‘Fighting All My Life’

By Ann Bradley — October 01, 1997 8 min read
When she advocates closing failing schools and opening them anew, Feldman speaks from experience.

When she advocates closing failing schools and opening them anew, for example, Feldman speaks from experience. The preamble to the UFT’s 200-page contract commits both the school board and the union to cooperating to close failing schools and support their restructuring. It contains detailed provisions for staffing new and redesigned schools. The union has cooperated in the outright closure or redesign of dozens of schools, spurred in part by increased pressure from the state to improve the city’s worst performers.

The agreement, approved last year, also allows any school in the city, with the approval of 75 percent of its faculty, to form its own hiring committee to select teachers. Schools don’t automatically have to take the applicant with the most seniority.

The union first approved a limited “school-based options” staffing and transfer program in 1994 to allow flexibility for the small high schools that have proliferated throughout the city. For these schools to work, their staffs needed to share a common vision, not just find themselves thrown together by a factory system that regards teachers as interchangeable. But the change didn’t come without stiff opposition. Seniority, after all, is a bedrock union issue.

“She knew when we started that she was going to get a lot of grief from teachers in the large schools,” recalls Beth J. Lief, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization here that has sponsored the creation of 45 small schools. Feldman arranged for Lief to meet with local union leaders to “set the record straight” about the new schools, including to answer charges that they would divert resources from traditional buildings. Lief calls Feldman, who sits on the New Visions board, gutsy: “She never once raised the contract as a barrier, never once.”

Ann Lieberman, a visiting scholar at Stanford University who has long been close to both teachers’ unions, says Feldman’s “genius” has been in achieving such changes without alienating her membership. “Bringing these new schools to life flies in the face of all these bargaining agreements they fought for for years,” Lieberman says. “It took a progressive, forward-thinking union leader to see this was a good thing.”

Still, some would like to see the UFT go further. Peter Steinberg, a retired high school teacher who now works for New Visions, wants the UFT actively to spread the word about the successful techniques the schools have developed. As a union chapter leader at Louis D. Brandeis High School in Manhattan, he frequently opposed the positions of Feldman and the Unity Caucus, a leadership group that dominates the UFT. “A lot of the caucus is opposed to serious educational change and progressive change,” he complains. “She has always been fearful of moving too far out in front of the membership and cognizant of the need to move them along in the process.”

The union also hasn’t moved as quickly as some would like to address the perennial problem of bad teachers.

While Feldman gets credit for negotiating greater flexibility for schools, she earns demerits from many New Yorkers for a provision of the current contract that frees teachers from “administrative duties,” including homeroom, cafeteria, yard, bus, hall, and study hall monitoring. The idea is for teachers to spend their time on professional pursuits and leave potty patrol to others. The provision is widely regarded as a sweetener designed to make up for two years with no raises, but Feldman defends it as an opportunity for teachers to collaborate. So controversial was the provision that the school board delayed its implementation for a year to plan the transition. Teachers in half the city’s 1,119 schools voted to continue to do some of the jobs; still, the school board spent $70 million to hire aides.

Raymond Domanico, the executive director of the Public Education Association, a 100-year-old research and advocacy group in the city, says the change has been “a negative for her leadership” and “of great concern to parents.” During Feldman’s tenure, he adds, the UFT’s chapter chairs--the elected union representative in each school--have gained almost as much power as principals.

The union also hasn’t moved as quickly as some would like to address the perennial problem of bad teachers. The peer-intervention program, for example, has worked with just 400 teachers in nine years, 20 percent of whom left teaching. This year, the UFT supported a new state law that allows school employees convicted of certain crimes involving children to be suspended immediately, without pay, pending a dismissal hearing.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, however, on the question of teacher quality. The central board of education has hired thousands of uncertified teachers to staff the city’s schools; Feldman estimates that the number now stands at between 6,000 and 8,000. She’s supporting the dismissal of some 1,000 teachers who failed to pass a required state exam. These disgruntled teachers have formed an opposition caucus and picket periodically outside union meetings. Feldman, who can hardly support the teachers and be a credible voice for higher standards, calls the caucus “a badge of honor to me.”

Her challenger in this year’s election for UFT president, in contrast, argues that these teachers should be “grandfathered in” because most have received satisfactory ratings. Michael Shulman, a teacher at Fort Hamilton High School in the Bronx, faults Feldman for “failing on all counts” to secure New York teachers competitive salaries and to ameliorate their often dismal working conditions. His New Action Caucus holds seven of the 89 seats on the UFT’s executive committee.

Although Feldman won an easy re-election to a two-year term in 1995, her members rejected a five-year contract agreement that year for the first time in the union’s history. New Action, Shulman says, helped torpedo the five-year pact with 55,000 leaflets blasting its two-year pay freeze. While the rejection was a blow to Feldman, teachers eventually approved the agreement, which gives them raises in the last three years of the pact, beginning this month. By the end of the contract period, veteran teachers will earn top pay of $70,000 a year. That amount is far below teachers’ pay in surrounding suburbs, some of whom earn as much as $85,000.

In 1994, the UFT sued the city, charging it had failed to maintain healthy and safe schools.

It’s also true that suburban teachers don’t have to work amid the crumbling plaster, rotting windows, and leaking roofs that house New York’s schoolchildren. In 1994, the UFT sued the city, charging it had failed to maintain healthy and safe schools. The union expects a favorable decision in the case any day. In anticipation, the communications department has set up a press room with poster-sized black-and-white photos of the decrepit conditions.

Feldman is well aware of the salary disparities, but says she has less power to remedy them. The problem, she has long complained, is that New York teachers are locked into “pattern bargaining” with other municipal labor unions, a legacy of the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. As a result, teachers’ fortunes rise and fall with other city workers’.

This issue was at the root of an uproar late this summer over a pension bill pushed by the UFT and approved by state lawmakers. The measure would have allowed certain teachers to purchase an enhanced pension benefit--breaking a pattern the city set with its other unions. Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed the measure, which was opposed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the board of education. They complained that the bill would have encouraged teachers to retire and driven up costs, which the union disputes.

Even though the New York media misreported the details of the complicated bill, the tone of the coverage underscored how little sympathy exists for the UFT. “A boondoggle for the powerful teachers’ union,” scolded TheNew York Times. The Daily News called the bill “a rotten apple for the teachers” and said Feldman “bullied legislators for this pension giveaway.”

Feldman, a tall, well-dressed woman with an intermittent New York accent and round glasses, is no bully. She’s an advocate, most often described as smart and tough. Despite her lifelong love of school, she didn’t set out to become a teacher. As an English major at Brooklyn College in the 1960s, she got swept up in the civil rights movement. She was arrested during the Route 40 Freedom Rides and again in other protests. Hoping to become a writer, she did free-lance editing. “I decided to try teaching,” she explains candidly, “because I had to go to work.”

Once she was installed at Manhattan’s P.S. 34, though, Feldman’s activist bent found an outlet. She organized a union chapter at the elementary school and started going to UFT meetings. “It was a very exciting time,” she recalls. “There were strikes and demonstrations and all the growing pains of a union.”

Before long, Shanker invited her to apply for a job as a field representative, which ended her teaching career after three years. (At the time, she laughs, the UFT had just four full-time staffers.) Feldman was in the thick of the historic Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike in 1968, which pitted the centralized union against black community activists arguing for local control of schools. Eventually, she became executive director of the UFT. In 1983, she was elected secretary, and, in 1986, she became president when Shanker stepped aside to concentrate full time on running the American Federation of Teachers.