Teachers in the crosshairs

Lee Sustar looks at the issues raised by Baltimore teachers' rejection of contract concessions in the face of a new nationwide blitz by school "reformers."

A teacher prepares for the school day in Texas (Patsy Lynch)

AMERICAN FEDERATION of Teachers (AFT) leaders are pressuring Baltimore teachers to vote until they get it right--that is, accept a proposed contract that would abandon traditional job protections in the name of "school reform."

A second vote on the deal will come this week, but whatever the outcome, the Baltimore teachers' initial rejection of an agreement that had the approval of top AFT officials has highlighted a growing unease in the ranks over union leaders' collaboration with anti-teacher "school reform" proposals across the U.S.

AFT President Randi Weingarten hailed the tentative agreement with the Baltimore City Public Schools in a press release. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also mentioned the Baltimore deal as among the "progressive" examples of labor-management collaboration that is to be the subject of a conference he's organizing next year with the AFT and National Education Association (NEA).

Rank-and-file Baltimore teachers had a different idea, however. A solid majority of the 2,000-plus members of the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) who cast ballots--some 58 percent--voted October 14 to reject the national AFT leaders' latest attempt to sell a contract aimed at enticing teachers into abandoning tenure-based job security in exchange for a chance to become one of a select few whose pay could reach $100,000 a year.

Under the proposed deal, the 6,500 members of the BTU would also lose their traditional pay increases--raises that are tied to "steps" based on seniority and "lanes" tied to educational achievement. Plus, the agreement would make it far easier to dismiss teachers based on an evaluation system that hasn't even been negotiated yet.

When BTU members voted down that deal, union leaders responded by claiming that members simply "didn't understand" the contract--and then stepped up the pressure to ratify the deal at a second vote scheduled for October 28.

In fact, Baltimore teachers understood the dangers of the deal all too well. The contract would have to adhere to a new Maryland state legislation requiring that 50 percent of teacher evaluations be tied to test scores. But the driving force is the U.S. Department of Education, which rewarded Maryland's teacher-bashing law with a $250 million grant. That money is part of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, in which the Obama administration doles out money to financially strapped states that competed for the money by passing laws that impose merit pay, weaken teacher tenure and promote charter schools.

However, Baltimore school officials have yet to devise an evaluation program to conform to Maryland's new law--and the tentative agreement between the BTU and school officials left the details to be decided by a committee of union leaders and school officials.

That uncertainty over job security was too much for Baltimore teachers. But that wasn't the only cause for concern, as Baltimore teacher Bill Bleich explained in an op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun criticizing the proposed deal. He pointed out that under the district's budgetary projections, just 8 percent of Baltimore teachers would be eligible for top pay, inevitably pitting teachers against one another in a scramble to achieve the proposed deal's "model teacher" status:

The proposed contract gives principals tremendous power to choose which teachers advance and which get sidelined. Won't that lead, in many schools, to a situation where a principal's favorites are cultivated and rewarded, with little regard for effectiveness, while anyone who opposes the principal on any matter at all--even when doing so for the benefit of the students, like fighting for smaller class sizes--is largely excluded from advancement?

The proposed contract is effusive about increased "career acceleration," but in reality, major gains will be for a very small percentage of teachers.

What's more, the tentative agreement would make it much easier for principals to remove the BTU's building representatives. It would also allow 80 percent of teachers at individual schools to vote to opt out of key provisions of the contract--another means by which principals could undermine union power.

All this stuck in the craw of many veteran BTU members. "There's nothing in it for us," Joan Kelly, who's worked for the schools for 37 years, told the Baltimore Sun. "They want to get rid of all the old teachers, and we're very upset."

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THE SHOCK waves from the BTU's contract rejection were felt 40 miles away at the AFT headquarters in Washington, D.C.

That's because the Baltimore deal was modeled on agreements that Randi Weingarten had personally helped to negotiate in several cities, including New Haven, Conn.; Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla., in the Tampa area. The Baltimore defeat stung the AFT national leadership especially hard, since AFT Executive Vice President Loretta Johnson comes out of the BTU and personally worked to ensure passage of the agreement.

