The Commercial War on Teacher Layoffs

When Cathleen P. Black, the schools chancellor, testified before the State Legislature on Tuesday about what she called the unavoidable teacher layoffs in New York City that would take place if the governor’s proposed education budget were approved, a line from her remarks might have rung familiar to regular watchers of television ads.

“The answer is obvious: Keep the most effective teachers, whether they have been in the system 2 years or 22 years,” Ms. Black told members of the Assembly and Senate budget committees.

Ms. Black borrowed the line from an op-ed piece she wrote last month. But since Thursday, a nearly identical line — spoken by a teacher — has been featured in a widely broadcast one-minute advertisement placed by backers of the mayor’s agenda, in a war of commercials with the teachers’ union on the issue of seniority-based firing.

Ms. Black, along with her boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has been on a media blitz in recent weeks to urge the Legislature to end first-in-last-out firing for teachers. Ending seniority-based firing would permit the city to get rid of the worst teachers, not just the least experienced ones, when layoffs come, they argue.

The anti-seniority advertisement, paid for by an organization called Education Reform Now, features three New York City schoolteachers explaining why they think firing by seniority hurts children.

“If there have to be layoffs, we should keep the best teachers — it’s that simple,” Rogelio Herrera Jr., a teacher at Public School 1 in the Bronx, says in the ad. Finishing the thought, Jane Viau, a teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, says, “Whether that means they’re a second-year teacher or a 22nd-year teacher.”

The echo of the wording may be coincidental, but the close ties between the group that paid for the advertisement, the professionals that made it, and backers of the mayor’s education agenda are anything but.

Education Reform Now is an advocacy organization headed by Joel I. Klein, the former schools chancellor. The public relations company that produced the ad is SKD Knickerbocker, and its producer, the organization’s president said, is Josh Isay, a political consultant who advised Mr. Bloomberg during his 2005 re-election campaign and his 2008 fight to eliminate term limits.

Bradley Tusk, the campaign manager for Mr. Bloomberg in his 2009 campaign, said in an e-mail that he helped conceptualize the advertisement. He has his own political consultancy, Tusk Strategies Inc. Also on staff at Education Reform Now, in charge of field operations, is Patrick Van Keerbergen, who worked on the mayor’s 2009 re-election campaign.

Stefan Friedman, an executive at Knickerbocker who has been a political consultant to the mayor, handles the Education Reform Now account. The firm also handles communications for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that shares a telephone number with Education Reform Now’s New York Office. Joe Williams is both the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform and the president of Education Reform Now.

Knickerbocker also represents Educators 4 Excellence, which calls itself an “independent voice for educators” made up of former and current public-school teachers who oppose seniority-based firing. That group on Monday laid out a plan to more easily fire teachers that echoes Mr. Bloomberg’s public remarks on the subject.

And the three teachers in the Education Reform Now ad are part of Educators 4 Excellence, said Kerri Lyon, who handles their account at Knickerbocker, and who worked under Mr. Klein at the Department of Education press office until last year.

Mr. Williams said Monday that the groups he worked for have agendas similar to the mayor’s sometimes, but differences as well, and that they do push back.

“If we had a ban on hiring people who have worked for the mayor, we probably couldn’t hire anyone in New York,” he said of the political consultants Education Reform Now works with. Every one “was on the mayor’s payroll.”

In the other corner of the ring is the union, the United Federation of Teachers. It is spending more than $1 million running an anti-Bloomberg advertisement this month in high-profile slots, like during “Saturday Night Live” and the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

The union’s ads show the mayor next to a snow globe, raising the specter of his highly criticized management of the Dec. 26 blizzard, and argue that he should be trying to avoid all layoffs, not trying to press an anti-seniority agenda.

“This is about protecting our kids’ future,” a narrator intones, “and that’s a lot bigger than any snowstorm.”

While the union complains that the mayor and his advocates more often have the ear of the city’s media, Mr. Williams argued that the union has its own advantages in a media battle.

Democrats for Education Reform, Mr. Williams explained, is a political action committee, focused on raising money for politicians running for office, that reports to the Federal Election Commission. Education Reform Now is a nonprofit organization with similar goals but is not expressly political, he said.

“We always tell people, if we were allowed to be a labor union, it could all be done out of one group, and we wouldn’t have to worry about which pots of money we were raising for and all this kind of stuff,” he said. “But the Federal Election Commission is pretty clear about keeping political action committee dollars separate from advocacy dollars, and that forces us to jump through all these hoops.”


Every Tuesday, education beat reporters for The New York Times take you inside the New York City schools system. Have a tip? Send it to [email protected].

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