Getting the ax at Central Falls

March 8, 2010

Brian Chidester, a member of the Bristol-Warren Education Association, looks at the background to the latest in a series of Washington-driven attacks on teachers' unions.

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.--population 19,000, living in just over a one-square-mile area--has become the latest battleground in the war on teachers and public education in the U.S.

The smallest municipality in the smallest state made national headlines when Superintendent Fran Gallo announced the firing of all 74 teachers plus 19 other support staff and administrators from Central Falls High School (CFHS) last month.

Members of the Central Falls Teachers Union (CFTU) and their supporters--prominent among them, parents and students--responded with a protest that drew hundreds of people February 23. The rally saw broad solidarity from many other teachers' union locals, notably the East Providence and Cranston teachers, whose unions have been attacked as budget crises exploded in the past year.

Unfortunately, the rally didn't dissuade Gallo--or the Central Falls School District Board of Trustees, which voted 5-2 later that night to uphold the decision to fire the teachers. In an emotional meeting, teachers sat in the audience wearing red, and stood up as their names were called one by one to approve their firing.

Nearly 100 teachers and support staff were fired from Central Falls High School
Nearly 100 teachers and support staff were fired from Central Falls High School (Paul Hubbard | SW)

This action, known as "school turnaround," allows teachers to reapply for their jobs--but no more than 50 percent of them, and quite possibly less, will be rehired for the next school year.

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan have zealously supported Gallo's extreme action. Duncan said, "I applaud Commissioner Gist and Superintendent Gallo for showing courage and doing the right thing for kids."

Even President Obama joined the attack on teachers, saying, "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." He then compared the "failure" of Central Falls, whose graduation rate has hovered around 50 percent, to the "success" of the Met School, a publicly funded charter school in Providence with comparable demographic statistics, but a graduation rate of 75 percent.

Obama conveniently forgot to mention that the Met's test scores are actually lower than those of Central Falls on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests.

As Diane Ravitch--formerly a conservative education "reformer," but now an opponent of charter schools and education reform as it has been implemented under George W. Bush, and now Obama--wrote, "To this distant observer, it appears that the school with lower graduation standards rates higher in President Obama's eyes."

Indeed, the attack on the Central Falls Teachers Union has to be seen as part of the Obama agenda of weakening teachers' unions.

Gist, the Rhode Island state school superintendent, formerly worked with Washington, D.C., Chancellor of Education Michelle Rhee, who last fall laid off hundreds of high-seniority teachers in violation of a union contract. Now, Gist has given Gallo the green light to carry out a similar union-busting effort in Rhode Island.

Gallo has accepted a call to negotiate with the Central Falls Teachers Union. But there's no indication that she's willing to back down.

The mass firing marks an intensification of the attack on teachers and unions. And it highlights the disparity between urban, poor, largely minority schools and their affluent white suburban counterparts. School reform cheerleaders like Obama call the situation a "crisis" without explaining where the disparity comes from--and then place the blame for the "crisis" on the shoulders of teachers.

CENTRAL FALLS is an old mill town that was incorporated as a town in 1895 to separate it from wealthier areas surrounding it. The 2000 census measured per capita and median family incomes in Central Falls at $10,825 and $26,844--between $3,000 and $5,000 lower than then next poorest municipality in Rhode Island.

More than 75 percent of Central Falls students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Seventy percent of the students are Latino, with 22 percent receiving English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction, according to state education data for the 2007-2008 school year.

The district receives no local funding, because it's too small and too poor for property taxes to amount to anything. As a result, it gets 88 percent of its funding from the state of Rhode Island, and the rest from the federal government.

Central Falls High School students graduate at a rate of just over 50 percent on average, with a dropout rate of almost 30 percent--meaning that another 20 percent of students takes more than four years to graduate or gets a GED. CFHS test scores on the NECAP exam show just over 50 percent of students achieving proficiency in reading, but just 7 percent proficient in math.

On the basis of these statistics, CFHS was labeled one of the six worst schools in Rhode Island. This opened the door to the major "reform" effort--the "turnaround"--that Commissioner Gist and Superintendent Gallo are now imposing on the school.

Gallo justified the mass firing on the basis that the Central Falls Teachers Union had supposedly refused to cooperate with another reform model known as "transformation."

Under this proposal, teachers would have been forced to accept a six-point plan which would have extended the school day by 25 minutes; forced teachers to provide tutoring to students for one hour before and one hour after the school day each day; eat lunch with students one day a week "to build stronger relationships"; participate in two weeks of professional development over the summer; stay after school for common planning one day each week for 90 minutes; and undergo more rigorous evaluations by an outside, third-party evaluator. In return, teachers would only receive compensation for the professional development and the common planning--and only then if the district could find the grant money to fund them.

The "transformation" plan placed all of the burden on teachers and would have forced them to perform significantly more labor for free. This is despite the fact that all CFHS teachers have been evaluated in the last two years, and not one received a bad evaluation.

The reform cheerleaders also ignore the fact that Central Falls schools have tremendous administrative turnover, particularly in the last five years: there have been three different administrations at CFHS alone, not to mention numerous reshufflings at lower grade levels. According to one Central Falls teacher, another school in the district has seen 18 different administrations in the last five years.

Even so, the teachers' union accepted the transformation model--but insisted that changes to teachers' working conditions in the plan be negotiated.

The fact that the CFTU rejected the notion that the standing contract could be violated unilaterally by the administration meant, according to Gallo, that the teachers could not be "reliable partners" in the transformation of the school. Thus, according to her logic, the "transformation" was impossible, and the "turnaround" model was the only alternative.

