New showdown for teachers

June 30, 2011

Lee Sustar looks at the debates among teacher activists across the U.S. as the Chicago Teachers Union squares off with the new mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

CHICAGO TAKES center stage for teachers' struggles in July amid the annual convention of the National Education Association (NEA), a gathering of reform activists and the battle with Chicago's new mayor over cancellation of teachers' raises.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel added to the latest wave of attacks on teachers' unions when his handpicked school board, dominated by business executives and billionaires like Penny Pritzker, voted June 22 to cancel the scheduled 4 percent raise for members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The move--justified by a school budget deficit put at more than $700 million--could trigger early contract talks that could result in a strike.

"Our children got the shaft," Emanuel said of scheduled teachers' raise.

A week later, more than 1,000 CTU members and supporters answered Emanuel with an angry picket line that circled the block and culminated in a rally at the Chicago Board of Trade--a recipient of tax money diverted from schools, where Chicago School Board President David Vitale was once the boss.

Members and supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union picket the Board of Education's downtown headquarters
Members and supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union picket the Board of Education's downtown headquarters (Carole Ramsden | SW)

As Marcy Hardaloupas, an elementary school teacher for 20 years on the city's Southwest Side, said as she walked the picket line:

The situation has become horrendous. Teachers are being blamed for what [politicians and school officials] are doing. They're the ones who are increasing class sizes, who don't want to pay teachers, who are firing teachers, and passing kids at the 24th percentile, and then blaming the teachers the next year and asking, "Why aren't your students at the 80th percentile."

Jennifer Johnson, a high school teacher and member of the CTU executive board, added:

We're drawing the line in the sand. All of these unions that have made concessions have been under the gun, and they feel like the only way to get public support is taking these hits. But as we're seeing, it's only going to keep hitting and hitting.

They're not actually keeping their promises not to cut jobs. CPS said last year that if you give up the 4 percent raise, we still won't guarantee that we're not cutting jobs. We've been given no promises here. If we just keep giving, they're going to keep taking.

That demonstration came a week after hundreds of members of the CTU marched on the Hyatt Hotel, along with members of Service Employees International Union and the Stand Up Chicago coalition to protest the CFO Executive Summit, a meeting of chief financial officers top businesses in the U.S.

The unions held the protest to target corporations that fail to pay taxes, which could help avoid education budget cuts, as well as to point the finger at Hyatt Hotels, an anti-union company run by the Pritzker family, which is deeply involved in corporate school "reform" efforts.

AT THE June 22 meeting, the board heard a lengthy report from Jean-Claude Brizard, the new CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Brizard, a product of the New York City Department of Education and billionaire-run Broad Institute that trains school chiefs, was brought to Chicago after a stint running schools in Rochester, N.Y. There, 95 percent of teachers voting expressed no confidence in his leadership.

Brizard, a Haitian-American, strikes a different image than his technocrat predecessor, Ron Huberman, the ex-cop who ran Chicago's transit system before taking over at CPS. During Brizard's report to the board on his visits to Chicago schools, he even quoted Martin Luther King in support of his proposals to reduce violence affecting Chicago school students.

But later in the meeting, the board made its priorities all too clear: While the CTU members' raises would be cancelled, Brizard and other top officials would get pay increases.

The school CEO will be paid $250,000, a $20,000 raise over his predecessor and a higher salary than Emanuel gets. Even bigger raises have gone to Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley, who will get $215,000 compared to $179,167 for his predecessor. Even the school system's PR chief, Becky Carroll, will bring home $165,000, nearly $35,000 more than her person she replaces.

The board's arrogance in raising pay for administrative hacks while freezing teachers' pay will make it harder to make teachers out to be the greedy villains in Emanuel's unfolding political struggle with the union. "This is a real gift to us," one CTU official said.

If Emanuel is cocky about taking on the CTU, it's in part because he's armed with a new anti-union state law known as SB 7, which, among other things, requires 75 percent of CTU bargaining unit members to vote to approve a strike, and mandates a protracted negotiation and mediation process that makes a legal strike almost impossible to achieve.

CTU President Karen Lewis initially joined the two state teachers' union federations in endorsing the legislation until she was reversed by the CTU's executive board and House of Delegates.

The debate on SB 7 has reinvigorated the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) caucus, which won office a year ago. CORE activists have responded to the CTU's call for an activist campaign to fight for the $250 million diverted from schools and into tax increment financing (TIF) districts, which hand out development money to politically connected business.

Now, the CTU is calling for four financial institutions--including Bank of America and Goldman Sachs--to return $120 million that they have made off CPS through an interest rate swap deal, thanks to super-low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve.

With Emanuel threatening the CTU--he's also trying to bully other city unions to take another round of concessions, this time worth $20 million--the lines are being drawn. CTU is expected to sit down with the board to try to negotiate over the pay issue.

"This action that the board takes--and they knew it very well---could lead to a strike, so that's what that's about," Karen Lewis told reporters. "This is not about, 'We're going to strike.' I did not say that. I did say these are actions that could lead to a strike."

THE SHOWDOWN in Chicago takes place as ongoing attacks on teachers' unions nationwide shift into high gear.

The budget crises that affect almost every urban school district are being used to gain greater leverage for "school reform."

In Detroit, for example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the Detroit Public Schools emergency manager, Roy Roberts, will oversee a new Education Achievement System (EAS) that will become a statewide school district, covering the bottom 5 percent of performing schools in Michigan.

