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Rank-and-File Movement Challenges Newark Teachers' Union Establishment

Newark teachers' union chief, who embraced Facebook-backed merit pay, wins re-election by only 9 votes.
 
 
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Eight months after negotiating “performance bonuses” funded by a Facebook fortune, Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso was re-elected Tuesday by a margin of nine votes. A challenger slate that’s drawn inspiration from the Chicago Teachers Union captured seventeen of the twenty-nine seats on the NTU’s executive board, while barely falling short in its bid to oust Del Grosso. The new and old union officers will be sworn in together this afternoon, setting the stage for further conflict over the union’s orientation towards a nationally ascendant education reform agenda.

“There was no overwhelming mandate for either slate,” Del Grosso told The Nation Thursday. He charged that his opponents “gave out a lot of bad erroneous information to the members” during the campaign, and said that having captured a majority of the board, “they’ll learn about unionism from the inside. So sometimes it’s nice to have people who like throwing rocks at people that are on the inside, actually be inside” themselves. Teacher Branden Rippey, a leader of the competing NEW Caucus who was Del Grosso’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, countered, “I think he and other union leaders like him feed right into the corporate reform agenda, if they have not collaborated with it.”

As I reported for In These Times in October, the Newark contract deal was celebrated by Republican Governor Chris Christie and by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called the deal “a system of the future” and an example “that collective bargaining really works.” In contrast, Rippey told The Nation that the deal “basically is a complete capitulation to the corporate agenda.”

Under the agreement, management agreed to have a portion of teachers’ evaluations be based on “peer review” by other teachers; the union agreed to have a portion of teachers’ compensation come in the form of bonuses distributed based on their evaluations. The bonuses will be paid for from a $100 million fund donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, a high-profile example of the influence a wealthy philanthropist can wield with donations to a cash-strapped school system.

Del Grosso and Weingarten have both rejected the term “merit pay” to describe the new system, noting that the bonuses will compose only part of teachers’ compensation and will be based only in part on test scores. Del Grosso called the new system “performance pay”; Weingarten last fall called it “a full compensation system where the work you do and the compensation you have are tied in together.” While “in the beginning some people see it as not a good thing,” Del Grosso told The Nation, he considers winning peer review “one of the hallmarks” of his eighteen years at the union’s helm. “It’s the thing that’s going to allow teachers to take control of their profession,” he said, “and become free professionals like doctors and lawyers and engineers.”

Under a 2012 law signed by Christie and supported by NTU, Newark schools will be required to include testing in evaluations. NEW Caucus’s Rippey described a requirement that student test scores make up 35 percent of evaluations next year as “brutal,” and “like suicide for teachers in an urban district with 32 percent child poverty.” Del Grosso told The Nation that he was hopeful that the state education board would scale back the role of testing in evaluations. He said last fall that he agreed to support the law—which also makes it easier to fire teachers who receive poor evaluations—on the condition that it offer the option for union contracts to implement peer review.

NEW Caucus members have noted that the Newark schools superintendent retains ultimate authority over evaluation decisions; they warned last fall that the new system was merit pay by another name, and would divide workers and undermine experience-based or across-the-board raises in the future. The NEW Caucus mounted an unsuccessful effort in October to convince a majority of their co-workers to vote down the proposed deal; it passed with 62 percent support. (NEW stands for Newark Education Workers; the word “workers” is an intentional contrast to national unions’ emphasis on teachers as “professionals.”)

 
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