Editor’s note: In These Times has covered the Friedrichs case since the beginning. For more pieces on the case and its potential impact,see this roundup.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard extended arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The case is ostensibly a First Amendment case about whether public employees who do not want to join a union can withhold all fees—the same as “right to work”—or whether unions can charge those employees fees—“agency” or “fair share” fees—to cover activities germane to collective bargaining. The plaintiffs, 10 objecting teachers and a Christian education association, were asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that declared that agency fees were the proper compromise between workers’ constitutional rights and the government’s interest in promoting labor peace.
However, despite a fairly clear issue before the Court, the arguments proceeded bizarrely, jumping repeatedly between disparate issues. This seemed to be largely the result of two fairly unique circumstances surrounding this case.
First, the Supreme Court had almost no record that could be used to address basic questions. Usually, cases that end up in front of the Supreme Court take a slow path in front of lower courts, where evidence is introduced and a conversation of sorts develops between the parties and the judges. By design, the conservative Center for Individual Rights, which represented the plaintiffs, pushed this case through the system in record time.
At each lower court, the plaintiffs’ position was that the case should be dismissed on the basis of longstanding Supreme Court precedent. As a result, the plaintiffs were able to get the case in front of the Supreme Court in less than two years. But they did so without much evidence from which either side could draw from.
This led to arguments that were, at best, abstract political positions talking past each other. At one point, the attorney for the California Teachers Association tried to explain to Justice Scalia about the history of public sector agency fees and public services, arguing that in New York City the use of such fees helped the city deliver better transit services. When pressed by Scalia on how the fair share fees led to this result, the union attorney basically had to throw up his hands and state that without a factual record, he has little to rely on other than what was raised in the various amicus briefs.
However, it was not just the lack of a record in this case that made it so peculiar—it was also the broad assumption among the Justices and the attorneys that money is speech. Being required to pay a fee for a benefit is now considered compelled speech, and any expenses negotiated between a union and a government employer constitute political speech. In one telling moment of the argument, when the attorney for the State of California tried to argue that mileage reimbursement rates are among the prosaic matters that public sector unions negotiate, Chief Justice Roberts shot back, saying, “It’s all money. That’s money.”
Chief Justice Roberts further articulated this position when, in one of his classic simplifications (recall his 2007 affirmative action formula: “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race”) he stated, “If your employees have shown overwhelmingly that they want collective bargaining, then it seems to me the free-rider concern that’s been raise is really insignificant.” Completely missing from Justice Roberts’ statement was any awareness of how people act in the real world, or half a century of social science research on collective action and the free rider problem. Instead, it’s as simple as: if they approve, then they will pay; if they don’t pay, they don’t approve.
According to the Court’s current First Amendment jurisprudence, money appears to be not only speech, but also the type of speech that deserves the highest form of protection. The problem with this view is that even if one assumes that money does represent some form of speech, it would represent among the most imprecise and inscrutable type of speech.
When someone buys a banana from Walmart, does that purchase signal that the buyer believes in Chiquita’s use of paramilitary organizations in Colombia, or affirms Walmart’s use of union-busters, or buys into the myriad of conservative causes supported by the Walmart and Walton Family Foundations? Or does it mean that the person craved a banana and found herself near a Walmart? It is impossible to know without engaging in actual speech with the individual.
In the yesterday’s arguments, Justice Breyer tried fruitlessly to point out that we have to beware in ascribing too much meaning to money. “You will go out this door and you will buy hundreds of things, if not thousands, where money will go from your pocket into the hands of people, including many government people, who will spend it on things you disagree with.” But with a quick out-of-context quote by James Madison, the attorney brushed aside Justice Breyer’s concerns.
In this case, which was purportedly all about the First Amendment, it was shocking how little speech or the political positions of the unions were discussed in the oral arguments. Indeed, though several of the Justices repeatedly cast teacher pay and merit pay as highly political issues over which teachers could disagree, it appears that Rebecca Friedrichs (the lead plaintiff in the case) actually agrees with the union on these issues.
This leads to the natural question of what happens when conservatives have completed the project of going after union money and actually go after union speech. Contrary to the picture painted by many of these conservative organizations, unions are not simply massive war chests secretly funding the Democratic Party. They are organizations that represent millions of workers each and every day in grievances, contract negotiations, the press, the legal system, the political sphere and in a variety of other domains. Unions engage in an enormous amount of “speech” on behalf of their memberships—is each and every part of that speech open to First Amendment attack?
Judging by the briefs submitted in this case and the oral arguments, there is good reason to be concerned about future attacks. After union dues and fees, the likely next attack will be about exclusive representation. If the Supreme Court here determines that the requirement to pay fees for representation violates public sector workers’ First Amendment rights, it is hard to see how they won’t also soon determine that public sector unions’ representation of workers does not also violate their First Amendment rights. While some union advocates have argued for the elimination of exclusive representation (especially in response to “right to work”), one has to recognize that American labor law was established with a careful balance in mind. Without required fees and without exclusive representation, the horizon will change greatly.
Though it’s impossible to divine from oral arguments which way the ultimate decision will go, yesterday’s argument showed a lack of understanding on the part of some of the justices of how unions function, an antipathy towards their activities on behalf of their membership and a view of them as being at odds with the Constitution. None of that bodes well for the outcome unions are hoping for in this case.
This blog originally appeared in inthesetimes.com on January 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
A Massachusetts court has ruled against a private Catholic school that denied employment to a man because he was married to a man. This warranted unlawful discrimination on the basic of sexual orientation, the court found.
