In defense of our school

March 12, 2010

The firing of every teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island became a symbol of the attack on teachers' unions and public education across the U.S. when President Barack Obama endorsed the move by state education officials. But members of the teachers union and their supporters have been fighting back, and the public campaign has forced officials to sit down for negotiations.

JoAnn Boss, a foreign language teacher at Central Falls High School, talked to Brian Chidester about the context of the attack on teachers and public education at CFHS.

WHAT WAS the response of students and teachers at CFHS to the election of Obama?

THE KIDS loved the idea of Obama. He looks like most of them. I mean, who wouldn't want that "Yes we can"? It's an old Spanish phrase: "Sí se puede." They love that, they love Obama. They were really into him.

Of course, on the staff, you have Republicans, Democrats, whatever--so the staff was pretty divided politically on who they wanted. But the kids were pretty sure it was Obama, all the way.

HOW DID that change when President Obama came out in favor of the firing of the teachers?

THE KIDS were very upset. They talked about it with their way of dealing with things with sarcasm: "Our boy dissed us in the press." "Obama doesn't know what he's talking about." "Obama needs to come to CF." "When's Obama coming to CF?" "I know Obama made a mistake, but I still love Obama." "I'm not giving up on Obama yet."

But all of them were disappointed. All of them felt like, "Whoa, what are you doing?"

AT THE national level, we saw the arrival of Education Secretary Arne Duncan as part of the Obama administration. At the state level, we had a new commissioner, Deb Gist, who came in last spring from a position in the Washington, D.C., schools. What is your opinion of this new wave of educational leaders?

Hundreds of supporters rally in defense of the fired Central Falls High School teachers
Hundreds of supporters rally in defense of the fired Central Falls High School teachers (Eric Rehder | SW)

I THINK they have an agenda--it's union-bashing. I think their agenda is to privatize. They're coming in and instead of saying, "Let's work with you," but they're trying to put programs on top of us. They never ask us what knowledge we have. They never consider our successes.

If we give them our successes, they downplay them; if we criticize them, we're whiny. So they always have a response that fits their agenda.

They've been throwing out ideas of charter schools within a school that's unionized. They took out the departments and made academies. Now, instead of having an ESL team or academy, they're putting in a charter school just for that population. So if they can't break the union one way, they want to push outside nonunion workers in. It's a different thing. We've never had that before.

Are we ready to deal with it? I don't know. I think we definitely have to get ready, because it's going to be a reality.

WHAT DO you think of the response of the unions, and what would you like to see from the union leadership?

I'D LIKE to see them immediately address even the minor issues at a bigger level, because they're being played up by the management. Turning a negotiation about six points into a firing mechanism is kind of extreme.

So if they're going to go extreme, we have to go extreme. In order to be ready to do that, you have to have the mechanism in place with the PR people to deal with the issues as they come up.

It took a little bit to get organized. In Central Falls, there was a union, but the strategies that management had took us by surprise.

But we shouldn't be surprised. We have strong unions. We should be ahead. We need to strategize ahead, instead of being reactive. I think I'm seeing that now, but I would have liked to see it at the beginning. I would like to see a more proactive union immediately involved when a district is being attacked from management--whether it's East Providence or Central Falls or Warwick or anywhere.

WHAT ARE the next steps in the struggle to defend teachers in Central Falls?

WE WOULD like to go back to negotiating. We love Central Falls, and we want to work with whatever we have to do get those kids to where they need to be.

But we need more truth. We need to follow processes and laws--and we need to call people out when they're telling lies. The union needs to be less afraid of public opinion when going forward, because the law is on their side--and they need to do what's right for the union and for the kids.

If people lie in public and falsify the facts, we need to respond to it immediately. You can't allow a factoid out there that's false, because then it becomes reality in people's minds. If you repeat it enough, then people start to believe it. And it's not true--and [the union] needs to get out there right away.

When somebody puts out a false statement, it immediately has to be challenged. If they're going to use the national media, if they're going to use the president, then you have to play the game on the same level. I know there's strategizing going on, and I'd like to see more.

Central Falls has obviously been the starting point for the national press play. This attack on unions can spread like a virus if we don't get rid of it right away. So I'd like to see cohesive action even when the most minimal thing is happening in a union.

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