If Baltimore teachers ultimately accept the proposed deal, both education "reformers" and Weingarten will try to portray the no vote as merely a bump on the road toward a new type of labor-management partnership. In fact, the Baltimore vote shed light on the discontent across the AFT over the union's retreat in the face of corporate school reformers.

In Detroit, for example, an opposition slate swept the delegate elections for the AFT convention earlier this year following a controversy over voting procedures used to ratify a contract that cuts teachers pay in the form of a "loan" to the school system--teachers are to get the money back only when they leave their jobs.

At the same time, the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) was thrown into turmoil as Weingarten backed WTU President George Parker in his ultimately successful effort to pass a contract that bowed to the demands of the city's union-bashing school chief Michelle Rhee, by creating a clutch of highly paid teachers while undermining teachers' job security.

When Rhee proceeded to fire 241 teachers on the supposed basis of merit rather than tenure, a backlash swept through the WTU. As a result, Parker may well be ousted in an October 28 election by the union's vice president, Nathan Saunders, an outspoken opponent of making concessions to Rhee.

The biggest potential challenge to Weingarten's policy may come from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), where a militant slate from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators swept the conservative old guard out of office in a June vote. Since then, the CTU has refused to agree to cut wages in order to avoid layoffs, and won a lawsuit against the school district's arbitrary firings of teachers.

And as the Substance Web site reported about the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) convention, CTU delegates gained passage of a series of resolutions that have a decidedly different agenda than that of the AFT, including opposition to Arne Duncan's Race to the Top program, opposition to the proliferation of charter schools and a moratorium on school closings mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind program.

The CTU isn't formally challenging the AFT's direction. At the AFT convention in July, CTU President Karen Lewis joined the union's ruling Progressive Caucus and was elected to the union's executive board. But tensions over union policy that were on display at the convention, and are likely to resurface as the CTU seeks to challenge the corporate school reformers even as the AFT attempts to find common cause with them.

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THE CRITICISMS of Weingarten for surrendering to reformers may strike casual observers as absurd, given that the AFT president is routinely vilified by teachers-union-bashers--most recently in the film Waiting for "Superman".

Perhaps that's why the editors of the New York Times recently felt it necessary to issue a reality check with a prominent and sympathetic story on Weingarten headlined, "Despite Image, Union Leader Backs School Change." The message: Weingarten is willing to accommodate to the school reform agenda, and her political influence is far greater than that of her counterpart in the much larger NEA, led by the often invisible Dennis van Roekel.

Weingarten's formulation, promoted heavily at the AFT convention in July, is that the AFT must "lead and propose" on the question of school reform, rather than simply "wait and oppose." That is, Weingarten is trying to moderate the reformers' most aggressive demands by collaborating with them. "We have spent a lot of time in the last two years looking at ourselves in a mirror, trying to figure out what we've done right and what we've done wrong, and we're trying to reform," Weingarten told the Times.

But the terrible decline of U.S. unions over the last 30 years shows that union concessions only lead to more concessions.

The former bulwarks of the U.S. labor movement, the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers, are only shadows of what they were in the 1980s. That's the result of givebacks in pay and work rules that were supposedly conceded to save jobs. Instead, their memberships have been decimated, with declining overall numbers only mitigated by mergers with other unions and organizing outside of their traditional jurisdictions.

The AFT is trying to avoid the same fate by being more proactive--even when it means undercutting the NEA to back "reform" legislation, as was the case in Colorado earlier this year. But Weingarten doesn't hide from the concessionary contracts she's helped to negotiate. On the contrary, she has trumpeted her role in negotiating several local agreements:

-- New Haven: Hailed by Weingarten as a "model or template," the contract gives any tenured teacher who receives a negative evaluation by November 1 of any school year just 120 calendar days to improve before being terminated. The contract also makes it easier for administrators to close schools.