Plaintiff Matthew Barrett had applied for a job at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic prep school for girls in Milton, Massachusetts, as a Food Services Director. After several interviews, he was offered the job. On his new hire form, Barrett listed his husband as his emergency contact. Two days later, Fontbonne informed him that he could not have the job because his marriage was inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Fontbonne defended the decision, claiming its belief about the definition of marriage had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In fact, the school includes “sexual orientation” in its own nondiscrimination statement. But Associate Justice Douglas H. Wilkins found this distinction wholly unconvincing. “It is no answer to say that Fontbonne denied Barrett employment because he was in a same-sex marriage, not because of his sexual orientation,” he wrote. “The law recognizes no such distinction.”
Massachusetts’ nondiscrimination laws do include some exemptions for religious institutions, but Fontbonne did not qualify. The exception applies to organizations that limit membership to persons of the same religion or denomination, but as Wilkins pointed out, Fontbonne has no such limitations. “It does not require its employees to be Catholic. In particular, the Food Services Director does not have to be Catholic.” Moreover, “its student body has included non-Catholics, including Muslims, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians.”
Fontbonne also claimed that hiring Barrett would have burdened its expression. This also failed to convince Wilkins, because Barrett “was not denied employment for any advocacy of same-sex marriage or gay rights; he only listed his husband as an emergency contact on his ‘new hire’ form. Nothing on that form suggested that Barrett claimed his marriage to have sacramental or other religious significance or that it was anything but a civil marriage relationship. Fontbonne presents no evidence of advocacy by Barrett.” Besides, there would be “little risk” that the school’s “involuntary compliance with civil law will be mistaken for endorsement of same-sex marriage.”
Leaving no stone unturned, Fontbonne similarly claimed that it deserved a “ministerial exception.” But Barrett would have no duties as an administrator or teacher of religious matters as Director of Food Services. Wilkins countered that “to apply the ‘ministerial’ exception here would allow all religious schools to exempt all of their employees from employment discrimination laws simply by calling their employees ministers.” It would defeat the point of having an exemption and case law that defines the limits of that exemption.
GLAD, the LGBT legal organization that represented Barrett, praised the ruling. “Religious-affiliated organizations do not get a free pass to discriminate against gay and lesbian people,” senior attorney Bennett Klein said in a statement. “When Fontbonne fired Matt from a job that has nothing to do with religion, and simply because he is married, they came down on the wrong side of the law.”
Barrett was “ecstatic,” saying simply, “What happened to me was wrong, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Damages have not yet been determined in the case.
About the Author: The author’s name is Zach Ford. Zack Ford is the editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, hailing from the small town of Newport, PA. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zack blogged for two years at ZackFordBlogs.com with occasional cross-posts at Pam’s House Blend. He also co-hosts a popular LGBT-issues podcast called Queer and Queerer with activist and performance artist Peterson Toscano. A graduate of Ithaca College (B.M. Music Education) and Iowa State University (M.Ed. Higher Education), Zack is an accomplished pianist with a passion for social justice education. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.
This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on December 17, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
Before Democratic Party presidential candidates readied for their first debate on CNN, they turned down an opportunity to meet at another forum.
That meeting was to be hosted by ex-CNN anchorwoman Campbell Brown who now operates a media outlet, The Seventy Four, that promotes charter schools and other public education policies favored by wealthy foundations and individuals. Brown’s financial backers include the philanthropic organization of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the foundation of the family that owns Wal-Mart.
As Politico reports, Brown’s group and another charter advocacy organization had already brought six Republican candidates together in New Hampshire in August to talk about education policy. Next, in conjunction with the Des Moines Register, the two organizations wanted Democratic candidates to gather in Iowa. None of the candidates would commit to attend even in principle.
Politico reporter Michael Grunwald was quick to frame the candidates’ snub, with obvious help from Brown herself, as proof of the political might of teachers’ unions.
For sure, Brown has a history of fighting with teachers’ unions. As an article in The Washington Post last year reported, she led an effort to cast the New York City teachers’ union as a protector of sexual predators.
After that venture, Brown launched a group that filed a lawsuit in New York State to dilute teachers’ job protections, commonly called “tenure.”
So she is clearly at it again. Grunwald quotes her, “The teachers unions have gotten to these candidates.”
“It’s shameful how my party is being held hostage by the unions,” Grunwald quotes Kevin Chavous, the head of American Federation for Children, the other organization sponsoring the event. “I see no difference between their strong-arm tactics on the Democrats and the gun lobby’s tactics on Republicans.”
This is not the first time a proponent for charter schools has compared an organization representing classroom teachers to an extremist group that responded to the gun deaths of school kids and educators in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school by blaming the teachers for not packing heat.
Comments like these show how hyperbolic people have become who back charter schools, high-stakes testing and a crackdown on teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
Trolling For Education ‘Reform’
But aside from that offensive remark, Brown and Chavous also took to The Daily Beast to accuse the teachers’ unions of “bullying” them and being “anti-democratic.” They warn the Democratic Party presidential slate, “Voters have demonstrated time and again that candidates who buck the teachers’ union are rewarded.” (Uh-huh, tell that to ex-Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett or failed California state education superintendent Marshall Tuck, who both lost elections, in large part, for bucking unions.)
Charter school proponents in other corridors of the education reform echo chamber offered similar counsel to the candidates.
On the blog site EducationPost – a media outlet funded with $12 million by some of the same wealthy foundations and individuals who back Campbell Brown – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the rest of the candidates were called “pathetic. … They’re afraid of the unions who warned them not to attend the event.”
