Our struggle to dump Gist

June 11, 2013

Brian Chidester, a Rhode Island teacher, draws up a balance sheet on the effort of educators to oust the state education commission--and to win a fair contract.

DESPITE OUR best efforts, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted 7-3 in favor of renewing Commissioner Deborah Gist's contract on June 6. The two-year contract provides for a 2 percent raise in each of the two years--a slap in the face to all of Rhode Island's teachers who have endured between one and four years (depending on the district) without any raise.

While not the three-year contract with 4 percent raises that she initially sought, the deal maintains Gist as the highest-paid education commissioner in New England.

What clearer illustration of the real mission of corporate education "reformers" could we ask for: the highest-paid official in the state with the highest rates of unemployment and childhood poverty in New England! Not to be outdone, recently turned Democrat, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, whose election as an independent in 2010 owed much to the efforts of teachers' unions, came out with an expression of support for the deal.

Staying in character with her entire tenure thus far, Gist's attitude at the conclusion of the deal was polarizing, magnanimous and condescending. After the vote had been taken, Gist gave her acceptance speech, clearly delighted about her victory over the opposition. In response to the forum put on by the state teachers' union federations on May 20, she said (and I'm quoting from memory) that she had read the transcript of that forum twice, and that "I used my 'coding skills' from my graduate work" to determine that "we really all have the same goal" for public education.

Deborah Gist
Deborah Gist

I'm not sure how she could have read this teacher's comments and concluded that we're on the same side. Perhaps it's graceful for the winner of a tough political dogfight to come out with such "healing" remarks.

PRIOR TO the Board of Education meeting, conventional wisdom on our side was that anything less than a three-year contract would be a win. It seemed unlikely that the Board would simply vote down a contract--that would have left the state without a leading education official as of Friday. But rumors were circulating that there might be a 12- or 18-month extension offered, which would have been a clear invitation to leave the state.

In the end, however, the two-year contract was clearly a victory for the state's top union-basher. You could hear it in the comments of Board of Education members Larry Purtill (of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, NEARI) and Colleen Callahan (of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, RIFT): they were voting no, reiterating their opposition to Gist's privatizing agenda. But they were only able to sway one other member of the board.

The end was a frustrating and demoralizing defeat for the real "stakeholders" of public education: teachers, parents, students--in a word, the "public" in "public education."

I appreciate the good intentions of RIFuture editor Bob Plain, who summed up the night by saying, "Both labor and management can claim some victory this morning."

It's true that Gist's supporters were timid in advancing their defense: of the five (by my memory) board members to comment before the vote, three were in opposition, one recused herself from the vote, and one supporter spoke in terms that warned the commissioner to listen to her critics and engage them in a productive dialogue (hardly likely from her).

It's true that the unions and the public education proponents did much to reshape the terms of the discourse around higher education in the lead-up to the vote. But I think Bob is wrong: this was a clear victory for Gist and for the corporate education reform movement, if a narrow one.

That said, defeat does not always mean utter rout--and this situation is quite the opposite. In fact, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, the working-class movement is peculiar in that it prepares and advances itself in the struggle precisely through defeats. The advance for us is not in the stern warnings to the Commissioner to shape up her attitude--though that is an indication of how strong our campaign was. No, the advance is to be found in the mobilization that preceded Thursday night's Board meeting, going back to late April.

The opening acts included the successful forum sponsored by the Coalition to Defend Public Education on April 27, followed the next week by two simultaneous conferences put on by NEARI and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, on May 4. These meetings generalized the consciousness of those who attended them about the anti-union attack and the push for privatization that we're all facing. They were an indicator of something larger beneath the surface.

THE NEXT step in the process was the aforementioned mass meeting put on by NEARI and RIFT on May 20, where more than 600 angry teachers showed up to voice their opposition to Gist. This meeting was called with not even two week's worth of notice--and still garnered a mass audience.

What was even more striking to me about the meeting was the incredibly advanced consciousness of the teachers who spoke. It seemed that so many more teachers than I had ever imagined were aware of the influence of corporate "reformers" and their "philanthropy".

One of the teachers who spoke, someone I've never met before, introduced us to the term "educapitalists"! I walked out of that event deeply energized, and with one unshakable thought: if we had a political party that spoke like those teachers spoke, we would be unstoppable.

The mobilization for the Board of Education meeting on May 23 was not large, but the CDPE was able to plan for it effectively, dominating the list of speakers in the open forum. Our message was out front--and the commissioner had no one to speak on her behalf at that meeting (a mistake she did not repeat on June 6).

This set the stage for a serious public debate over the merits of a commissioner who has to her credit only failed goals and federal Race to the Top money which has been unspent or handed over to the private sector. And, it meant that the unions, though slow to mobilize, could call for a rally in front of the Board of Education meeting not even 72 hours in advance, and still draw a crowd of a couple hundred teachers and public education supporters.

The rally--and what led up to it--represent the most radical thing the unions have done in my 15 years as a member of NEARI. It was not large--certainly nowhere near as large as the rallies at the State House they've called over the past six years (all two of them). But it was a direct confrontation with the enemy, and it meant so much greater a determination on the part of the people who participated.

It has also had an effect on the discussions among teachers: though many of my colleagues were not able to go to the rally or to the mass meeting in May, everyone was talking about it. The unions' mobilization has brought to the fore all the questions that teachers need to be asking: How much more can we take? How much more are they going to throw at us? How do we start to fight back?

WE MUST also state plainly that there are not two, but rather three teachers' unions in the state: NEARI, RIFT, and the Providence Teachers Union. The first two have taken some real steps forward; the last one is a real roadblock, due primarily to its leadership. NEARI led the charge this time, and took real steps to mobilize the rank-and-file--in itself, a major accomplishment and a real break from the passive approach they've taken to the rank-and-file in the past.

