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.
This year’s students are the workers of five or 10 or 15 years from now. There’s an obvious statement for you, but it’s one that is too rarely considered in discussions of education policy as hedge funders and corporate billionaires try to claim the mantle of doing what’s right for kids, implying or saying straight out that teachers are too self-interested to represent kids and should be left out of the discussion altogether. The fundamental question is this: If you don’t trust Wall Street or the Walton family to do what’s in your best interest as an adult in the American workforce, why would you trust them to do what’s in the best interest of the next generation of workers?
School, from the first day we set foot in a classroom to graduation from the highest level of education we achieve, trains us to be workers not only by teaching us math and grammar but by teaching us how to respond to instructions, orders, or discipline. It teaches us how to sit still, how to show that we’re making the kind of effort our superiors want to see from us, how to work toward socially approved goals. For many jobs and careers, school gives us training or credentials we need. The level and quality of education we get to a great extent determines what jobs we’ll be considered for, how likely we are to be unemployed, how much money we’ll earn.
So the structure of education in our country trains kids for what to expect as adults and says a lot about how we envision work and people’s access to good jobs. Deprive schools of funding and you’re creating a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed. Or, you’re creating a big chunk of a generation that doesn’t have the education needed to succeed—some kids’ families will be able to buy them a better education directly, some kids will live in well-to-do areas where the schools remain well-funded or where wealthy parents can subsidize public schools heavily.
This then sets up the conditions to justify not hiring people. Already we hear about how there just aren’t enough skilled workers and that companies want to hire, honest they do, they just can’t find trained workers to do the skilled jobs for which they’re offering to pay a pittance. Or we hear how companies have to move jobs overseas, because, again, American workers just can’t hack it in the information economy. It’s mostly an excuse anyway, but you think that’s going to get any better in 20 years if our public education system is gutted now?
If you create a class of schools that, while theoretically public, can effectively exclude homeless kids or disabled kids or kids whose first language isn’t English, and leave all those excluded kids in the public schools you’re telling everyone are second best, you send a message about who’s desirable as students and who will remain desirable as workers. If a state happens to funnel its entire school maintenance budget to that separate class of schools, the message is reinforced again. If you tell everyone that the new class of schools is better (even if in fact the evidence suggests otherwise), but there aren’t enough spaces for everyone, you send the message starting ever earlier in kids’ lives that they are disposable, that some of them will be left behind no matter what. Public schooling should send the opposite message—that all kids deserve a good education, an equal education, that the government is invested in all of them and that they can all succeed.
Then there’s higher education, where at the same time as a college degree becomes a near-requirement for entry into the middle class, per-student government spending is at a 25-year low and the number of administrators, and their pay, has shot up, while the number of faculty who actually teach students, and their pay, has lagged behind the administrators. As public higher education becomes a more difficult option, for-profit colleges step in to fill the void, not by being cheaper or better but by marketing themselves more aggressively despite abysmal results. Students, meanwhile, are forced to take on more and more loan debt to get that college degree, meaning they enter the workforce already desperate, to the benefit of employers who can capitalize on that desperation to keep workers who might otherwise move on or fight back.
So while I believe that teachers are important—important because they are the ones in the classrooms every day, doing an incredibly difficult job for not very much money and because they are an important part of a middle class that Republicans are trying to wipe out of existence—I understand and write about education as a labor issue not just because Mitt Romney’s top education priority is to break teachers unions, but because Mitt Romney’s next education priority, one he can only get to after breaking the unions, is to privatize public education, weakening it as a public good that serves everyone close to equally and instead bringing profit in, creating more and more unequal outcomes. I write about education as a labor issue because when Romney tells teachers class size doesn’t matter, even though he sent his own sons to a school with an average class size of 12, that’s class warfare from above in a nutshell. Class size only matters if you can pay for it to be small. If you can’t, screw you, your kids will be in the swollen classes that result from firing their teachers.