In an op-ed appearing in USA Today, Richard Whitmire – a routine commentator at The Seventy Flour and author of a “worshipful portrait,” according to education historian Diane Ravitch, of former Washington, D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee – wrote, “The party of Hillary Clinton must decide: Support teachers’ unions or fight for low-income, minority children.”
This overheated rhetoric sounds a lot like concern-trolling coming from conservative Republicans. One of those, Fox News contributor Juan Williams, noticed the candidate no-shows for Brown’s event and wrote for The Hill, “Clinton and her Democratic rivals have shunned an invitation to an education reform forum because it was sponsored by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown … out of apparent fear of antagonizing the unions. The price of a union endorsement is too high for school children.”
All this bloviating over a botched attempt by charter school proponents to stage an event allowing them to frame issues for their own end is not only rhetorical overload, it’s really bad political advice.
It’s The Parents, Stupid
First, opposition to rich people’s agenda to convert more public schools to charters and attack teachers’ job protections is not confined to teachers unions.
The successful mayoral campaigns of Bill de Blasio in New York City and Ras Baraka in Newark, New Jersey drew their strength from coalitions of voters who, yes, supported public school teachers, but also wanted solutions to the growing inequities in their cities, such as raising the minimum wage and big changes in the criminal justice system.
There is a reason, after all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made his now infamous remark about “suburban moms” being the main opposition to the rollout of his high-stakes testing agenda for schools. Those really were suburban moms, and not the teachers’ unions, speaking out in defiance.
Unions Are Good For Low-Income Kids
Also, if Brown and her fellow education activists were really so concerned about the future of kids who live in low-income communities, they would be advocating for labor unions rather than opposing them.
My colleague Dave Johnson at the Campaign for America’s Future recently came across a new study conducted for the Center for American Progress, which found in places where union membership is higher, low-income children, in particular, benefit from “economic mobility” and “intergenerational mobility.” In plain English, this means union strength correlated with low-income children being more apt to rise higher in the income rankings – and for their children in turn to be better off.
Reporters at The New York Times looked at the study as well and noted, “There aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility” as the presence of unions. “A 10-percentage-point increase in the rate of unionization in an area coincided with a rise of an additional 1.3 points on the income distribution as the average child becomes an adult,” they wrote.
Combating unions is not only a strategy unlikely to result in good outcomes for low-income kids, it also seems completely out of step with the political zeitgeist of the times.
Missing The Populist Bandwagon
Robert Borosage, another CAF colleague with over three decades of experience as a political strategist, observes that among presidential candidates in the Democratic Party, “The growing populist movement in this country is driving this debate.”
“Populist,” as Borosage uses the term, is stridently pro-union and opposed to the agenda of the big-moneyed interests – the same folks who are typically behind charter schools, and the crackdowns on teachers’ rights, and parent and student voice, in school governance.
Likely sensing the populist uprising, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, after turning down the invitation to Brown’s klatch, made a surprise appearance at a union rally in Las Vegas where boisterous protestors were demanding higher wages and better treatment from their employer, a hotel bearing the name of Republican presidential primary frontrunner Donald Trump.
The wave of populism washing across the country is not lost on Republican candidates. Tellingly, two Republican candidates currently leading in polls who did not show for Brown’s event in New Hampshire, Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, are arguably the most populist candidates in that field.
Also, the two Republican Party presidential hopefuls who are most aligned with the anti-union, pro-education reform advocacy stances of Campbell Brown and her fellow advocates have not fared well.
Bad Political Advice
The fate of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is the most obvious example of how union-bashing is not a sure-fire strategy for political gain. As another CAF colleague and veteran political observer Bill Scher observed upon witnessing Walker’s withdrawal from the presidential race, “Scott Walker proves you can’t union-bash your way to the White House.”
Walker, who had made a political career out of “his glorious union battles,” in Scher’s words, “became pathetic. … In the waning days of his campaign, he offered his one big idea:eliminate federal worker unions and abolish the National Labor Relations Board. Nobody cared.”
The other Republican candidate most aligned to the pro-charter, anti-union agenda of education reform proponents, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is still in the race but has faltered severely in polling results.
More than any other candidate, Bush has made his battle for charter schools and punitive education policies in the Sunshine State a centerpiece of his campaign. This strategy hasn’t done him any good, most notably because those policy ideas are now widely held in contempt in his own state.
“The Bush-era reforms have failed,” writes a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, noting the state’s school accountability system established during Bush’s regime has collapsed in ruins, and the system of testing put into place “turned schools into sweatshops.”
Given what has happened to Walker and Bush, no candidate in his or her right mind should embrace the strategy promoted by Brown and her cohorts.
An Authentic Movement, If Democrats Want One
Many people leading the effort to stifle classroom teachers and do damage to public schools so charter schools can be presented as an attractive alternative like to believe they are leading a movement. But it’s far from certain their movement is catching on.
As the dust settles after the first debate among the Democratic Party presidential candidates, it became clear none of the issues charter school advocates care about came up in the discussion. While that’s not a good thing, necessarily, it shows despite all the money the Wal-Mart foundation and other rich folks can bring to bear, the return on their investment so far is pretty poor.
In the meantime, a grassroots constituency that sees big money pouring into campaigns for closing neighborhood schools and opening up more charters is increasingly unconvinced wealthy white people have the best interests of low-income black and brown children in mind.
This from-the-ground-up movement has also yet to influence the presidential debates, in either party. But should Democratic candidates decide to pay attention, it will be obvious to them which of these two education “movements” really represents an authentic voice for positive change.
