Answering the attack on teachers

It's open season on the teachers' unions--and President Barack Obama has joined the hunt.

"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," Obama said in praise of the recent decision to fire all teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

But while Obama's open endorsement of an effort to bust a teachers' union may seem shocking, his administration has been hammering teachers since he took office. Obama's $4.3 billion Race to the Top (RTTP) initiative doles out grants to states that have laws attacking teacher seniority rights and that tie teachers' pay to student test scores.

With the recession drying up normal funding channels for schools, states are rushing to pass union-bashing laws to get a shot at the federal money--even as they impose layoffs and cutbacks to close huge budget deficits.

The two big teachers' unions--the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA)--have so far failed to mount resistance to these attacks. But in teachers' union locals across the U.S., rank-and-file activists and union reformers have been trying to organize a fightback. In California, grassroots pressure led both the California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers Association to back the March 4 Day of Action to defend public education in that state.

Here, teachers across the U.S. talk about the battles they face and their efforts to resist the onslaught on their unions. Participants in the roundtable are Megan Behrent and Brian Jones from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City; Laura Taylor from the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT); Gillian Russom of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA); Adrienne Johnstone of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF); and Nate Goldbaum from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

An elementary school teacher leads a guided reading lesson (Judy Baxter)

HOW HAS the local union responded to recent school closure announcements? What's the response of the rank and file?

Brian: In New York, the UFT leadership has certainly turned up the rhetoric. They're talking about suing the city for legal violations in the process of closing schools.

My coworkers and I are glad for this shift, but worry that the union isn't preparing for a bigger confrontation. At my school, we're holding weekly community meetings with parents and teachers together. We're trying to organize against the Department of Education's plan to put a competing charter school in our building.

In these meetings, people have raised--more than once--the question: Why isn't the union bringing us all together for a citywide demonstration? There's a feeling that they're just leaving us to fight school by school.

Our current union president, Michael Mulgrew, was appointed mid-term by the former UFT president, Randi Weingarten, and that appointment was ratified by the union board. So this spring will be his first attempt to actually get elected into the office. A cynic might say he's trying to do just enough to look like a fighter, without fighting all out.

At the same time, the union's fighting stance has opened up important opportunities for teacher activists. The Grassroots Education Movement (GEM)--an activist group composed mostly of UFT teachers--was pleasantly surprised to see a photo of its banner ("Fix Public Schools/Don't Privatize!") on the front page of our union newspaper. At the school level, district reps and chapter leaders who normally try to shut down oppositional activity are in the mood to collaborate.

Fortunately, top union officials understand that they are fighting for the union's very existence. Unfortunately, they still hold fast to the idea that being perceived as "responsible" co-managers of the city will save them.

Laura: No big school closures have been announced in Houston, and there's no decrease in supplies or staffing yet. The biggest attack right now is a new teacher evaluation/termination plan called ASPIRE.

It's the first time I've seen the union really inform its members and call on them to do something. I was really surprised by the response from teachers; judging from that and conversations with my coworkers, teachers are terrified about keeping the jobs.

In particular, Superintendant Terry Grier seems to be going after 3rd- and 4th-year teachers who aren't on long-term contracts yet. Instead of having principals make a case for why someone shouldn't be put on a long-term contract, he's reversing the process, making principals justify putting teachers on that contract.

There's a big concern about the fairness of the evaluation system, as well. The ASPIRE scores--which can be used for termination--are based on growth, not an absolute number. So you have teachers with classes ranking in the 90th percentile on a test, but because of the ASPIRE calculations are based on a growth calculation, they are considered ineffective. And of course, ASPIRE doesn't take into account factors like percentage of special education students, English language learners, etc.

From what I can tell, the union doesn't seem to be working to get parents or the community on their side. This move is pushing more teachers into the union, though. Several of my coworkers have finally signed up since this plan was announced, and my union rep at the meeting said they ran out of signup packets at the recent school board meeting.

Nate: The Chicago Board of Education recently voted unanimously to close two schools, "turn around" five more and phase out another. However, they deferred whether to award turnaround contract to the school management company AUSL, which has poor teacher retention record.

We've been facing school closings since 2003. The union did nothing until last year, when our rank-and-file group, the Caucus of Rank-and-Rile Educators, (CORE), organized an education summit and two demonstrations of over 500 people each. CORE actually invited the union to join the grassroots education movement coalition that we formed with parent, youth and community groups. They did join officially, but lent little actual muscle to the effort.

