Posts Tagged ‘Teachers’
Thursday, May 26th, 2016
It’s been five years since self-styled education reformer Michelle Rhee left her job as head of the District of Columbia Public Schools under a cloud of bitterness and controversy, but she is still throwing shade over the Washington city school system.
Rhee’s open hostility to unions was a hallmark of her tenure in D.C. and of her subsequent career as an executive of the education reform group StudentsFirst. That hostility continues to darken relations between city officials and the teachers union, labor advocates say.
That was clear earlier this month when some of the teachers took to the streets to protest current schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson for her years-long stalling on negotiations for a new union contract. Henderson, a Rhee protégé who took over when Rhee departed in 2010, won’t come settle a new contract, says Washington Teachers Union President Liz Davis, and is adding insult to injury by meddling in the internal affairs of the union.
“[Rhee] is still here, but in the form of Kaya Henderson,” Davis tells In These Times. Rhee’s schemes for re-vamping Washington public schools have largely failed, she says, but Henderson insists on continuing Rhee-like attacks on teachers as a way to scapegoat the failure of administrators to make better progress. Most recently, Henderson delayed further negotiations on contract talks on the pretext that an internal Washington Teachers Union election is taking place, which Davis says is a clearly improper attempt to influence the vote.
“It’s Rheeism without Rhee,” remarks Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a pro-union education research group funded by the American Federation of Teachers. (The WTU is an affiliate of the AFT.) Evidence that Rheeism has actually succeeded in improving D.C. public schools is hard to come by, Casey adds, and the city continues to rate poorlyin many national rankings.
One of Rhee’s most visible initiatives is at the heart of the current inability to reach a new contract, according to Davis. A teacher evaluation system called IMPACT rates teachers and provides generous financial bonuses for those teachers who make high scores. Low scores, on the other hand, can be the basis for dismissal. The WTU is fighting for changes to the contract’s grievance procedures, Davis says, so that members can fight unfair evaluations. Negotiations are currently deadlocked on this issue.
Disagreement over annual salary increases is the second roadblock to a new contract, according to Davis. Henderson’s most recent offer was a paltry 1 percent.
Henderson Press Secretary Michelle Lerner tells In These Times that school “policy is not to comment on contract negotiations.” The old contract expired in 2012, but remains in place to cover about 3,500 unionized teachers, she says. A mediator has been brought in for negotiations to assist talks, she says.
Pay for D.C. teachers is very good, Lerner insists, with a starting salary of $51,259 a year that is the highest in the country (though cost of living in the city is also very high). Furthermore, the IMPACT bonus system allows veteran teachers to earn six-figure incomes. Despite the lack of a new contract with across-the-board wage increases, many teachers have seen rising incomes because of the bonuses, Lerner says.
Still, D.C. has a terrible time retaining teachers, Davis says. She estimates that there has been about 70 percent turnover since 2007, and “we are still recruiting 300 to 600 new teachers every year.” Many teachers feel there is a lack of support from senior administrators, she continues, leading to wide dissatisfaction and demoralization that fuels the high turnover rate.
Driving out older teachers is one of the unspoken goals of Rheeism, Shanker Institute’s Casey suggests, so union critics might argue that Rhee/Henderson have succeeded in that respect. Likewise, charter schools have exploded in D.C. over the last ten years. Nearly half of all public school students in the city are now enrolled in charter schools, while more than 40 public schools have been closed, Davis confirms.
Relations between the union and Henderson seem likely to remain fraught with difficulty, even if a new contract can be reached soon, Casey concludes. City school administrators have established a pattern of pushing charter schools, and Henderson has privately complained that Davis is less cooperative that previous union leaders.
“[Henderson] has difficulty with Liz because she is independent,” he says.
This post originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on May 25, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Tuesday, April 12th, 2016
For years, the campaign against public school teachers and their unions has lurched from one outrageous argument to another to support its case.
Teachers’ unions are accused of fighting for their salaries and benefits while ignoring the interests of school children. Prominent pundits say the unions “block needed reform” and protect “bad teachers” – even hiding sexual predators.
For every one of these over-heated claims, there are always powerful, fact-based counter arguments to dispel the many myths driving the anti-teachers’ union project.
Most recently, the twisted rationale for getting rid of teachers unions and the rights they’ve secured through years of struggle has led to the argument that unions play a role in misallocating resources – in particular, a role in sending the most qualified teachers away from where they are most needed: in schools with the most struggling students.