THE BACKGROUND to the attack on Central Falls teachers is the intensification of the assault on public education since President Barack Obama took office--an attack that surprised many teachers who thought the end of the Bush era meant the end of the test-obsessed regime imposed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The reality has been quite different.

Obama and Education Secretary Duncan have been strong supporters of neoliberal education "reforms" such as increased funding for and implementation of charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and continued reliance on high-stakes tests as the measure to determine which schools should be "reformed," "reconstituted," etc.

This agenda has been codified in the "Race to the Top" (RTTT) initiative, in which 12 states will be selected to receive money from the largest federal education grant in decades. The program has prompted a competition among states, which are now jockeying for position as the biggest "reformers."

In a sleight of hand, the Obama administration sought support from teachers' unions and their leaders for this massive attack. Unfortunately, the national leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association largely went along.

Rhode Island has been shocked into the new era of education deform by the arrival last year of the new state education commission Gist.

The previous commissioner, Peter McWalters, was a liberal by comparison. He spent his long tenure avoiding the worst aspects of the Bush program--opting for a "proficiency-based" high school diploma over high-stakes tests. For this, he often butted heads with Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, a nasty conservative and staunch Bush supporter who has been pushing the testing model for some years now. Carcieri appointed Gist to replace the retiring McWalters, and the attacks have been steady ever since.

Even before the announcement of RTTT, Gist came out with a new attack on teachers all the time. She wanted to end seniority in teacher placements, increase funding for charters while decreasing education funding overall, have all teachers in the state evaluated on a yearly basis, and tie teacher certification (not simply salary) to increases in student test scores.

Race to the Top gave her the opportunity to bundle all her proposed reforms into the Rhode Island application--and even demand that the teachers' unions approve the application.

However, union leaders were only given parts of the state's RTTT application to read before its submission. They weren't allowed to leave the Department of Education premises with any copies of the document and were given no chance to give input on the application.

When union leaders denounced the application publicly--which, it was presumed, would destroy the viability of the application--they were blamed for "depriving Rhode Island of badly needed education dollars." This, despite the fact that the Carcieri administration has failed to spend most of the stimulus money Rhode Island has received for education.

Gist's assault on the unions took on new momentum in January with the announcement by the Duncan Education Department of the "School Improvement Grants (SIG) Under Section 1003(g) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965." The SIGs are a supplement to RTTT that take advantage of the No Child Left Behind provisions that allow for schools to be radically and devastatingly "reformed" if they don't make adequate progress in student achievement.

Under the new program, any high school with a graduation rate below 60 percent may be eligible for a SIG--but it must be willing to implement one of four reform models. These models are the turnaround, where all the staff is fired and has to reapply for positions; the restart, where the school is effectively taken over by an outside management organization, such as a charter school operator; the school closure model, where students are shipped to other schools; or the transformation model, where schools must implement far-reaching reforms to the school day and school programs.

With these new weapons provided by the federal government, Gist has gone on a major offensive in Rhode Island, giving a green light to school committees and administrations to attack their teachers all-out. At the February 23 rally, teachers from all over the state shared stories of how their own emboldened administrations have gone after them as part of the attempt to implement elements of the Gist program in each district.

Thus far, the leadership of the CFTU and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers (RIFT) have claimed that the actions of Gist and Gallo in Central Falls are illegal because they violate state and federal laws guaranteeing the integrity of collective bargaining and contractual agreements.

While this may be true, it's also clear that their actions are perfectly acceptable--even encouraged--under the new federal education programs.

In this conflict between the right of teachers to collective bargaining versus the right of administrations to implement education "reform," the teachers' prospects are not bright. The teachers' unions find themselves in a position similar to that of the United Auto Workers, which was pressured by the Obama administration to agree to massive concessions as part of the federal government's bailout of General Motors.

IT ISN'T hard to understand why Rhode Island teachers are being singled out. Teachers here are among the best paid in the country, largely due to the residual strength of unions in the state, and of the teachers' unions in particular.

But the tide has been turning for some time. In the case of teachers' unions, a bad precedent was set last January by the 5 percent pay cut unilaterally imposed on East Providence teachers.

Now the state budget crisis is worsening, with Carcieri announcing a massive cut in state aid to cities and towns for the current fiscal year--and more cuts certain for the coming year. He clarified the purpose of the cuts the day after he announced them in December: All school districts should cut teacher pay by at least 3 percent this year, he said.

The budget cuts and intensification of reform efforts have created a perfect storm of attacks on teachers. Thus far, the leaderships of the RIFT and the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) have denounced the attacks unambiguously, but have not really mobilized the membership in their own defense.

Almost all the locals refused to endorse Gist's RTTT application--but the Providence Teachers' Union (PTU) inexplicably broke ranks on this. Even more ominously, the PTU presence at the Central Falls rally was weak--a bad sign for teachers in a district that contains the other five of the six "failing schools" in Rhode Island.

Most frustrating of all for rank-and-file activists, state unions have thus far refused to call a united rally against the cuts and the "reforms." Instead, they claim, we need to lobby friendly politicians in the General Assembly and focus on working through the collective bargaining process.

The problem is that collective bargaining on the local level is clearly insufficient in the context of the current crisis. The attack in Central Falls provides the clear proof of this.

While teachers are embattled, with many facing district reorganizations and budget deficits and cuts, the paralyzing fear that engulfed us last year in the wake of the stock market crash is starting to dissipate. The fightback in Central Falls is a good sign--and the February 23 rally was the largest labor rally in Rhode Island in years. Teacher unions and labor activists need to build on this struggle to generalize resistance to these attacks.

The California-based March 4 Day of Action to defend public education passed with relatively little notice in Rhode Island. Now we need to learn the lessons of California and take a lead from the other coast to wage real fightback in the Ocean State.

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