About the Author: Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written extensively about public education policy.
On June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.
Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.
Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.
Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”
At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board’s decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday’s meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.
Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school’s mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because … they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life.”
Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.
Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, “It’s nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)
At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
“I can’t believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, … anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we’re seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”
In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.
The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.
“It’s unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.
According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”
“Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities,” says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.
Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers “know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”
“Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers’ professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda,” said Brian Harris. “Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don’t want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”
Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. “They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them.”
An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.
During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: “It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children’s future.”
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Authors: The authors’ names are Ariel Zionts and Crystal Stella Becerril. Arielle Zionts is a freelancer writer and, beginning in August, a producer at the Interfaith Voices radio show in D.C. She studied anthropology at Pitzer College and radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based Xicana activist, writer and photographer who regularly contributes to Socialist Worker, Red Wedge and Warscapes.
On Tuesday, May 19, thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Seattle to support a rolling strike by public school teachers across Washington state. The teachers are protesting what they say are unacceptably high class sizes and low pay, stemming from their state legislature’s failure to fully fund public education.
Six thousand teachers and supporters from Seattle Public Schools and the nearby districts of Mercer Island and Issaquah shut down intersections for blocks in the largest coordinated action since the rolling walkout began on April 22. In total, at least 30,000 teachers in 65 striking school districts have participated in one-day strikes.
Washington Educators Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union (a National Education Association affiliate), has pointed out that the state has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio of any state, at 19.4, according to NEA data from 2013. The union calculates that an additional 11,960 teachers would be needed to reduce the student-teacher ratio to the national average of 15.9. Class sizes are typically about nine or 10 students larger than the student-teacher ratio. Teachers say that big class sizes in Washington state result in poor working and learning conditions.
The strike is unusual in that the teachers are not pressuring their respective school districts, but rather targeting the state legislature for its unwillingness to fund education enough to decrease class sizes and increase teacher compensation. Popular signs at rallies across the state have read “Educators care for our kids every day – It’s time the legislature cared” and “On strike against legislature – stop blaming teachers – start funding schools.”
On the class size and funding issue, union members say they have both the courts and the voters on their side. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary vs. Washington that the legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to “amply provide for the education of all children within its borders” and ordered it to implement adequate funding increases by 2018. Last September, the Washington Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt of court for failing “to provide the court a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education,” warning lawmakers that the legislature would be “sanctioned” if it did not develop a plan by the end of the legislative cycle.
Compounding this legal pressure is the binding initiative 1351 approved by voters in November 2014, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in class size and the hiring of 15,000 teachers over the next four years, according to advocates of the initiative.
While both legislatures have put forward proposals to fund class size decreases up to the third grade, none have proposed fully funding initiative 1351. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for two consecutive special sessions to address the funding issue and other budgetary matters before a July 1 deadline. If they don’t resolve the budget, legislators risk a government shutdown.
Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High, says that teachers’ “backs are to the wall,” necessitating collective action.
“The old strategy of supporting politicians and hoping that they will enact pro-education policies has not worked for so long that it has actually caused a state of crisis for our union as a whole,” he says. “It’s reached a level of absurdity. I think [lack of support from the legislature] made [WEA] leadership more willing to back some of our smaller locals that began this one-day strike wave in the state.”
The strikes have been primarily organized by teachers union locals, rather than by the statewide union. On the eve of the first strikes in late April, a WEA spokesperson told Washington’s News Tribune that it was up to locals to “decide how big the protest gets this year.” What began with eight districts has now swelled to 65.
The legislature’s unwillingness to go fully fund I-1351 and adhere to McCleary has galvanized teacher in a way that Susan DuFresne, a kindergarten teacher at Maplewood Heights Elementary, describes as “truly grassroots.”
“I place this strike wave at the tipping point in the struggle between progressive education reform and corporate education reform,” DuFresne says. “This struggle has a long way to go to educate and activate students, parents, teachers and community members—but this strike wave is finally bringing attention to this struggle in arenas we call the ‘non-choir.’ ”
Hagopian, who is part of the social justice-based reform caucus Social Equality Educators and last year came 45 votes shy of being elected Seattle teachers’ union president, says the political situation in Washington is “Robin Hood in reverse.”
“Lowering class sizes costs money, and to raise that money you would have to actually tax the rich,” he told In These Times. “We’re one of seven states in the nation that don’t have an income tax and one of only nine states in the country that don’t have a capital gains tax.”
Indeed, Washington has the nation’s most regressive tax structure, according to a study published in January by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The study found that the state’s top 1% contributes 2.4 percent of family income in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent contribute 16.8 percent, making Washington the “highest-tax state in the country for poor people.”
Meanwhile, the state’s largest corporations have received eye-popping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boeing was awarded the single largest tax break a state has ever given a company: an $8.7 billion cut. Microsoft reportedly avoided $528 million in state taxes between 1997 and 2008 due to lax legislative oversight concerning the company reporting its revenue through its licensing office in Nevada, despite basing its software production in Washington.
At the same time, lawmakers have suspended voter-approved cost-of-living increases for educators every year since 2008. Washington’s teacher pay now ranks 42nd in the nation. Teachers also say that legislatures are undermining their job security by introducing legislation that would tie state standardized tests to teacher evaluations. This has helped push hundreds of educators and students across Seattle high schools to boycott the tests, placing the city at the vanguard of a larger emerging wave of test boycotts across the country.
WEA members say that if legislators don’t resolve funding issues by the end of the second special legislative session, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in September. Hagopian expects even wider support from teachers at that time.
