Standing on children in Massachusetts

March 1, 2012

The Teacher Activist Group Boston explains what's at stake with the anti-teacher ballot initiative in Massachusetts sponsored by Stand for Children.

STAND FOR Children (SFC) is at it again, but this time in the state of Massachusetts. The self-proclaimed "independent social justice organization" has been organizing to curtail the rights of teachers unions across the country.

In Massachusetts, their recent and extremely complex ballot initiative entitled "Great Teachers, Great Schools" is focused on stripping due-process rights, silencing the voices of child advocates, and forcing yet-to-be-tested evaluation rules onto school districts. In the context of dwindling public school budgets and the growing rate of poverty among American children, SFC's current initiative is just one more attempt to place the blame on unions for the growing achievement gap in our schools.

Thus far, the SFC initiative has attempted to divide parents and teachers instead of bringing them together. How is this possible? Why would any organization want to do this? After taking a closer look at SFC's advisory board, it all starts to make a little more sense.

In Massachusetts, the current board of advisers is composed of people who have more experience with running a business than running a classroom. Members include the managing director at Spectrum Equity, a private equity investment firm, and a vice president of client services at the corporate consulting firm KGA, who formerly worked for Fidelity Investments.

A teacher in a Massachusetts high school
A teacher in a Massachusetts high school

Nationally, SFC has received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Walton Family Foundation, the "philanthropic" arm of the billionaire owners of Wal-Mart. They have been using their money and influence to lobby legislators all over America in order to convince them that cheaper, younger, unprotected teachers are good for corporations and good for our children.

Massachusetts is no different. SFC has already started using its cash and clout to collect in a matter of months more than 100,000 signatures for its ballot initiative. They believe our teachers need to be evaluated more aggressively, "bad teachers" need to be kicked out, and "more expensive" veteran teachers need to be let go as well.

NO TEACHER would disagree that there's a need to better our current evaluation and feedback system to improve teacher quality. In fact, Massachusetts is already implementing a rigorous new teacher evaluation program that has been supported by the American Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Why then do voters need to weigh in on implementing another system before the new one is rolled out?

Good question. This initiative is not about improving our schools or closing the achievement gap between different school districts. This referendum is just one more way to weaken unions and local control. If passed, there is little motivation for school districts and unions to agree on issues of evaluation--or possibly in the future to agree on anything at all. School districts can ask the state to make all final binding decisions. The result is an attack on unions, which in turn is an attack on teachers and the young people that teachers care about most.

What's worse is that even if the initiative does pass, it is hard to see how it can improve our public schools. As Mary Ann Stewart, president of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association eloquently explained:

This is a huge distraction from what teachers and parents believe is most needed to help students succeed. We need small class sizes, excellent preschools, support services for at-risk students and high-quality professional development for teachers. Instead, this ballot question gives us more top-down mandates and red tape.

In addition, both associations of Massachusetts principals as well as the state Secretary of Education Paul Reville are opposed to the initiative.

Lastly, and most importantly, this initiative silences the voices of teachers and makes it harder for them to advocate for their students. It weakens protections for teachers and will leave many of them too scared to speak out against the injustices their students face.

Without protection, teachers may be afraid to stand up for an English-language learner or a special education student who isn¹t receiving the support they deserve. Instead of standing for children, teachers will be forced to stand for silence, regardless of where the children fall.

Currently, the two largest teachers' unions in Massachusetts, the American Federation of Teachers and Massachusetts Teachers Association, have filed a lawsuit arguing that the ballot proposal violates the state constitution. This is a good start.

However, what is needed now is more than just a fight in the courts. We need a public stand by teachers, students, parents and community members to fight for more funding for our schools, stop the proposed closings of Boston Public Schools and argue that more teachers and staff be hired.

If you believe that veteran teachers that advocate for their students are valuable to our schools and that one of the key issues behind the current achievement gap is funding, join us in fighting against this ballot initiative. This is just one step towards regaining control over our schools.

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