-- Pittsburgh: The deal allows veteran teachers to opt out of traditional step increases to get merit-based pay. New hires will be on the merit system at the outset. The money for training and bonuses comes from a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

-- Hillsborough County: The agreement between the union and the Tampa, Fla.-area school district allows teachers to choose merit-based pay system over step increases, but those teachers face pay cuts for poor evaluations. Seniority is retained for job placement but is abolished for compensation, and 40 percent of teacher evaluation depends on test scores. As many as 300 teachers will serve as mentors to earn an additional $5,000 per year, funded by a $100 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

Together, these contracts amount to a new form of pattern bargaining for teachers' unions that enshrines attacks on tenure, evaluation based on test scores and merit pay. That's why Arne Duncan cited these agreements as the focus of next year's conference with the Department of Education, the AFT and NEA. Duncan's aim--shared by Weingarten--is to isolate militants in the unions--including, for example, the leadership of the CTU.

Duncan, however, despite his periodic anti-union outbursts--he effusively praised Waiting for "Superman", for example--is actually playing the role of the school reformers' good cop. Four days before Duncan appeared alongside Weingarten and van Roekel to promote labor-management collaboration in Hillsborough County, the heads of a number of major school districts, including New York City's Joel Klein, Chicago's Ron Huberman and Washington, D.C.'s Michelle Rhee, published a "manifesto" titled "How to fix our schools."

The writers of this anti-union screed ignored the impact of the economic crisis on both school budgets and the lives of children. The problem, they declared, is that "teacher hiring and retention [are] determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials."

From these school bosses' point of view, budget cuts and austerity aren't obstacles to school reform, but a means to accelerate it. Thus, the Chicago Public Schools are trying to follow Rhee's example in Washington and lay off teachers according to their evaluations rather than job security, and New York City schools officials are itching to do likewise.

In Los Angeles, officials are even attempting to use the proposed settlement of a civil rights lawsuit to try force United Teachers Los Angeles to surrender tenure-based job protections in several schools with overwhelmingly Latino and Black school populations.

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LAYOFFS ASIDE, the next wave of attacks on teachers' unions will focus on the use of test scores as the means to evaluate teachers as school districts across the U.S. comply with new state legislation driven by the Race to the Top grant applications.

But while school officials from Arne Duncan to individual school principals assert that statistical "value-added models" can correlate student test scores with individual teacher effectiveness, careful studies have found no such result. As a research paper published in August by the Economic Policy Institute pointed out:

[T]here is broad agreement among statisticians, psychometricians and economists that student test scores alone are not sufficiently reliable and valid indicators of teacher effectiveness to be used in high-stakes personnel decisions, even when the most sophisticated statistical applications such as value-added modeling are employed.

AFT leaders know all this. However, they've bowed to the use of test scores in teacher evaluation in order to avoid a head-on confrontation with school reformers. Instead, Weingarten seeks local contracts that allow teachers to opt out of tenure protections in order to get higher salaries and/or merit pay. In return, they'll be subject to termination based on those evaluations--and given that test scores tend to fluctuate year to year, even the most seasoned and effective teachers will find their jobs on the line.

Weingarten's approach weakens the pillars of teacher unionism. The AFT broke with the NEA nearly a century ago precisely because that organization, then dominated by administrators, left teachers without an effective advocate. The renaissance of the AFT in the 1960s--which included several illegal strikes--was due largely to its leaders' demands for collective bargaining agreements that enshrined tenure-based job security.

That generation of AFT activists understood that tenure is the only defense against the arbitrary behavior and favoritism of administrators. For similar reasons, the teachers' unions have traditionally opposed merit pay, since it allows administrators to reward their friends while denying such gains to union activists deemed to be "troublemakers." The impact of the AFT's gains was enough to spur the NEA to shed its much old conservatism and push for collective bargaining as well.

Weingarten is reversing these historic positions to try to avoid risky confrontations with school reformers, from Barack Obama and Arne Duncan to local officials. But such battles are inevitable, given the school reformers' determination to break the back of teacher unionism.

Rather than protect teachers, Weingarten's policies are weakening both the AFT and the NEA as they face their greatest battles in half a century. Teachers who are determined to defend their unions' gains will have to press their leaders to take up that challenge, or see their organizations decisively weakened.