Karen Magee delivered her message in no uncertain terms.
"I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing," the New York State United Teachers president said in a 2015 interview on the radio show "Capitol Pressroom."
The remark made Magee among the first high-profile union leaders in the country to explicitly encourage parents to opt their children out of state tests, fueling a movement that ultimately helped force a major shift in the direction of New York’s education system.
It also may have contributed to a rift between Magee and the very people who put her in office. Magee announced last month that she will not pursue a second term, after it became clear she would face two challengers, including one of her fellow officers.
Some suspect that Magee, the first woman elected to the top union job, alienated other NYSUT officials with her brash leadership style, unabashed willingness to take on the governor and with her vocal support of the opt-out movement, which jeopardized federal funding that the large New York City union coveted.
But her short reign– three years – as leader of perhaps the most powerful union in New York State had its accomplishments as well as its pitfalls.
Magee took the helm of the influential teachers union at a time when frustrations among parents and educators had reached a tipping point. She harnessed that energy – along with the union’s dollars and political clout – to pressure lawmakers on policies pertaining to standardized testing and teacher evaluations, most notably pressuring the governor to delay the use of standardized test scores in the teacher ratings. On her watch, the union also helped change the makeup of the state Board of Regents to one that is more supportive of its positions.
Those moves won her friends among those initially skeptical of her appointment and wary that she was merely a puppet for the large urban districts.
Critically, though, they also may have helped drive a wedge between her and some of her former supporters.
"She got dealt an interesting hand," said one Albany lobbyist, who did not want to be named because of his dealings with the union.
Now, as it seems Magee will be replaced by longtime NYSUT vice president Andrew Pallotta, many wonder what her departure will mean for the union’s agenda and its relationships both in Albany and statewide.
Pallotta is running for the seat with the backing of the New York City teachers union, where he once was an elected leader. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has the most influence over NYSUT’s April 8 election because it has the most members. His ticket faces a slate of challengers made up of teachers from suburban districts who support the opt-out movement.
At the forefront of questions raised by Magee’s departure is this: Will the union continue to support the opt-out movement as strongly as she has, or will her successor take a less aggressive public position? Given the union’s clout, the answer could have implications for both students and teachers around the state.
"She was out front when it came to issues that pertained to the BTF and other local unions," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and a Magee supporter.
"I thought she was doing a great job, but things change," Rumore said, before adding skeptically, "That’s democracy ... I guess."
Brewing union divide
The troubles facing the union at the start of Magee’s tenure really began a decade earlier, when federal leaders used funding to push states to adopt reforms such as the Common Core and teacher evaluations. To get the money, the union had to agree to help the state implement those reforms. NYSUT did, and New York netted $700 million, helping some districts weather tight budgets during the recession.
But that money came with strings.
As the state rolled out the reforms, it became increasingly clear they carried a heavy cost for most districts. The federal grant was intended to pay for these new initiatives, but in reality the vast majority of New York districts received little financial support.
After the State Education Department took its share, less than half – $316.5 million – was left to divide among districts. The bulk of that money – 91 percent – went to the state’s five largest school systems. New York City got $262 million; Buffalo got $9.7 million.
Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller districts received no money at all.
Still, the money gave the federal government leverage. If districts didn’t comply with any of the requirements – including that a certain percentage of students take the standardized tests – the whole state could lose money.
Teachers became increasingly frustrated, and many felt NYSUT had been complacent in fighting back. They used social media to mobilize and publicly criticize the union’s leadership.
"Many times, NYSUT was absent from advocacy related to testing and Common Core while parents in Facebook groups around NYS were organizing their efforts," Chris Cerrone, a parent and union leader prominent in Western New York’s opt-out movement, wrote in an email to The Buffalo News last year. "Many teacher union members complained on social media about the lack of advocacy on the part of NYSUT leadership to fight testing, Common Core and teacher evaluations."
Leaders of a number of smaller districts – and even some teachers from larger ones – banded together and sought to upend control of NYSUT, which rests heavily with New York City.
Facing those concerns, those who had elected Richard Ianuzzi to the presidency about a decade before declined to endorse him for another term. Instead, they backed Magee, a longtime union leader from Harrison, to lead the ticket to replace him.
The opposition leaders remained skeptical, but not confident they could organize well enough to run their own candidate. So they threw their support behind Ianuzzi, considering it a stand against the NYSUT power structure and the influence of New York City.
"We had to rise up and hope the union would follow us," said Beth Dimino, a union leader in Port Jefferson Station in Suffolk County who helped start the opposition movement.
Caught in the middle
Critics speculated that the newly-elected Magee would be a puppet for the New York City delegation, and challenged her to prove them wrong.
She cultivated relationships with smaller suburban unions, particularly those that had become hotbeds for the opt-out movement.
"Karen made a statement that we have a right," said Michelle Bushey, a teacher in Saranac. "The message got other people to think about opting out. When they look at the situation and see educators supporting it, it does make a statement."