It isn't clear where the EAS, set to begin in the 2012-2013 school year, will leave members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). The union is already reeling under a contract deal that "loaned" the district $500 per month in teachers' pay until they leave the district, and another 10 percent pay cut for the coming school year. The DFT is also in the throes of a struggle in which union president Keith Johnson is accused of manipulating contract vote outcomes and union election results.

A similar scorched-earth strategy is being pursued by Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras, who sent layoff notices to all 1,934 Providence teachers earlier this year. This was a follow-up to the mass firing of teachers at Central Falls High School last year, which was reversed after a union campaign.

These dramatic frontal assaults on teachers' unions get the attention, and for good reason. But teachers in most states are under growing pressure from state lawmakers, both because of the general legislative assault on public-sector unions, as well as laws passed to compete for $4.3 billion in federal money under the Race to the Top competitive grant program.

Only a handful of states secured funds from the program, but school reformers were big winners in every case, as legislators followed their script and imposed "reforms," like rigid evaluation systems and merit pay, while opening the door to nonunion charter schools.

Now, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plans to use a Race to the Top-style competition once again, this time offering waivers to states that fail to meet the unattainable student achievement requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law--but only if states agree to yet further reforms.

THE RESPONSE of national teachers' union leaders to this onslaught has been to try to avoid direct confrontation, retreat on long-held positions, and search for "partners" who will allow the unions to participate in corporate-driven school reform--even at the cost of major concessions.

Thus, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten has argued that the union must "lead and propose" when it comes to reform. To that end, she's personally intervened in contract negotiations in cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Haven, Conn., Washington, D.C., and Tampa Fla. to push deals that undermine, if not fully abandon, traditional tenure protections for teachers.

Weingarten's latest gambit: an AFT "groundbreaking partnership" with the American Association of School Administrators to "to continuously improve the nation's teaching force, revamp teacher development and evaluation systems, and provide teachers and schools the tools and support they need."

In other words, the AFT wants teachers to give their bosses in the schools even more say-so over evaluation systems that will determine whether they can keep their jobs.

For his part, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has been more critical of the school reform gang. In a recent opinion piece for union members, he wrote:

Isn't it time we quit fads in education and went after what works? Education reform fashionistas don't think so. They've embraced the glossy new fad of "value-added" systems for measuring teacher performance as the answer to school improvement. Based on value-added statistical models, standardized test scores are used to track the growth of individual students as they progress through the grades and see how much "value" a teacher has added...

But what these fad reformers fail to see is the value-added system's potential to do more harm than good. A recent study prepared for the Department of Education shows that these systems tend to be wrong 35 percent of the time evaluating a teacher after one year, and still wrong 25 percent of the time after three years. It's fundamentally wrong to end someone's career--or decide pay and promotion--based on a statistical model that's incorrect one-quarter to one-third of the time.

At last year's NEA Representative Assembly, the keynote speaker was Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education-turned-scourge of corporate school reformers like Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. By contrast, the main speaker at the AFT convention was...Bill Gates.

But it turns out that on school reform issues, there are fewer differences between the NEA and AFT than meet the eye.

Despite his criticism of "value-added" models for teacher performance, van Roekel is seeking delegate approval for a union policy that gives a lot of ground to school reformers on teacher evaluation issues--too much, in the eyes of many NEA activists. The policy calls for "valid, reliable, high quality standardized tests that provide meaningful information regarding student learning and growth"--that is, it puts the NEA on record as tying teacher evaluation to student test results.

According to Steve Sawchuk of Education Week, the statement will provoke a debate at this year's NEA Representative Assembly, set for June 30-July 5 in Chicago.

Illinois Education Association activist and blogger Fred Klonsky made a similar prediction: "In the current atmosphere of teacher bashing, the difficulty of doing teacher evaluation right is not going to get settled by a policy statement coming out of the RA. The statement on test scores ought to be deleted. Look for a spirited floor fight."

Another key issue at the NEA gathering will be the union leadership's proposal to give an early endorsement to President Barack Obama for his reelection campaign, despite the administration's role in accelerating attacks on teachers' union. And this year, the keynote speech won't be delivered by an opponent of corporate school reform, but one of its chief enforcers: Vice President Joe Biden.

WITH union leaders failing to provide a strategy for resisting the carve-up of public education, a network of genuine school reformers--teacher union militants from across the U.S.--will meet in Chicago July 6 following the NEA convention to hold a National Conference to Fight Back for Public Education. Sponsored by CORE, the meeting is aimed at assessing the results of reform leaderships of teachers' unions and developing a strategy for the months and years ahead.

The meeting is timely. The most high profile reform leadership of a major teachers' union local, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), recently suffered an election defeat after failing to stop a series of concessionary agreements. The union's lame-duck president, A.J. Duffy, then reached an agreement for continued pay cuts in exchange for a partial rollback of layoffs, even though the district is scheduled to receive tax money that would make layoffs and pay cuts unnecessary.

The key reform group in UTLA, Professional Educators for Action (PEAC), supported the concession as a means to preserve member's jobs. But it isn't clear that the agreement will bring back all the jobs that were promised: Many LA school principals are refusing to spend the money at their disposal to "buy back" teachers' jobs.

Beyond the Chicago meeting, other efforts are underway to build an active campaign to defend public education by uniting teachers, students and their families. To that end, a national meeting and Save our Schools march has been called for July 28-31 in Washington, D.C.

These efforts are vital. The attempts to carve up and privatize public education will only continue until unions, parents and communities are organized enough to put forward their own agenda of free, quality public education available for all--with full union rights for teachers.

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