Teachers vote for change in Massachusetts

May 13, 2014

Amirah Santos-Goldberg, a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Educators for a Democratic Union, reports on the winds of change blowing in her union.

HISTORY WAS made at the May 10 annual meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) when delegates opted for change by electing Barbara Madeloni as the union's next president.

Madeloni, a member of the progressive caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), defeated Tim Sullivan, the current MTA vice president, by 97 votes in the race for president. The vote reflected growing opposition among teachers and staff to high-stakes testing and punishment, as well as increased enthusiasm among union members to take action in order to defend their schools.

This vote is extremely significant given that the MTA is the largest teachers union in the state, representing all K-12 teachers (except those in Boston), as well as some faculty and staff at various state universities and community colleges.

Madeloni, a former English teacher, is perhaps best known for refusing, along with her students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, to participate in a standardized teacher-licensing program co-developed by Stanford University and testing behemoth Pearson. Her campaign, led by EDU, is part of a growing movement across the country by teacher activists pushing their unions to organize against corporate school reform.

Barbara Madeloni
Barbara Madeloni

Union opponents of Madeloni's campaign tried to discredit her run for president as an "outsider's campaign," and she was criticized for a supposed lack of experience and insufficient connections to political insiders. But that is precisely what appealed to her supporters.

EDU based its campaign for Madeloni's presidential bid on the pledge to rebuild an active, member-driven union that is transparent that stands up to the corporate attacks on our schools and our union. For years, the MTA leadership has made concession after concession on issues of teacher evaluations, high-stakes testing and retiree health care benefits.

For many, the last straw was outgoing president Paul Toner's closed-door deal with Stand for Children, an education policy organization widely known for advocating pro-privatization and anti-union measures, to get rid of seniority benefits in case of mass layoffs. More recently, Toner admitted to meeting regularly with Stand for Children at a professional development event in Framingham, Mass.

In her final campaign speech, Mandeloni described the crucial difference between her EDU-backed presidential bid and the campaign of her opponent Tim Sullivan, who has been MTA vice president for the past four years:

You could choose to vote for the experience of the status quo--even though compared to four years ago, we face more testing, more turnarounds, a demeaning teacher evaluation system, weakened seniority and worse pension benefits. This is what we get when we think power lies in personal access to the political elite--talking to them instead of mobilizing our membership.

When Stand for Children comes back for its next bite out of our union rights, or [when] our political "allies" come after our pensions, and you know they will, do we once again cut an insider deal and declare "it could have been worse"? I don't think so. We need new leadership with experience--not with things as they have been, but with things as they might be.

MOST OF the people who voted for Madeloni didn't cast their votes under the illusion that her election alone would be sufficient to stop the juggernaut of corporate ed "deform." Rather, her campaign inspired a sense that we can--and must--organize teachers, staff, students and parents across the state to engage in a serious discussion of what kind of action it is going to take to win back our schools.

As Kiely, a special education teacher in Holyoke, Mass., put it: "This new election gives people hope. It gives us more self-confidence to say that is not okay."

The grassroots organizing efforts of EDU's campaign were visible throughout the convention. The most confident and vocal contingent of MTA members came from Holyoke, one of the poorest and hardest-hit school districts in the state. Project Grad, a school privatization firm based in Texas, has already taken over one school and part of a second, and instituted a regime of high-stakes testing and evaluations, creating an environment that makes teachers feel they are constantly under threat.

Yet teachers, staff and parents recently won a victory when they took a proud and public stand against "data walls," which force teachers to publicly humiliate their students by showcasing their scores.

The combination of winning a victory against data walls and their disgust at the methods of Project Grad have persuaded more teachers to get involved in organizing with the union and with EDU. As Kiely explained, "In the past, there would be maybe five people at a union meeting. Now you can't find a seat. Before you had a union that didn't speak out."

Holyoke MTA members talked eloquently about how these school takeovers are negatively impacting the largely poor and immigrant communities that live in the school district.

One teacher was in the midst of explaining the double standard of accountability at public schools and corporate-run turnaround schools when Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick arrived at the MTA event to receive the Presidential Award. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Gov. Patrick studiously avoided addressing such concerns.

To be sure, Madeloni's victory is just the first step. Most members of the MTA don't attend the annual convention, nor are they routinely involved in the union. Only 1,200 of the MTA's 110,000 members took part in the discussions and votes regarding the future of the union.

The essential next step is for teacher activists to continue organizing in our cities and towns in order to involve more teachers, staff, parents and students in the day-to-day struggles to defend quality public education as a right for all.

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