“I can’t imagine that after feeling the collective power that we found in the streets on Tuesday when we walked out, that teachers would just go quietly back into the classroom and submit to the humiliation of being in one of the richest regions the world has ever known and seeing kids come to school without basic supplies and ballooning class sizes,” he says.
This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at [email protected] .
On May Day 2014, a group of teachers at the International High School at Prospect Heights (IHSPH) in Brooklyn stood outside their school building and informed gathered reporters that they would not be administering the New York City English Language Arts (ELA) Performance Assessment Exam scheduled to take place that day. The test, which is part of a new teacher evaluation system imposed by the state last year, exists solely to rate teacher performance; unlike, for example the Regents Exam, which dates back to 1866 and determines whether students graduate. Thirty people—nearly all of the teachers and staff at the small public school—signed a statement declaring they would not participate.
The date was a coincidence—May Day, the internationally recognized workers’ day, happened to be the day the test was scheduled—but it could not have been better for the teachers’ action. Amid growing unrest among teachers, parents and students over high-stakes testing and the new Common Core educational standards, these teachers’ action is another step in challenging what new Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni (whose recent victory I cover in a forthcoming piece) calls “predatory education reform,” driven by private companies that aim to run schools like corporations and pocket the profits.
“This is taking back the whole conversation around education,” Rosie Frascella, a 12th grade English teacher at IHSPH, tells In These Times. That conversation has been dominated by heated rhetoric from “reformers” and anti-union elected officials about “bad” or “lazy” teachers, but Frascella and her colleagues challenged that idea by putting themselves on the line to do what they believed was right. “I’d rather take a zero, you can fail me in my evaluations but you are not going to hurt my students. You can say I’m a bad teacher but I’m standing up for my students and what I know is right for them.”
After their press conference, the teachers proceeded into the building, where, according to Emily Giles, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade science at IHSPH, they taught class as they would have any other day. Although 50 percent of the students had already been opted out of taking the test by their parents, Giles says administrators still attempted to give the test to a small handful—with little success.
“By that point, kids got wind of the fact that other kids didn’t have to take it. There were two rooms of testing happening; one room was empty within half an hour,” she says. “Kids just went in, put their name on the test and walked out.”
Giles points out that the abandoned testing gave teachers the chance to do just that—teach. “The school was just functioning, like it wasn’t even happening, which is how it should feel. When kids finish or opt themselves out, they go back to an educational setting where they’re actually using their time to do something meaningful,” she says.
A crying shame
The ELA Performance Assessment Exam has provoked student, teacher and parent anger from its first appearance in New York City schools this past October. According to Frascella, students were “traumatized” by the test, which requires them to read two short texts and write an essay in English. That’s not so horrifying for native English speakers, but the students at IHSPH, like other International schools across New York City, are almost all English language learners. To attend the International school, a student has to have lived in the United States for four years or less; according to Frascella, students from more than 30 different countries who speak more than 20 languages are currently enrolled at IHSPH. The school works on a collaborative model—Frascella explains that new students are partnered with an older student who speaks their language to help them translate and make it through the day.
But there’s no collaboration allowed on standardized tests. Instead, Frascella says, confronted with material they couldn’t read (the tests are written at a ninth- and 10th-grade reading level), students put their heads down. Some cried.
“These exams, overall, what they do is they hurt our community,” she says. “They stress our students out, they make them cry. They make them get upset in class because they feel like failures, even though they work so hard.”
Students at IHSPH complete portfolios in a variety of subjects on which they are graded; like other English language learners, they have to take the New York State English as a Second LanguageAchievementTest. And like all other New York public school students, they also have to pass Regents Exams. That’s already, teachers argue, far too much testing. In the letter that the IHSPH teachers sent to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, they ask her to remove this test and replace it with an assessment that was created by educators.
When the teachers realized that it was coming time for the ELA Performance Assessment Exam to be administered again (it is given twice a year), they began talking amongst themselves about how to handle it. Many parents, fueled by their children’s bad experiences with the fall test, chose to opt their students out entirely. One parent, Teresa Edwards-Lasose, said, “The test is meaningless. [My child] doesn’t read and write enough English yet to do the test and it doesn’t count for his grades. Why should he take it?”
Chancellor Fariña told principals that they had to respect the rights of parents to opt out, as nearly 30,000 parents have across the state. But the teachers felt they had to do more.
For Giles, the testing battle is “a clear moment where the rights and concerns of parents and teachers, everything intersects, we agree with each other, we’re fighting for the same thing.”
As teachers at a small International school, she says, IHSPH teachers occupy a somewhat privileged position—though their students are uniquely harmed by the exam, they have a tight-knit staff and it’s easier to organize. “That means that we have a responsibility to be the people who are willing to stick our necks out a little bit,” she says.
Originally, just four instructors were in favor of not giving the test. The more they talked, though, the more people joined in, and eventually they drafted their letter to the chancellor. They discussed the risks they would be taking—that their evaluations would suffer, that the principal and the Department of Education might discipline them–and decided that it was important to go forward with the refusal.
“It’s not just about this assessment,” Frascella says. “It’s about the larger vision against high-stakes testing. It was an opportunity to really have our voices heard in the hopes that the new administration would listen to us.”
At the press conference on May Day morning, Giles says, she felt good. Then during the school day, things felt even better. Support poured in at their website, where parents and educators from around the country left messages. Someone even sent a fruit basket to the school.
Support wasn’t universal, though. The United Federation of Teachers, the union to which the IHSPH teachers belong, issued a statement saying that while it believes “that our schools have been the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning,” that “[T]his protest is not a union-sponsored event.”