No one disputes the fact that disadvantaged children are often taught by under-credentialed, less-experienced teachers. But what anti-union operatives contend is that teachers’ unions, through collective bargaining or by pressuring public officials, are responsible for the fact that that best teachers are often misallocated to school districts with the most capable, well-supported students and that the unions simply don’t mind if underserved students get “the dregs.” The anti-teachers’ union campaign claims this misallocation is partly what causes achievement gaps in schools, which then lead to the vast socioeconomic inequality in society.
Now we know this argument is false too.
In a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, we learn, “There is no relationship between union strength and a misallocation of teachers that disadvantages students in high-poverty schools.”
The report calls the entire premise of union-created misallocation “a distraction from efforts to address the persistent nature of achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.” It recommends that instead of continuing to engage in an effort to pin the blame of inequity on unions, there should be more effort and research invested in learning “why teachers sort the way they do.” The report anticipates that research into teacher distribution would likely find the reasons teachers tend to gravitate to the more highly performing schools is due to “other aspects of school finance and school quality (e.g., facilities, access to advanced classes, curriculum, climate, etc.).”
To compile the report, the authors looked at teacher credential data from the federal government, at well-regarded measures of teachers’ union strength, and at data on student poverty levels from the National Assessment of Education Progress (known as “the nation’s report card”).
In order to assess whether teachers are misallocated away from high-poverty schools, they compare the proportion of teachers having each of three quality measures (experience, credentials, major or minor in field) in high-poverty schools relative to the average proportion across all schools in the state. Then they examine these comparisons in the context of the measures of relative union strength to look for correlations.
Their analysis consistently shows, “Misallocations of teacher quality are not more nor less severe in states with stronger teachers unions.” Some states, such as New Jersey, Wyoming, and Ohio, actually have more experienced teachers in high-poverty schools. In New Jersey, again, and Hawaii, the high-poverty schools tend to have more certificated teachers.
The authors also find there are indeed states that have grossly misallocated its most qualified teachers, including Connecticut, Virginia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New York.
But in both states where the most qualified teachers are in the neediest schools and in states where they aren’t, the strength of teachers’ unions is simply not a factor. Strong union states such as New York and Pennsylvania can have the same misallocation problems as weak union states such as Virginia and Arizona. Conversely, some strong unions states such as Wisconsin and Hawaii do better at distributing qualified teachers, as do states like Tennessee and South Carolina that have relatively weak unions.
The authors agree there is an urgent need to address the persistent nature of achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Indeed, their analysis finds, “Almost half (47.7 percent) of U.S. public schools are high-poverty schools. The share is over two-thirds in Mississippi, Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida.”
But based on this analysis, the argument that somehow teachers’ unions cause the neediest students to be underserved should be rejected, and discussion needs to pivot away from these distractions to a focus on real root causes of the inequities in our schools.
This blog originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Jeff Bryant is an Associate Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and the editor of the Education Opportunity Network website. Prior to joining OurFuture.org he was one of the principal writers for Open Left. He owns a marketing and communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has written extensively about public education policy.
Friday, February 19th, 2016
The Friedrichs vs. CTA Supreme Court case, a nakedly partisan assassination attempt on the labor movement, has died with Justice Antonin Scalia. What cannot die with it is the sense of existential crisis within the labor movement. We need a far-reaching conversation about the pathway back to increased activism, membership and power.
Like few moments before it, the Friedrichs case sparked a broad consensus within labor that our movement faced an existential crisis and that business as usual was a prescription for assisted suicide. Unfortunately, too many union leaders and staff based out of Washington, D.C. are now at risk of being dismissed as a bunch of Chicken Littles who overhyped a sky that never fell by the people who have the greatest ability to determine labor’s future: the local leaders and disengaged members.
It was a mistake to use the Friedrichs case to forge this somewhat rare agreement that labor faces an acute crisis. It seemed like a long shot that the Supremes would even take up the case just a few months after rejecting Justice Alito’s wet dream of a public sector “Right to Work” standard by a 5-4 margin in last session’s Harris vs. Quinn case (I lost a lot of bar bets when they did). Even with the case proceeding to oral arguments, there was always the possibility that the Court would punt on the issue or even rule in favor of the unions for political reasons or that one of these old farts would die and the case would deadlock.
But labor’s crisis predated Friedrichs and will live on after it. The “Right to Work” agenda, and the gutting of public sector collective bargaining laws, will continue to be pressed at the state level. And if the general financial commitment and philosophical approach to new union organizing remains the same, union density will surely continue to decline.
