Campaigning for social justice in the UFT

Ballots are going out in the mail in the election for officers of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City. The incumbent President Michael Mulgrew is being challenged by Jia Lee, a leading member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a social justice caucus inside the UFT that is campaigning in this election alongside the New Action caucus.

Lee has participated in MORE's organizing against school closures, for paid parental leave for all UFT members, and in defense of teachers stuck in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATRs) with no permanent school placement. She is also a prominent leader in the opt-out movement, having refused to give the state's Common Core-aligned tests to her students as an act of civil disobedience in 2014. The following year, she testified before Congress about the problems of over-testing. In an interview with fellow New York City teacher Emily Giles, Lee discussed MORE's election campaign.

New York City teacher and MORE member Jia Lee (left)New York City teacher and MORE member Jia Lee (left)

WHY ARE you running for UFT president with MORE?

I'M RUNNING because I was honored to be nominated, and I feel strongly that when a group of people nominates you to represent them. it means something. Running with MORE represents something bigger than myself, and I hope that I can play a part in galvanizing what we stand for.

YOU'VE SAID that you feel like your running might galvanize what MORE stands for. Can you say more about that?

MY ROLE as a parent and as a special education teacher in the largest teachers' union local nationally means that this is part of a community effort, where we tie together all the different issues that seem to be separate, but actually are connected.

My work in the opt-out movement, which is really about anti-privatization and anti-corporate reform, is a good example of connecting the dots to the larger issues. Another example is trying to raise a voice against implicit racial biases that are inherent in the use of high-stakes testing.

We have to make those connections as educators to the role of public education in the broader movement and be aware of the world that we're living in right now.

MORE CALLS itself the social justice caucus of the UFT. What does that mean to you?

THE REAL work of MORE is helping to build strong chapters at the school level so that members feel empowered to have a voice. The policies that are coming down into public education--the policies that affect how we work in our day-to-day--lives directly impact our students, their learning and their lives.

There are so many examples: The fact that teachers don't get paid parental leave and mothers come back to school after only six weeks with their infants. Or that many of our schools are forced to teach scripted curricula rather than teaching to the whole child. Or the way our budget system creates a competition-based system that disincentives hiring and keeping experienced educators because they are more expensive--this policy directly affects the classroom and school environment where our students learn and grow.

As teachers, we are poised in the position where we stand in the way of the enforcement of policies that are designed to destroy public education and to keep down and oppress certain groups of people.

So for me, being part of a social justice union caucus means we are aware of these oppressive policies, and we work actively not just as members of a teachers; union, but as members of our school communities to push back. And, importantly, we don't only fight against these issues, but also uphold a vision of what nurturing school environments could and should look like.

CAN YOU talk about what nurturing school environments should look like?

DEMOCRATIC DECISION-making must be at the core. Decisions should be made at the school level about the kind of education that children deserve. These decisions should take into consideration the living conditions of students outside our schools and advocate for them.

Our schools should be able to say we need resources for our parents who may be recent immigrants or our parents who are struggling financially. Schools should be in the position to empower our communities and go beyond the day-to-day facets of school life.

Because of the funding stranglehold on schools now, many of them have had to cut basic arts programs, music and physical education. We've cut the things that make education meaningful for so many students. We have people fighting even for equitable sports funding across the city--there are huge disparities between schools.

Communities should have a voice in these kinds of decisions, and schools should have the budgets to support them.

YOU'VE BEEN called "the opt-out candidate." What do you think of that title, and why has opt-out been such a big part of MORE's election campaign?

THE TITLE means I'm part of a movement that has been the only tactic or strategy that has resulted in any policies. So to me, that's powerful.

I understand that it's a movement that has been painted as white and middle class, but I believe opt-out has shed light on the use of high-stakes tests to label and shut down schools and to rank and sort teachers, students and administrators--all in disproportionately Black and Brown communities.

Testing has been used as a tool to divide and conquer school communities. You can see test scores used to create huge tensions among staff--between educators, between educators and administrators, educators and families.

The opt-out movement has done the opposite by galvanizing all these different community members on the same side. It has really demonstrated the way the interests of parents, students and teachers are joined. I don't think I would have been able to do what I've been doing without the support and collaboration of the members of MORE.

IN THE past year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done an about-face on the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Where did that change come from?

A BIG reason why Cuomo has changed his tune is because of the 240,000 opt-outs that happened last year. That's about 20 percent of the state. But I wouldn't call it a change, because there's still the Education Transformation Act passed with the budget last spring that ties teacher evaluations to some kind of metric. So it's very superficial for him to say that. It does speak to what parents seemed to be most worried about last spring, but the change isn't real.

And there's a moratorium, but after the moratorium ends, they will still use state tests score in teacher evaluations. So let's be clear--it's still being used to punish, rank and sort schools. On the surface, he appeared to respond to the outcry, but the change hasn't been real.

DISTRICT 15 Superintendent Anita Skopp said that teachers don't have a right to speak about how they feel about the tests. So far, the UFT has not defended a teacher's right to speak out on this question. What do you think the union's role should in this debate?

IT IS political speech, but I also feel that as educators in a public education system, we have a moral and ethical obligation that goes beyond compliance measures. When we see that there are policies that actually harm students, that actually perpetuate systemic racism, we have an obligation to speak out. Our union should be at the forefront of upholding those rights to be able to speak out when there is civil injustice.

YOU USED the phrase "perpetuate systemic racism" in regards to testing. Can you say what you mean by that?

IF YOU look historically at the very beginnings of standardized testing, it has been used to rationalize the putting-down of certain groups of people. The tests have always been designed along lines of social-economic status. Today, the use of high-stakes testing is directly tied to the drive to privatize--the testing industry itself is a great example, but also the very school system.

In New York City, the most segregated school system in the country, test scores are used to justify school closures, which happen predominantly in poor communities that are largely Black and Latino.

THERE IS a real chance that the MORE/New Action slate could win the high school executive board seats. How would MORE use those seats to make change in the union?

IT WOULD be wonderful to win the high school executive board seats. I think we all know that having a voice and having votes within the executive board is important to push for the kinds of issues that we believe are important to fight for, specifically around democracy in the union.

Too much is controlled by the Unity Caucus, and it has been for 50-plus years. Right now, we have a very undemocratic system that places all the control and decision-making at the top, within the Unity Caucus. They vote as a block.

Understanding how to break that down so that there is a more democratic voice is important, from the executive board level to the delegate assembly. An important first step would be that district representatives should be elected instead of appointed.

At the Delegate Assembly, we shouldn't have our president talking for an hour and a half giving announcements, and have so little time--10 to 15 minutes--to raise resolutions. It makes it impossible to have any kind of debate on the floor or any kind of meaningful discussion before coming to a vote. And I think the bulk of the time needs to be spent on discussion and debate around issues.

THE LIKLIHOOD of MORE winning the presidential seat in this election is small. Talk about why MORE runs despite the challenges and what a win for the caucus would look like.

WHEN YOU'RE running, you run to win, but we know it's a huge uphill battle. MORE is running as full of a slate as possible because it's important for rank-and-file members to be engaged, understand the process, and be a part of organizing and mobilizing. The sheer number of folks who are running with us, more than 300, is a huge win in itself.

The Movement of Rank-and-File Educators brings hope to active teachers that we can change things. It's definitely inspired more teachers to run for delegate and chapter leader at their school level, and that's where empowerment must grow is at the base. Leadership will come.