Giles, who along with Frascella and two other teachers at IHSPH, belongs to a reform caucus within the union called the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), was disappointed in this response. Still, she sees their action as an important rank-and-file organizing project that drew the staff closer together. And as Frascella notes, “In this movement to save our schools we need to create as many opportunities for teachers, for parents, and students to feel that their voice actually matters and that they actually have power.”
The bigger picture
This year’s struggle over the ELA Performance Assessment also takes place against the backdrop of a new contract between the UFT and New York City that 100,000 teachers are set to vote on soon. Passed through the UFT’s delegate assembly on May 7, the new contract spans nine years. Five of those are retroactive, covering the years for which the union has had no contract with the city. Though the contract includes retroactive pay raises, they’re spread out across that nine-year period—which comes out to about 2 percent a year.
More importantly, according to Frascella and Giles, the contract doesn’t appear to change the teacher evaluation process away from the heavy focus on testing. MORE has begun a “Vote No” campaign on the contract; in their press release, teacher, chapter leader and MORE member Kit Wainer writes, “UFT members never got to vote on ‘Advance’ (the new teacher evaluation system) or the resulting high stakes tests, but we will all vote on our contract this year, so it is important that each UFT member makes an informed vote. The contract is not just about our ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. It is a legal document that dictates working conditions in our schools.”
Teachers at IHSPH already use what they call the “solidarity method” for the 20 percent of teacher evaluation that is done at the school level (another 20 percent comes automatically from state tests, and the rest from observations by administrators)—they are all graded on the Regents exams for all of the students, meaning that each teacher at the school receives the same ranking. “My community of educators, we don’t want to be competitive,” Frascella says. “As a school we tried to align our assessments to be as equal as possible so that our scores would be as close as possible because we didn’t want to be divided and ranked.”
Still, for a union and a city Department of Education who ostensibly agree on important points, that the proposed contract does little to change a test-based evaluation system is frustrating.
For now, Giles says, the IHSPH teachers have not been disciplined and are looking forward to expanding on the momentum they’ve built. She expects the test refusal to be discussed at the next Parent Teacher Association meeting, and wants to talk about what they can do next fall when the test comes around again. She’s hoping that the other 15 International schools across New York will take action as well; teachers at IHSPH had been in contact with teachers at other Internationals before the action, though none of them managed to coordinate refusal. Other possibilities include putting out a petition against the test that would not obligate teachers to refuse to give it, in hopes that a larger number would sign on.
The teachers at IHSPH took the step of refusing the test in a climate where they were warned against alienating “allies” like Fariña and de Blasio, but they went forward anyway. Even so, the circumstances are very different now than they were under Bloomberg. “I think the question is, how do we work together?” Frascella says. “We may not have the money that the Right has, or the reformers or privateers have, but we have very good organizers, we have very smart people, and we have a lot of people on our side, so how do we use that both to hold de Blasio accountable and to support him in keeping the promises that he makes?”
“Actions, collective actions, they hold people accountable. And they inform the public,” she adds.
About the Author: Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television.
Earlier in the month, a Brooklyn school principal wrote a New York Times op-ed protesting the gag order that testing company Pearson has put on teachers and administrators to prevent them discussing the content of the company’s new Common Core tests. According to Elizabeth Phillips, the test does “a poor job of testing reading comprehension,” and:
In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes.
These gag orders and the lack of transparency are fueling the growing distrust and backlash among parents, students and educators in the United States about whether the current testing protocols and testing fixation is in the best interests of children. When parents aren’t allowed to know what is on their children’s tests, and when educators have no voice in how assessments are created and are forbidden from raising legitimate concerns about these assessments’ quality or talking to parents about these concerns, you not only increase distrust of testing but also deny children the rich learning experience they deserve. […]If Pearson is going to remain competitive in the educational support and testing business, the company must listen to and respond to the concerns of educators like Elizabeth Phillips who report that the company has ignored extensive feedback.
Parents, students and teachers need assessments that accurately measure student performance through questions that are grade-appropriate and aligned with state standards—especially since standardized tests have increasingly life-altering consequences for students and teachers. By including gag orders in contracts, Pearson is silencing the very stakeholders the company needs to engage with. Poll after poll makes clear that parents overwhelmingly trust educators over all others to do what is best for their children; educators’ voices, concerns and input should be included in the creation and application of these assessments.
This is big business: Pearson has a $32 million contract with New York state alone.
This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on April 28, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.
Just in time for yesterday’s celebration of International Migrants Day, a federal court jury ruled on Monday that Universal Placement International of Los Angeles and its owner, Lourdes Navarro, must pay $4.5 million to 350 Filipino teachers who were forced into exploitative contracts. According to the AFT, the Filipino teachers were brought to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and taught in public schools under H-1B guest worker program. This became the first positive jury verdict in a federal labor trafficking case brought forth by workers (as opposed to the government) involving workers who are not domestic workers. It is a clear example that workers can fight back against corporate greed and that, when allies join forces on behalf of working families, victories can be achieved.
The Filipino teachers began arriving in Louisiana in 2007 and most paid Universal Placement about $16,000 to find the jobs, AFT reported. Almost all of them had to borrow money to pay the placement fees. The loans were then charged 3% to 5% interest per month and recruiters took away their passports and visas until they paid off the loans. Many of the teachers were forced to give away 10% of their second-year salaries as well. Those who didn’t take the one-sided contract were threatened with the loss of their sizable investment and potentially being sent home.