Title: President, New York State United Teachers
When elected: April 2014
Term: 3 years
Hometown: Harrison in Westchester County
Background: 11 years as president of the Harrison Association of Teachers, three decades as an elementary school teacher in Harrison
NYSUT accomplishments: Gave impetus to opt-out movement and helped stall Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s school reform efforts; elected Board of Regents members supportive of union positions
Failures: Alienated powerful union factions with her support of the opt-out movement; fell short in bid to elect pro-union members of State Senate
Magee’s priorities were clear, and she set out to use the union’s dollars and clout to influence policy in Albany, yielding successes as well as failures.
The first year of her tenure, the union funneled millions of dollars into legislative races, largely with the aim of unseating Republicans in the Senate. A Buffalo News analysis found $6.6 million in both direct and indirect contributions that year.
Despite that effort, the union campaign to turn the Senate fell short. Just one of the six candidates backed by the union – Marc Panepinto of Buffalo – ousted a Republican from the seat. And Panepinto left after one term.
The union’s big spending and brute tactics caught statewide attention, but some union leaders also believe it led to retaliation from members of the Senate. Months after the elections, for instance, the Senate drove passage of legislation that allowed schools consistently failing to meet state standards to be placed under the control of an outside receiver with the power to bypass union contracts.
Magee, however, was undeterred. She set her sights on a bigger target – Gov. Cuomo, who was pushing for teacher evaluations, high academic standards and consequences for schools that did not perform.
Under her direction, NYSUT launched a $1 million campaign – on billboards, in television commercials and even direct mailings to its members – pressuring Cuomo to back off of his strict timeline for rolling out teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores.
That pressure was intense by the time Magee went on "Capitol Pressroom" and drove perhaps the strongest nail of the strategy. The opt-out movement already was strong, and Magee’s endorsement gave it new credibility.
In the weeks following Magee’s remarks, roughly 200,000 students – one in five – opted out of state tests, more than triple the number the previous year. New York had the largest proportion of students opting out of tests in all of the country.
It was a significant showing, and one that promised to grow larger if nothing was done to stop it.
By the end of the year, a task force convened by the governor called for a delay in using Common Core test results for teacher evaluations.
Magee had won that fight, but may have lost the larger battle within NYSUT.
Outsider breaking in
Since the moment Magee, 57, put her hand up to be a representative for her school PTA in Harrison decades earlier, she knew she would face a battle breaking into the union establishment.
"It seemed as if there was a split between the teachers union – as an establishment of sorts – and the teachers," Magee said in an interview last year. "We’re all in this together, but we were two separate groups. And, frankly, the leadership was a male-dominated group that had done the work and done it well, but they weren’t necessarily in touch with the needs of members."
She didn’t care. Amid skepticism, she landed the seat and began working her way up through the ranks, facing what she describes as subtle sexism along the way, including suggestions she should consult with male leaders before making a decision.
"In terms of executive positions, it’s tough," said Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers who is close with Magee. "It’s tough to break through the long-held stereotypes about women. Karen has had to confront that."
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the first woman to lead NYSUT – a union whose membership is more than 70 percent women – faced similar skepticism. Some insiders say her no-nonsense, direct style of leadership didn’t sit well with other union officials, including some of those who helped put her in the position. She earned a reputation as a tough leader who wasn’t afraid to call the shots or go up against some of the state’s biggest political players.
"Talk is cheap," she remarked during an interview last year. "It’s not personal. I see it as politics. And my skin is not thin."
That didn’t always sit well.
"It’s a power thing and a personality thing," said one source who requested not to be named because of connections to the union.
No one knows for sure how the NYSUT leadership change could affect state education policy, but some now worry that Magee’s successors may not be as aggressive fighting standardized testing and the governor.
The change also comes in a new political climate for teachers and the union. Cuomo is no longer pushing the harsh education reforms he was advocating a few years ago, and recently has placed his focus on fighting the Trump administration, a battle in which the teachers union will be a likely ally.
Both Pallotta, Magee’s likely successor, and his ally Michael Mulgrew, the New York City union president, are seen as Cuomo supporters, and were criticized by some teachers for supporting the governor even when he was pushing for a stringent evaluation system.
In 2014, Pallotta took criticism for using $10,000 from the union’s political action committee to get a table at a Cuomo fundraiser. It was the union’s first contribution to Cuomo since 2009, and came in the midst of a brutal battle about the teacher evaluation system.
Pallotta was also the union’s executive vice president overseeing legislative affairs when it worked with the State Education Department to get the federal Race to the Top funding, which went primarily to New York City and helped drive the wedge between upstate and downstate union chapters.
Mulgrew has a regular audience with Cuomo, who once mistakenly referred to him as the head of the state teachers union. One analysis by Politico shows that Mulgrew is among those non-government individuals who meet most regularly with the governor.
For her part, Magee has indicated in several broadcast interviews that her decision to step down was more personal than political. She will now lead a joint effort for the American Federation of Teachers and the state AFL-CIO that focuses on women’s issues in the workplace.
She said she is proud of the work she has done during her NYSUT term and what she sees as progress for New York teachers, even if others don’t see it the same way.
"I think there’s some who would purposely like to overlook the aggressive stances I’ve taken," she said during a recent interview on "Capitol Pressroom." "We have been out there and we have been firm and strong in our convictions. And I believe that is why our voice is a much stronger, louder voice than it was three years ago and I’m very proud of that."
"Underappreciated, overappreciated," she added, assessing her efforts. "That’s all a matter of perspective."
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