This year, with an election coming up in May, the union called one demonstration against school closings that drew about 200 people--most of whom were connected to CORE.

Until last year, much of the CTU rank and file was resigned to these attacks. Public hearings were like funerals. However, after six schools were saved last year, there's been a much stronger showing among parents, students and teachers at the official public hearings. The rank and file have begun to notice the power of mobilization.

Gillian: In Los Angeles, the issue isn't so much school closures, but the school board's "public school choice" proposal to put control of 12 existing schools and 18 brand new ones up for bids by outside groups. In addition, the board voted to "reconstitute" Fremont High, which involves firing most of its teachers.

At first, UTLA failed to perceive how big a threat the school board's motion would be. The union eventually launched a legal challenge to the motion and put a lot of resources into helping local school teams develop their own plans for the school choice bids to compete with the outside organizations. There was also some debate about whether we should avoid being "negative" about charter schools and only focus on the positive side of our own school plans.

We had two sets of demonstrations--800 people on December 8 and 3,000 people at five sites on February 9--that tried to challenge both the cuts and the privatization. When the board voted on the school choice plan February 23, teacher-written reform plans gave teachers control of 22 of the 30 schools.

Still, the union is generally overwhelmed by the number of attacks on us, and it feels like we're moving from crisis to crisis. Pressure from our reform caucus, Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), has finally gotten UTLA to establish a strategy committee that can think more long term.

DOES YOUR union have any political/community allies against the push for charter schools?

Brian: To me, this is the heart of the whole matter. In 1968, our union (which was mostly white at the time) went on strike against a section of the Black community that wanted control over the schools. Then, when the fiscal crisis hit in the 1970s, budget cuts hit both sides, and neither was able to unite to stop them. Parents lost essential services (or saw them degraded), and teachers lost jobs. A classic case of divide and conquer.

You can't keep people passive and afraid for decades, and then suddenly expect them to leap into action like flipping a light switch. If our union had been active in the fight to stop gentrification, active on police brutality and active on a host of other issues in the community, then it would have been a no-brainer for the community to leap to the union's side.

Furthermore, we have to drop any hint of defensiveness about the quality of the schools. The schools are highly uneven, and there's plenty of room to improve all of them. Teachers and parents should be able to speak with the same voice on this issue--and should have been fighting together on these issues. But that hasn't always been the case.

Now, here come the charter schools to play up the division. They consciously stoke parent distrust of unionized teachers. Their arguments should fall on deaf ears, but sadly, they don't. So the attempt to create teacher-parent unity has raised all of these questions.

Megan: Whenever the UFT has reached out to groups to create coalitions on issues, they completely dominate them.

In one of the last coalition attempts, the UFT agreed to a deal that sold out some of these groups. It appears there are more attempts now to mobilize--at least at the school level--with community and parent groups. But, again, the UFT is slow to turn around decades of inaction.

Gillian: The LA public school choice motion forced members at every school to have discussions about privatization and charters. For the most part, teachers at the affected schools rose to the challenge and created their own school reform plans and did tons of outreach to parents--community forums, neighborhood walks, phone-banking.

This has given some members a glimpse of what it would mean for teachers to lead a broader movement for public education. In an advisory vote, 87 percent of parents gave support to teacher plans to take over the schools.

The LA County Federation of Labor put some money and hours into helping with outreach. The organization formerly known as ACORN worked with us. A few other local organizations helped as well. But for the most part, organizing for the advisory votes forced the union to do its own grassroots outreach to parents and community members.

At the same time, there's still a great deal of pessimism and frustration with the union for not having a better-organized and more militant strategy. There is a real danger of fragmentation.

WHAT HAS the impact of budget cuts been like so far at the classroom and work site level?

Adrienne: In San Francisco, we've had 10 straight years of cuts, so art, music and PE are rare exceptions, not the rule, at all elementary schools. Hell, even social studies and science aren't taught in many schools because of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) math/reading focus. JROTC takes the place of PE at many high schools because they have the budget for equipment, supplies and field trips.

Classroom aides, or what we call paraprofessionals, have been all but eliminated, except from special education. Last year at our site, we had to choose between janitorial staff and paper.

Nate: The Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman has suggested he would prematurely reopen our contract, and there are threats of a budget crisis, which the board hopes to resolve with as-yet-unspecified pay cuts, furlough days and attacks on our pension.

It should be noted that Huberman has complained about the high cost of meeting looming pension commitments, even though the Chicago Public Schools system was allowed for 10 years to pay none of the required money into our pension fund.

