, as Bloomberg once dreamed, take over America.

The UFT should not be above criticism, either, and Yang should be smarter in the future about how he talks about them. There is a way to distinguish critiques of union leadership from the rank-and-file teachers themselves, who have a complicated relationship with Mulgrew and are generally trying to do their best in the classroom. The UFT, as a political institution, should not be, by default, a sacred cow. Remember it was the UFT, and Mulgrew in particular, that helped enable Republican control of the State Senate, repeatedly sticking with Jeff Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference, even when it was clear credible progressive challengers had emerged to defeat them. Politically, the leadership has always had an uneasy relationship with the progressive movement. There is an emerging group of UFT members, MORE, that is far more leftist in its orientation than Mulgrew. (For the record, MORE does not favor a faster reopening schedule.)

If Yang wants to make nuanced criticisms of UFT, he can. Veteran teachers are favored at the expense of younger teachers, and starting pay should probably be higher to attract top college graduates. The Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool needs drastic reform. The union should be more flexible about innovative ideas that can boost student achievement, like schooling year-round.

Yang, too, needs to begin living by the rhetoric he offered up Monday. A candidate who promises he will not be the kind of mayor who “will watch every word” because it could “antagonize a particular interest group” has done just that with the Orthodox Jewish community, immediately dropping his past skepticism of circumcision, evolving into a hardline opponent of BDS, and doubling down on the position after offering some concessions to Muslim voters. Yang has sided with Orthodox Jewish politicians and power brokers against activists who want to see yeshivas provide far better English-language education.

Yang isn’t the first—and he won’t be the last—mayoral candidate to make these kinds of concessions, to evolve quickly on positions to appease a group of voters. He’s clearly made a choice: the UFT is not worth pandering to, because they probably won’t back him anyway, but Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods are in play. He made his calculation. In three months, we’ll know whether it paid off.