The contracts were later ruled illegal and a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the teachers by AFT, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Covington & Burling, a law firm. AFT President Randi Weingarten lauded the ruling:
This groundbreaking verdict affirms the principle that all teachers working in our public schools must be treated fairly, regardless of what country they may come from. The outrageous abuses provide dramatic examples of the extreme exploitation that can occur, even here in the United States, when there is no proper oversight of the professional recruitment industry. The practices involved in this case—labor contracts signed under duress and other arrangements reminiscent of indentured servitude—are things that should have no place in 21st century America.
To prevent such egregious abuses in the future, the AFT is calling for federal, state and local governments to take steps to monitor the hiring and treatment of overseas-trained teachers. In addition, the union recommends:
Developing, adopting and enforcing ethical standards for the international recruitment of teachers.
Improving access to the government data necessary to track and study international hiring trends in education.
Fostering international cooperation to protect migrant workers and mitigate any negative impact of teacher migration in their home countries.
This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW on December 19, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a senior writer for AFL-CIO, and a former precinct committeeman in the Leon County Democratic Party. He is a former vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Legislative Liaison Committee, and during the 2010 election, through the primary, Kenneth Quinnell worked for the Kendrick Meek campaign. He has written for Think Progress, AFSCME and for OurFuture.org on Social Security.
Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radio, USA Today, McClatchy, the Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.
A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.
Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.
In fact, rank-and-file teachers are often at the helm of movements for real educational equity. Dissident members of SNTE, known as Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), have actively challenged authoritarian union officials, and at the same time resisted hardline reforms they see as corrosive to a democratic, broad-based education. They’ve also mobilized againstsweeping new neoliberal labor legislation.
Teachers blockaded government offices and private companies, closed major intersections, and “liberated” the toll booths on the privately owned highway to Mexico City. They also attempted to shut down the airport….
The Oaxaca teachers are making no new wage demands. They insist, however, that the Oaxaca state government install computers in all elementary schools and pay the schools’ electric bills. According to union spokespeople utility bills are currently paid by parents.
In a statement on CNTE’s blog posted in August, the group called the reform agenda an assault on the government’s obligation to provide free basic public education. Also the CNTE calls the standardized testing system “an insult to the economic, cultural and social development of our country because [of] deepened inequality of schools, students and teachers.”
Marco Fernandez, an education scholar who has written on education and union reform, says that dissident-led strikes and protests hurt more than help. “I cannot see how the teachers’ absenteeism and strikes [will lead to] the quality of education that a kid needs… for eventually getting a good job,” he says. When labor disputes lead to disruptive actions that upend schooling and testing, he argues, “The ones that in the long run pay the consequences are the kids. And this is a tragedy.”
Yet some see corruption baked into the core of education policy. Educational researcher Manuel Gil-Antón of the College of Mexico, publicly warnedthat authorities might aggravate persistent educational inequities and that the official reforms might lead to “manipulating the data and an unjustified triumphalism.”
Longtime labor journalist David Bacon, who has tracked cross-border solidarity movements, tells Working In These Times that in the school reform debate in Mexico, as in the U.S., tends to zero in on teachers while ignoring deeper social deficits; one key problem is simply that schools are deeply underresourced and many families simply can’t afford education. In the long run, he says, “These are social problems that you can’t cure with an educational system… You need a fundamental social change in Mexico, a part of which would be making everybody literate. But you can’t make everybody literate in the absence of other changes that are gonna happen in their lives.”
Bacon sees teachers not only as political actors, but bearers of a progressive tradition in Mexico:
If you go into little towns in Mexico out in the countryside, teachers are community leaders… in very large part, they are also the repositories of progressive values and ideas. So if you talk to Mexican workers, people will use words like “capitalism,” and “the working class,” and even “socialism,” and it’s because there are teachers who are giving this understanding to their students.
While many Americans may write off Mexico and its schools as “Third World” bastions of corruption, teachers’ resistance to neoliberal reforms is a striking parallel to the school labor dramas in Chicago and across the United States. Maybe rank-and-file educators in Oaxaca and Chicago can exchange best practices on how to take their fights outside the classroom and bring a lesson in solidarity to the streets.
About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.
The campaign against teachers is special, and worth paying attention to. It’s not like workers in general get much respect in our culture, at least not beyond vague lip service that only ever applies to the individual, powerless worker not asking for anything. And janitors, hotel housekeepers, cashiers, and a host of others could fill books with the daily substance of working in low-status professions, I’m sure. But right now, teachers are the subject of a campaign heavily funded and driven from the top down to take a profession that has long been respected by the public at large and make the people in the profession villains and pariahs, en route to undercutting the prestige, the decision-making ability, the working conditions, and, of course, the wages and benefits of the profession as a whole. What we’re watching right now is a specific front in the war on workers, and one with immense reach through our culture—and coming soon to a movie theater near you if it’s not already there, in the form of the poorly reviewed parent trigger drama Won’t Back Down.
(That it’s a war not just on teachers but on the workers of the future and on the government just sweetens the pot for many of the people waging the war.)
Teachers face a catch-22. Those in poor districts are expected to be superhuman, to by themselves counteract the effects of poverty—even though we know that while teachers are the most important factor in educational achievement inside the school, factors outside the school, like poverty, are far more important. But while teachers of poor students are supposed to be superhuman, teachers of well-to-do students are frequently treated by doctor and lawyer parents as idiot failures, teaching because they can’t be doctors or lawyers. Policy and funding decisions are used against teachers in poor districts; the condescension of parents serves the same purpose in wealthier ones. But in both cases the professionalism of teachers is undermined.