Gillian: Some 2,300 layoffs in LA schools went into effect in July 2009. As a result, many of teachers are working as substitutes in their own classrooms--effectively taking a pay cut for doing the same work.

Brian: We've had at least four budget cuts since September, by my count. In order to save classroom teachers, the principal at my school has cut the hours of school aides. Wealthy parents can easily raise money to hire people to help out around the school, but in my school, you see the same people helping out every day--only to find out that they're volunteers.

Right now, my school has four arts programs--art, music, dance and drama. (Full disclosure: I'm teaching drama!) Unfortunately, it's quite rare for an elementary school--especially an elementary school in Harlem--to offer that kind of range. If the budget cuts continue, I wouldn't be surprised if we lose one or more of those programs.

Meanwhile, our parents are receiving slick, full-color, glossy brochures in the mail from charter schools. Some parents will tell you they receive five or six brochures from the same charter school.

We're trying to hold onto our budget for basics like arts and after-school programs, and no hedge fund managers are riding to the rescue, so we won't be retaining the services of any advertising agencies any time soon. So they're cutting public school budgets, then calling us on the carpet for failure, and then replacing us with hyper-funded charter schools. The whole thing feels like a setup.

Megan: In terms of budget cuts, the firing of school aides was major. Also, around the city, people have been forced to cut back on all non-essential services, so, there's major rationing of paper, copies and other supplies. Citywide, class size has gone up despite the fact that a court decision a few years ago required the city to spend additional money from that case to lower class sizes.

And with each round of cuts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson use us as pawns. For example, Bloomberg's latest threat is to lay off teachers if they don't take a lower pay increase than the amount that was already set aside for them and all city workers.

HOW HAVE rank-and-file and reform groups in the unions responded to these challenges?

Gillian: In LA, PEAC developed a detailed strategy proposal for the union with short, medium and long-term goals at the local, state and federal levels. PEAC members on the Board of Directors--UTLA's executive board--have been pushing aspects of this strategy.

PEAC as a caucus has been less visible over the last several months because its members have been caught up in leading the fights against takeovers in their own localities. But now, we're re-organizing to recruit more people to the caucus.

Adrienne: Our caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union, which contested union elections in San Francisco last year, has been preparing for the budget crisis for a year. We knew that last year's rainy day fund was nothing but staving off the inevitable. We know that the state has starved the school districts, but we refuse to concede the $113 million in cuts that the superintendent wants to make.

The superintendents and the schools boards need to come over to our side and fight with us for more funding from the state. We don't accept the threat of state takeover as a justification for conceding to wage freezes, increased class sizes, layoffs and furlough days.

While our union leadership won't take up these arguments, EDU members have found support for a "No Cuts, No Layoffs" position at the sites where we organize and work every day. If our union leadership isn't going to take the lead on organizing its own members, we will.

Brian: The two main opposition caucuses in the UFT are the Independent Community of Educators (ICE) and Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC). They've formed a joint slate to run in the union elections, which will be held this spring. I'm running for a low-level position on the slate.

As long as I've been a teacher, ICE-TJC candidates have been arguing that we need a different kind of unionism--more bottom-up than top-down. There's always a tendency for people to think of the union basically as a legal unit--you're voting for who's going to represent you in contract negotiations or if relations go south with your immediate supervisors.

But now it's starting to make sense to people that we need a more militant union leadership, and that we need a leadership that isn't afraid to mobilize the membership.

Megan: Supporters of the ICE-TJC slate are at the forefront of these struggles. Our presidential candidate and at least two other officers are in schools that were just slated for "phase out." I'm running for assistant secretary--and my school is on the new state list for closure or restructuring.

The main election leaflet we've been using so far is a leaflet about fighting school closures, which also advertises March 4 as the next step in the fight against school closings.

In many ways, the current state of things makes these elections more relevant than ever. And while the ruling Unity caucus' size, breadth and top-down control will keep it in power, the union president, Mulgrew, doesn't look great as a candidate. Since taking office he's overseen the expiration of our contract, now at impasse; the use of test data for tenure decisions; and 19 school closings and more on the way.

For all the talking tough, he's essentially done nothing. So there's a chance that we could make some real gains if anger leads to voting rather than demoralization.

Nate: CORE has made active, militant opposition to the school closings the basis for building our group. The contrast between the fighting work of CORE and the reigning United Progressive Caucus presents the membership with a serious, forward-looking alternative in our May elections.