Fortunately, until the Friedrichs case gets re-argued or stalemates in a 4-4 decision, labor remains a bit like Schrödinger’s cat: simultaneously getting murdered by the judiciary and in the midst of a possible resurrection. So there’s still time to harness the sense of crisis into a renewed commitment to radical workplace democracy and activism. And the “rainy day” savings that many unions made in anticipation of an adverse decision can now be used as a “Scalia Dividend” to be invested in new campaigns.
A pragmatic approach to Armageddon
Faced with a potential revenue loss of millions of dollars, international unions focused pragmatically (and conservatively) on cajoling their locals to sign up agency fee payers to full union membership. But that was merely a matter of mechanics—a pragmatic approach to the coming Armageddon. Where workers are exclusively represented by a union and already compelled to pay fees for the benefit of that representation, those that haven’t joined typically haven’t been asked. It is a problem that too many unions don’t make a face-to-face contact to new employees and ask them to join, but it’s hardly labor’s biggest one.
The actual crisis in labor is rooted in a framework that has turned unions into agencies for workers, instead of organizations ofworkers.
The legal obligation of the duty of fair representation forces unions to focus on grievances and contract bargaining while the Taft-Hartley law and contractual no-strike agreements strongly discourage rank-and-file worker protest. Too many members then develop a “what have you done for me lately?” relationship with their union that is vulnerable to a “give yourself a raise” campaign that deep-pocketed right-wing outfits can launch following the loss of agency fee, encouraging union members to stop paying dues or agency fees and gain a bump in their paycheck.
That is the crisis that has been largely unaddressed, or at least unsolved, even while unions have spent two decades genuinely trying to meet the charge from the AFL-CIO to “organize at an unprecedented pace and scale.”
Not to mention, while union supporters were dancing on Justice Scalia’s grave, the West Virginia legislature just voted to become the 26th so-called “Right-to-Work” state. How long can agency fee survive in the other half of the states?
So the crisis still exists in that declining union density leads to declining union power. The billionaire class still wants to kill us, and we don’t make a compelling case about why workers should risk their jobs and relationships to fight with unions that look like ineffective special interests.
One of the under-told stories of the last two decades is how badly, and often how subtly, the organizing model conflicts with unions’ business as usual. In order to win, organizers introduce a radical and inclusive democracy into workplaces. We recruit often large and unwieldy organizing committees of workplace leaders through whom all major decisions about tactics, timing and demands must go for deliberation and approval.
And then we throw these newly radicalized workers into local unions where leadership all too often feel a political need to control bargaining and messaging themselves, going off into backrooms to meet with management and come back with a “win.” This is an unspoken conflict between international unions—who feel the need to “organize or die” more acutely—and locals who too often receive new bargaining units as an unwelcome disruption.
Many organizers wanted to use Friedrichs as an opportunity to work through this conflict. Instead, panicked about potential revenue loss, the leadership of the international unions talked too much about “agency fee conversion” (shop talk for convincing union-represented non-members to join and pay full dues) and a single Court case that is now moot. The organizers caught in the middle could find themselves locked out of further conversations about labor renewal and change with locals that now feel the crisis has passed. They need to broaden the sense of crisis and bring newfound resources to the table.
The “Scalia Dividend”: Labor’s second chance to get it right
Many unions that had Friedrichs’ sword of Damocles over their heads have quietly been squirreling money away, by under-funding or delaying funding new campaigns and not filling vacant staffing positions. Which means those unions now wake up to a “Scalia Dividend”—an unexpected windfall of newly available financial resources for new campaigns and initiatives.
Unions can and should commit resources to comprehensive campaigns for new bargaining units—the kind of campaigns that have quietly ceased in recent years. These organizing campaigns should have an eye towards enhancing density in union strongholds like auto manufacturing, education and retail, but also for big public campaigns that could potentially inspire more non-union workers to take action.
What could go further in inspiring non-union workers to contemplate their power is to build on the internal organizing that’s been going on in anticipation of Friedrichs with contract campaigns. Meaningful member engagement—the kind that can withstand the loss of agency fee—comes from stoking workers’ desires for better pay and working conditions (even their less “reasonable” demands) and extracting sweat equity from them in the form of escalating actions. These campaigns should culminate in a plan to demonstrate, as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has said that, “Our ability to withhold our labor is our power.”
