Public School Teachers and Their Unions Are Under Attack -- Here's How We Can Save Them


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Public school teachers and their unions are under a sustained assault that is still unfolding. In 2010 Michelle Rhee, former Washington, DC, schools chancellor, announced the creation of a multimillion-dollar lobbying organization for the explicit purpose of undermining teachers unions. She has charged that “bad teachers” are the primary cause of the problems that beset America’s schools. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asserted that effective teachers need no experience. Romanticizing the young, energetic, passionate (read: cheap) teacher, he has made eliminating seniority preferences in layoffs (aka, last in, first out -- or LIFO) his pet cause (it has been stymied for the time being by the state legislature).

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has slashed school aid by $1.2 billion while refusing to comply with a court-mandated formula for school funding equity. He has become a right-wing hero by demonizing teachers, lambasting unions, challenging tenure rights and introducing a crude teacher-evaluation process based on student test scores. Christie is also pushing what he calls a “final solution” -- $360 million in tax credits for a tuition voucher system that would permit any child in New Jersey go to any school, public or private, and would include state subsidies for some students already attending parochial schools and yeshivas.

It’s hard to think of another field in which experience is considered a liability and those who know the least about the nuts and bolts of an enterprise are embraced as experts.

The attack has diverse roots, and comes not only from Republicans. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform have dedicated substantial resources to undermining teachers unions. With Race to the Top, the Obama administration has put its weight behind a reform agenda featuring charter schools, which employ mostly nonunion labor, as its centerpiece. A disturbing bipartisan consensus is emerging that favors a market model for public schools that would abandon America’s historic commitment to providing education to all children as a civil right. This model would make opportunities available largely to those motivated and able to leave local schools; treat parents as consumers and children as disposable commodities that can be judged by their test scores; and unravel collective bargaining agreements so that experienced teachers can be replaced with fungible itinerant workers who have little training, less experience and no long-term commitment to the profession.

In this atmosphere of hostility to public schools and teachers, it has become nearly impossible to have a rational discussion among educators, parents, advocates, youth and policy-makers about what should be done. Honest analyses suggest that removing ineffective teachers is an excessively slow and arduous process, though unions are often blamed when administrators have failed to document problems systematically. Likewise, the LIFO system for layoffs does need reform because it contributes to high turnover in the most disadvantaged schools. These schools are the hardest to staff, and in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, many veteran teachers have found ways to avoid being assigned to such schools. But candid conversations about how to solve these problems are extraordinarily difficult when any comment critical of unions is likely to be used as a weapon by the right.

None of the reforms on the table address the inequality and opportunity gaps that plague our schools. Raging debates over LIFO, seniority, teacher evaluation and test-based school closings do little to improve schools and much to distract from the real challenges. Moreover, because current reforms have been designed to promote school choice and weaken the unions, they have been exacerbating the challenges rather than fixing them.

But teachers unions and their allies are fighting back. Trade unionists, civil rights activists and educators have rallied with the Wisconsin protesters and put Governor Scott Walker on the defensive. To have the greatest impact, the unions must find a way to mobilize parents, young people and communities. Without their support, teachers will not succeed in countering these assaults. Getting that support will not be easy, because it requires educators to acknowledge that the school status quo is untenable and to join labor rights to educational justice.

In a small but growing number of school districts, teachers and their unions are taking the lead rather than waiting for policy-makers to act. At Columbus High School in the Bronx, teachers are working with students and parents to resist the district’s efforts to close the school by addressing the causes of student failure. In the South Bronx, parents, labor, educators and community organizers, united as CC9, have designed a strategy to reverse teacher turnover by providing new teachers with support from veteran lead teachers.

In Chicago, Karen Lewis, of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), is presiding over the Chicago Teachers Union with a platform to reverse Renaissance 2010, a program to close many schools serving poor children of the South Side and timed to coincide with the demolition of housing projects pushing great numbers of poor people out of the city. CORE is focused on much more than salaries and benefits. It is challenging the use of high-stakes testing to punish students, teachers and schools, organizing for greater equity in school finances and mobilizing with parents against school closings.

In Milwaukee, longtime education activist Bob Peterson, editor of Rethinking Schools, is running for union president. Peterson worked with a broad array of local activists to defeat mayoral control of the schools and co-founded an educator/parent task force on responsible assessment.

And in California, the California Teachers Association sponsored the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), which has targeted funding toward reducing class size, hiring more counselors and providing professional development for teachers focused on the sharing of best practices. Schools that have enjoyed QEIA support have shown marked student improvements, particularly for low-income young people of color and English as a second language learners. This activism will culminate in a national Save Our Schools March in Washington on July 30.

We can begin to feel the rumble of solidarity, with parents, teachers, labor and youth taking back what is rightfully theirs -- public schools and democratic public education.

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