NEARI locals are all led by full-time teachers, so there are no full-time union organizers in the locals. That said, the locals have largely followed the state leadership in outlook, meaning that many of them now have a very passive rank-and-file, and are often kicked around by their local administrations. This mobilization has changed the terrain, and may offer us a real opportunity to start organizing at the shop-floor level within the locals in a serious way.

The RIFT state leadership followed NEARI's lead, and it's very clear that Frank Flynn and Colleen Callahan were working very closely with Larry Purtill and Bob Walsh on this campaign. More importantly, they followed NEARI's lead and mobilized the rank and file from RIFT locals, including Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, Johnston, etc. But the real glaring, gaping hole in all of this--once again--was the PTU.

The PTU mobilized only members of its Executive Board to the May 20 mass meeting, as well as to the Board of Education meeting last week. (Well, E-Board members and members of the opposition, formerly known as Teachers for a Democratic Union). They did not send out the e-mail notification of the rally at the Board of Education meeting until 1:20 p.m. on June 6!

Steve Smith, the top-down, conservative president of the PTU made confused remarks both times, and then proceeded to leave early both times. The real tragedy of all of this is that the PTU sets the tone for the state. It was the PTU's acceptance of Race to the Top that imposed it on the rest of us. The PTU's utter contempt for its rank-and-file means that the rest of the state's teachers are fighting an uphill battle with part of their army--really, the shock troops of the front line--still asleep back at the barracks. The PTU has to be transformed, and the current leadership needs to be removed.

SO WHAT more can be done from here? The obvious first point is that the struggle against high-stakes testing, and in particular the use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement, is at the front and center. There have been indications that Gist and others may be looking for ways to back down from their hardline stance on this requirement.

They are caught in a contradiction: if 40 percent of Rhode Island's seniors in the class of 2014 don't graduate because of NECAP, it's Gist's failure to deal with. I don't expect she (or her successor, if she's looking to duck out gracefully in the next two years) will admit defeat openly on this count--there will be some maneuver involved. But there is a major opportunity for us to raise a single demand around the NECAP that also brings up pointed questions about every aspect of curriculum, instruction, resources and control of public education.

The work of the Providence Students Union has led the way on this area; now is the time to start organizing parents and teachers around local opt-out and boycott campaigns, and perhaps a generalized, state-wide protest campaign targeting the whole requirement altogether.

Second, the unions need to start talking about state-wide contractual protections for teachers on the evaluation system. Currently, the mandates come down from the state--and they are carried out an enforced inconsistently by local district administrations.

But the real kicker is that teachers' protections against abuses of the evaluation system (and there are many opportunities for abuse!) are entirely up to the local to guard against via contract language. It raises the even larger discussion of a state-wide contract for all teachers, and eventually the need for a state-wide school district--a reform that would likely face much opposition from local powerbrokers in their little fiefdoms in each district, but that could give a unified teaching force more power to set the terms of its working conditions.

Third, the rank-and-file mobilization of the past few weeks should give rise to organizing within the locals. A statewide district is a long way off, and it means that we need to use the momentum we have from this fight to push forward on the local level.

Teachers in Rhode Island have been kicked around in the last two rounds of contract negotiations, battered by the economic crisis on the one hand, and the barrage of a national anti-teacher campaign financed and driven by the "educapitalists" on the other.

The next steps now involve pushing forward on issues such as class size, compensation, protections against the evaluation system and a re-establishment of our seniority rights. These fights will necessarily come up against the limits of what Gist has pushed from the state level, particularly on the evaluations and seniority.

But I think we should understand that despite her victory, she has come out of this fight a wounded beast--and there is now more space for us to push back at the local level against her attacks. Who knows--our administrators may be happy to have to cave in to our resistance! It is likely too late to organize real activist campaigns around those contracts that are up this September. But a disproportionate number of contracts, including Providence, Cranston, Bristol-Warren and others, are up in September 2014. We have a precious year to prepare.

LASTLY, THERE is a looming, all-important question: the gubernatorial race. This entire episode raises a very pointed question about Rhode Island politics: will the unions continue to be subservient to politicians that turn around and screw us?

This has been the case time and again, and it's never been more obviously the case than it is now. The 2014 gubernatorial race is shaping up as a three-way race between current Governor Chafee, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.

All three are now Democrats, meaning that the race will be decided not in November, but in September. Raimondo and Taveras are open enemies of teachers, having savaged our pensions and fired all the Providence teachers, respectively. Chafee has aided and abetted these attacks, and proven time and again that he is no friend of workers (and also not very competent as a human being in general). It has never been more clear that workers--and especially teachers--have no candidate to vote for, only candidates to vote against.

There must now be a serious conversation about how to approach the 2014 elections. Do we abstain from the elections? I would argue that abstention, while perhaps not the most fruitful approach, would be better than supporting one of our enemies.

More usefully: do we run an independent candidate as an alternative to our enemies? And most importantly of all: do we now start building a party for the labor movement in our state? We should answer yes to these two questions. Doing so will naturally raise all sorts of difficult ancillary questions. But avoiding the questions now will lead us to further disaster in the future, and make waste of the progress we've made through this fight.

We need to launch local contract campaigns for September 2014, and we need an electoral strategy that strengthens those fights, rather than undermining them (which has always been the result in the past). For the first time, I can say confidently that our teachers' unions in Rhode Island have made a real advance, even in defeat. We must now chart a course for victory.

First published at Rhode Island Red Teacher.

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