I’ve written a lot about how corporate education policy targets teachers (and the concept of education as a public good that should be available to all kids). But this upper-middle-class condescension toward teachers is a potent weapon in that campaign against teachers and education. One of the foundations of the corporate drive to “reform” education to corporate preferences is the idea that billionaires know better, that hedge fund managers and Walmart heirs and Bill Gates, by virtue of having made a lot of money, must know more than education professionals about how education should function. And that translates downward—if Bill Gates is supposed to know how schools should work in general, an engineer or executive at least gets to boss his kid’s teacher around.
For instance, Adam Kirk Edgerton explains that he quit teaching because:
[…] I was tired of feeling powerless. Tired of watching would-be professionals treated as children, infantilized into silence. Tired of the machine that turns art into artifice for the sake of test scores. Tired of being belittled, disrespected and looked down upon by lawyers, politicians, and decision-makers who see teaching as the province of provincials, the work of housewives that can be done by anyone. […]
The prestige problem is, ironically, the worst in some of our “highest-performing” schools. In suburbia, teachers deal with the open disrespect of the upper-and-middle-class parent. I’m talking about those parents who fight for every letter grade, who teach their children to teach the teacher a lesson, and who regard teachers as merely obstacles on the way to an Ivy League admission. I was often amazed by the outrageous lies some parents would tell to get an extension on their child’s assignment.
Similarly, Corey Robin describes how, growing up in an affluent New York suburb with fantastic schools, teachers were nonetheless held in contempt by parents and students alike. “It’s odd,” he writes. “Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League.” Yet:
Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.
In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.
So it’s not uncommon to read—or to hear in conversation—views like that of Bridget Williams, the ex-wife of the executive director of “Democrats for Education Reform,” who describes parents’ efforts to get their kids the teachers they wanted, writing that “Even in the best schools, we still knew we had clunkers to contend with. This is a direct result of the stranglehold unions have over hiring and firing and tenure.” Except that it’s not. Teachers in union and non-union states are fired at basically identical rates after they get tenure or pass a probationary period, and at least some union states are far more likely than non-union states to fire teachers before they ever get tenure. Yet the idea persists that if unions weren’t standing in the way, every teacher would be outstanding. (Have you ever seen a workplace in which every single person was outstanding?) Add to this that states with binding teacher contracts (i.e. unions) have better educational outcomes than states without binding teacher contracts or unions, and the whole “teachers unions are what stands in the way of my kids getting a good education” thing starts looking like what it really is: anti-unionism and contempt for teachers as professionals, a desire as, in Williams’s words, “a white, educated, savvy, aggressive (some might use another word), ‘~4 percenter’ in a good neighborhood” to show that you’re the boss of teachers, most of whom aren’t even 20 percenters.
That’s the impulse the new movie Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, hopes to exploit by cloaking it in the story of a working-class mother working with a teacher against the teachers union. Funded by Republican billionaire (and owner of the Weekly Standard) Philip Anschutz, who also funded the anti-teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman, the movie is, happily, drawing terrible reviews, many of which comment directly on its political mission. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune reviewer, for instance, writes:
“Won’t Back Down” is to school reform what “Reefer Madness” is to drug policy. The difference is that it features the best acting talent money can buy, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a fed-up parent and an idealistic educator who take control of their failing Pittsburgh grade school and transform it.
They play the heartstrings like Yo-Yo Ma in service of a story that is emotionally manipulative, dramatically crude, factually challenged hero/villain hokum. That describes about 81 percent of all movies, but when a film’s goal is to move public policy, it’s worth commenting on.
Won’t Back Down promotes “parent trigger” laws. Parent trigger laws are supposedly a mechanism for greater parental control, in which parents can join together to drastically overhaul a school they see as failing.
But Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the Florida parents’ group Fund Education Now, warns that reality is very different: “The parent trigger uses a parent’s love for their child to pull the trigger and pass a public entity, a school, into the hands of a for-profit charter.” Trigger is among the model bills pushed by the now-notorious American Legislative Exchange Council. While individual laws vary, critics warn that they offer a back door for private (sometimes for-profit) companies to drum up signatures (sometimes dishonestly), bust unions and sideline school boards. “Sure,” says Oropeza, “parents can pull the trigger, but they lose all control from that point.”
Oropeza’s group helped defeat a parent trigger law in Florida, where “Not a single major Florida parent organization supported the bill, including the PTA,” with many opposing it, believing that it “would lead to the takeover of public schools by for-profit charter management companies and other corporate interests.”
But parent trigger laws are just one piece of the broader message that teachers unions, and the teachers they’re composed of, are the problem. The broader, deeper message is that teachers are simultaneously the most important thing in the school yet entirely interchangeable, that a good teacher or a bad teacher determines the course of a child’s life yet teachers shouldn’t be paid as much as other equivalently educated people, that teachers are solely responsible for educational outcomes yet what they do and how they do it should be determined by tech billionaires and any parent with an opinion. Every move in this war on teachers that appears to say they’re important lays the groundwork to undermine teachers as autonomous professionals, and it all builds on the liminal class position of teachers, poised as intermediaries between poor people and middle-class people or middle-class people and rich people, as well as on the fact that teaching has traditionally been a profession dominated by women.
People still actually respect teachers, when you ask them. They think their own kids’ teachers are pretty good. That’s a big part of the reason the war on teachers pretends to value teachers and to just be going after their unions—as if unions are not made up of teachers but are some foreign entity. But make no mistake, the goal here is to undermine teachers themselves as less than professional, as labor that can be gotten for cheaper and given less power. Taking away teachers’ ability to bargain collectively is a crucial step in that process.
This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.