Similarly, Romney slashed higher education funding while governor of Massachusetts, pushing more students into debt—not something his own trust fund babies ever had to worry about. I use Romney as an example, but of course it’s not just him, it’s his party. Rep. Todd Akin, running for Senate from Missouri, referred to federal involvement in student loans as “the stage three cancer of socialism.” Rep. Paul Ryan, who paid for college with Social Security benefits, wants to cut Pell Grants for a million students. Rep. Virginia Foxx has “little tolerance” for people with student loans, but champions the for-profit college industry that owes its existence to, and relentlessly seeks to maximize, those loans. And so on.
Education is a labor issue because it’s how we train children to someday be workers, determining many of the conditions under which young adults enter the workforce. It’s a labor issue because school funding represents an investment, or a failure to invest, in the mass of people. Abandoning them as children, whether by underfunding the schools they attend or putting corporate profits first, is basically a guarantee they’ll face worse as adults.
This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on July 8, 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.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania is preparing a bill that could stealthily strip teachers’ collective bargaining rights in some of the state’s financially struggling school districts, according to members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania State Senate Education committee passed H.B. 1307, a bill allowing the state to declare school districts financially distressed and subsequently appoint an overseer to approve plans made by the school board. To the dismay of teachers’ unions, the bill would also allow public schools to be turned over to private charter companies and give the receiver the power to null and void any collective bargaining contracts.
The legislation would declare four school districts financially distressed—Chester Upland, Duquesne City, Harrisburg, and York City—and grants the Pennsylvania State Board of Education full discretion to declare any school financially distressed in the future.
As the bill advances, teacher unions see the legislation as a sneak attack against collective bargaining, prompted by fears of union attacks like those in Wisconsin.
“I think they looked at Wisconsin and the outrage that occurred when they tried to take away all collective bargaining rights for public employees at once,” says Mary Willis, a teacher and PSEA member in the Harrisburg School District. “I think they decided that they really didn’t want to have that kind of uprising in a big labor state like Pennsylvania and I think they decided they wanted to go after it piecemeal.”
The move comes against the backdrop of a Pennsylvania schools funding crisis. Under Gov. Corbett, the state cut education funding by $860 million in the budget year 2011-12. According to PSEA, local school districts lost an average of 13.6 percent of state funding from the cuts, or approximately 3.4 percent of their overall funding. Corbett has also proposed to cut an additional $100 million in block grant funding for 2012-13. The funding cuts coincide with property value decreases in some Pennsylvania towns, decreasing the amount of tax revenue available for many local school districts.
At Willis’s district in Harrisburg—which would be declared financially distressed—schools have been forced to eliminate kindergarten classes, pre-K programs, and an emotional support program for troubled students. As of last year, the district cut more than 200 teaching positions and last year’s budget called for cutting another 153.
“There is a serious funding crisis in a growing number of our schools,” says PSEA President Mike Crossey. “But this bill isn’t a solution. The problem was manufactured largely by state underfunding in the first place. This bill is a bureaucratic power grab masquerading as a fix, and it leaves these struggling schools guessing about how to balance their budgets and educate their students.”
PSEA says that giving the state the power to null collective bargaining costs is a wrongheaded approach to fixing the state’s fiscal problems. The union argues that increasing labor costs are not behind the financial revenue shortfalls plaguing many school districts. According to “Sounding the Alarm,” a PSEA report, “Even with projected increases in pension contributions, salary and benefit costs will only increase from 62 percent of district budgets in 2009-10 to 63 percent of district budgets in 2017-18.” Instead, the union argues that the budget crisis is caused by a dramatic revenue shortfall.
In addition to the $850 million state-level budget cuts and decreasing local property taxes, a big part of the revenue shortfall stems from a law forcing local school districts to pay for children that opt into charter schools without any consideration of the cost to the school district. In 2010, Pennsylvania reimbursed school districts a total of $219 million, but in 2011-12, Gov. Corbett eliminated state reimbursement for schools that send students to charter schools. Many school districts are forced to pay for children that opt into charter schools, but since the number of students that leave does not facilitate closing down schools or ending of bus routes—there are often very little savings for the public school districts in sending their kids to charter schools.