We also need a new attempt at labor law reform. The fact that a workers rights bill has less of a chance passing Congress than Obama’s Supreme Court nominee shouldn’t make us say “Why bother?” Instead, it should inspire us to propose big, bold and meaningful reforms. Restoring solidarity rights, rooting unions’ collective actions in the First Amendment, outlawing “Right to Work,” banning permanent replacement of strikers—put it all on the table.
God forbid we do manage to spark the kind of mass strike wave that panics the billionaire class into throwing workers a few bones. What would we win for our effort? Card check? The AFL-CIO should convene an open call for legal reform proposals and put a new “Right To Your Job” bill on the record and on the lips of our members and allies.
The erstwhile House of Labor should also convene a wide-ranging strategic retreat for local leaders, rank-and-filers, staff, academics and activists that treats no idea as unwelcome or unthinkable. The recent petition filed by 106 leading labor scholarsin response to a question on union access to mandatory captive audience meetings left open by the NLRB (and promptly forgotten by union organizers) for 50 years highlights how badly labor needs more and different perspectives brought into the conversation. The poor souls who have spent the last few months poring over organizing databases, wall charts and lit pieces in anticipation of the Friedrichs decision need some fresh air and some new people to talk to.
Unions are no longer facing a multi-million dollar hit in June. We can give the bunker mentality a break, but we can’t pretend that we’re in the clear. There aren’t a lot of second chances in life. Labor must not squander this one.
This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on February 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.
Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2016
Chicago schools and teachers are once again under serious attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and once again, the Chicago Teachers Union is showing that it is a powerful force. Thousands of teachers and supporters rallied Thursday, with 16 people arrested, protesting massive proposed cuts and layoffs:
Officials with Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday they’re ready to cut $100 million from school budgets and force teachers to pay more pension costs after their union rejected the latest contract offer, ratcheting up the tone of contentious negotiations that have lasted over a year. […]
The latest flare-up followed an offer a CTU bargaining team rejected Monday, after both sides had deemed it “serious.” The proposal included pay raises and job security, but union officials said it didn’t address school conditions or a lack of services.
The teachers have authorized a strike, though that wouldn’t happen until spring if it happens at all.
? Weeks after the West Virginia Senate passed an anti-union bill, the state House followed suit. A PPP poll conducted for the state AFL-CIO found high support for unions and opposition to laws weakening them.
? A union has filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to represent New York Uber drivers.
? Speaking of which, New York Uber drivers are pissed, with good reason.
A crowd of 600 drivers gathered outside the Uber office in Long Island City, Queens, to protest a 15 percent reduction in fares last month, which also means 15 percent lower wages. That pay cut is on top of Uber’s 20 percent slashing of fares in 2014. All things being equal, drivers who began less than two years ago have seen their pay tumble a whopping 35 percent.
Actually, it’s not just New York.
Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.
The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them.
? Indiana repealed prevailing wage protections to let them lower wages on public construction projects … and costs have gone up since then.
? Not your typical Alabama labor story:
The state’s largest employer – the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine – plans to raise employees’ minimum wage to $11 an hour beginning in March.
UAB employs more than 23,000 faculty and staff. The institution currently pays $8.24 an hour, about a dollar higher than the federally mandated minimum wage.
? For union members: seven steps to opening up bargaining.
Tuesday, January 12th, 2016
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.
Moshe Z. Marvit is an attorney and fellow with The Century Foundation and the co-author (with Richard Kahlenberg) of the book Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right.
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
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.
Wednesday, October 21st, 2015
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.
In communities such as Nashville, Tennessee and Jefferson County, Colorado, parents, not teachers unions, are leading the opposition to the takeover of public schools by self-proclaimed reformers.
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.”
Investigative reports conducted by this author for the Alternet news outlet have found Bush’s expansions of charter schools have done little to advance the academic and life achievements of low-income kids and have instead opened up the state’s education system to widespread corruption and fomented chaos in communities.
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.
This blog originally appeared in Salon on October 19, 2015 and Ourfuture.org on October 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
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.
Monday, July 6th, 2015
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.
This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.
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.
Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
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@example.com .
Monday, May 12th, 2014
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 Language Achievement Test. 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.”
Fariña and the man who appointed her, new mayor Bill de Blasio, have both expressed reservations about high-stakes testing. De Blasio told this reporter before his election that “We should use the standardized tests to the most minimal level possible.” Yet as with his attempt to push back on charter schools, he runs into the issue of the state requirements, and Governor Cuomo has shown himself to be firmly on the side of the predatory reform crowd.
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.
This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on May 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission.
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.