Two school districts that would be declared financially distressed under the legislation—York City and Chester Upland—have been hard hit by the requirement to pay students to go to charter schools. Both school districts had already lost 7.5 percent of their budget from state budgets cuts. On top of that, Chester Upland paid 20 percent of its budget and York City paid 9.3 percent to reimburse charter schools, according to a report put out by PSEA.
Instead of implementing the draconian financially distressed school legislation, PSEA says the state is underutilizing potential sources of tax revenue to fund schools, like taxing profits produced by fracking in the Marcellus shale, closing a loophole that allows companies to incorporate in Delaware to avoid paying taxes in Pennsylvania, and implementing a tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco. In addition, PSEA says Gov. Corbett could roll back the $475 million in tax credits and cuts in his budget proposal.
“It’s amazing—I have been a teacher in Pennsylvania for 27 years, I have never seen anything so devious in my life,” says Mary Willis. “This budget crisis is a manufactured crisis being used to go after collective bargaining and expand charter schools.”
Willis fears that if the legislation advances, it would be used to launch a witch hunt against teachers unions.
“Instead of a collective bargaining agreement, where people are laid off in a fair and equitable matter, this legislation would allow them to lay off anyone. They would go after the union leaders. I am two years from retirement and I’m at the top of the retirement schedule. Who do you think they are going to go after first?” says Willis.
PSEA spokeswoman Lauri Lebo says that at this point, the “bill could go either way,” which is why PSEA is launching a mobilization effort to defeat it. Lebo stresses more than just public education could be at stake, pointing to the fact that Corbett’s largest campaign donor is for-profit Charter School Management Company owner Vahan Gureghian.
“Corbett is trying to privatize education,” Lebo says. “This is why there is this slow strangling of teachers unions. This is what these education cuts are about. He is trying to privatize education.”
This blog originally appeared in In These Timeson May 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). Currently, he works at the Campaign for America’s Future in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he has worked as a staffer on the Obama-Biden Campaign and conducted research on worker owned cooperatives at the Instituto Marques de Salamanca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When Mike is not reading twenty blogs at a time, he enjoys jazz, golden retrievers, and playing horseshoes.
The Chester Upland School District in Delaware County, Pennsylvania suffered a serious setback when Gov. Tom Corbett (R) slashed $900 million in education funds from the state budget. The cuts landed hardest on poorer districts, and Chester Upland, which predominantly serves African-American children and relies on state aid for nearly 70 percent of its funding, expects to fall short this school year by $19 million.
Faced with such a shortage of funds, the school district informed its staff that it will not be able to pay their salaries come Wednesday. So the teachers decided to work for free. As one teacher put it, students “need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job”:
At a union meeting at Chester High School on Tuesday night, the employees passed a resolution saying they would stay on “as long as we are individually able.”
Columbus Elementary School math and literacy teacher Sara Ferguson, who has taught in Chester Upland for 21 years, said after the meeting, “It’s alarming. It’s disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don’t have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job.”
The school board and the unions separately begged Corbett to provide financial aid for the district, but Corbett turned each request down. Pennsylvania’s Education Secretary Ron Tomalis told the board that it “had failed to properly manage its finances and would not get any additional funds.” Chester Upland was forced to lay off “40 percent of its professional staff and about half of its unionized support staff before school began last fall.” That leaves 200 professionals and 65 support staff to manage a school with class sizes of over 40 students.
This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on January 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Tanya Somanader is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Tanya grew up in Pepper Pike, Ohio and holds a B.A. in international relations and history from Brown University. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Tanya was a staff member in the Office of Senator Sherrod Brown, working on issues ranging from foreign policy and defense to civil rights and social policy.