Teacher Reformers Prepare for Battle over Public Education
When President Obama laid out his plan to reshape public education this summer, he wasn’t subtle with his symbolism: he was introduced by an eighth-grader from a charter school. Soon after, teacher activists from LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., met in Los Angeles.
The reformers shared strategies to build union caucuses with parents that shape an alternative to the federal education plan as it takes form in each city.
The president’s “Race to the Top” fund, championed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, promises billions in federal dollars to cash-strapped states. But there will be “winners and losers,” Obama says.
The unprecedented payout takes a bead on the teachers unions: money will flow to districts that alter pay and seniority provisions in union contracts and states that roll out the carpet for (mostly non-union) charter schools.
The reformers will meet again in October for a workshop on gearing up their unions to fight. They’ll organize forums and joint press releases in each city before the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention in Seattle next year—where they will bring a vision of education reform that puts educators, not “education management organizations,” in the driver’s seat.
LOS ANGELES: FRONT LINE FOR CHARTERS
Nonprofit and private charter school operators stand to make big gains from the federal incentive package. Several states have already amended their laws to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.
The Los Angeles Unified School District took a big step in that direction in August. Charter operators and other groups will get a crack at running 250 city schools—including 50 brand new, taxpayer-funded buildings.
“They got just what they didn’t have: real estate,” says Alex Caputo-Pearl, a United Teachers Los Angeles board member.
Since 2005, a reform coalition has run UTLA, bolstered by growing rank-and-file engagement in various caucuses, including the Progressive Educators for Action, which helped propel the current leadership into power.
The union has fought hard against layoffs, charters, and cuts to funding and health care benefits—and also internally, over union strategy. Teachers from several LA caucuses joined the July sessions, including some who launched hunger strikes against layoffs and criticized union leaders’ cancellation of a planned one-day strike in May. Some caucus members say the union’s effort to stem the charter tide was too little, too late.
All agree that UTLA’s focus needs to center on charters—and fast. Proposals for the first round of new schools are due by November, giving charter operators with ready-made proposal templates a distinct advantage.
UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt says the union is moving on a multi-faceted plan as bidding season opens, including possible legal challenges to the motion, which does not honor district rules ensuring teachers and parents a deciding vote on any charter conversion. Instead, the school superintendent will recommend bidders to the school board.
UTLA contract language ensures teachers will be union in any new school built to relieve overcrowding, but it’s still unclear whether the board plans to respect that.
LA has the most charters in the nation, and adding hundreds more threatens to erode enrollment in public schools (which affects their funding) as well as union strength.
The union is focused on organizing charters, following a victory this spring at Accelerated Charter, where teachers approached UTLA about joining up.
Union leaders are also working with teachers at schools targeted for conversion, and plan to put in their own bids for union-run schools (the Boston AFT local just opened its first this year).
Pechthalt says the teacher-led vision “is not rocket science.” It entails democratic control over budgets and curriculum that teachers, parents, and administrators can tailor to the school site. Past attempts to publicize such plans in the face of rampant teacher-bashing in the media, however, have been difficult.
“We have to improve on that,” says Pechthalt, “so that after a few months people can say, ‘I agree with the teachers’ vision for schools.’”
CHICAGO: ACTIVISTS ‘EVERYWHERE’
In a gentrifying Latino neighborhood in Chicago, Kristine Mayle learned firsthand about the “renaissance” Obama’s Department of Education wants to bring to the rest of the nation.
The district shut down the award-winning De La Cruz middle school where she worked until last year, citing low enrollment and the need for major renovations—only to lease the building to the charter operator United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) a year later for $1.
Community organizations and parents from a feeder elementary school led hearings, and fought to extend De La Cruz’s life. But the district, which had already authorized UNO schools in the area, was intent on the operator, despite its promise not to reopen the building for charter use.
“On the last day of school, the board sent workers to fix our basement floor—which had been leaking for years,” Mayle says.
UNO has a reputation for cherry-picking students—Mayle says UNO students were routinely kicked back to her school. And the operator hires very few special education teachers, failing to maintain De La Cruz’s legacy as a highly touted special ed provider.
BORN IN CHICAGO
Duncan’s national initiative was born in Chicago, where charters continue to expand under a privatization plan he brokered as schools chief in 2004.
The Chicago Teachers Union has lost 6,000 members and 70 neighborhood schools have closed since 2001, making a new law that expands charter schools in the city especially foreboding.
“There really was no pushback from the CTU at the onset of this program, and now we have to play catch-up,” said Kenzo Shibata of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE).
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“We've been fighting this from the beginning,” said CTU chief of staff John Ostenburg, noting the union’s yearly actions against closings, and its stalled push in the statehouse for a moratorium on Duncan’s plan.
The AFT-affiliated CTU negotiated card check rights at new charters, and the local recently organized several campuses of the state’s largest operator.
Several CORE members were at the LA meeting. Originally formed in spring 2008 to push the CTU to stand up to the city’s school restructuring plan, the youthful caucus grew quickly, becoming a viable challenger to CTU’s incumbents in next May’s election.
CORE’s website offers news and grievance forms, and features its candidates for pension trustee, who promise to forestall plans to slash the teachers’ fund. Members are active on Chicago-area news and blog comment sections, an attempt to counter teacher-bashing. And Shibata says a “Twitter army” posts live reports from school board meetings and teacher actions. “We’re everywhere,” he says.
Over the winter, teachers worked with the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a collection of community organizations and parent groups, turning out more than a thousand people to protest 22 slated school closures.
“The CTU finally joined the protest, and then released a flyer to delegates saying they organized it,” says Shibata. “Either way, we got them out, and won a big victory.” The board decided not to close six schools.
NEW YORK: TWO FLOORS, TWO TIERS
Charters are knocking on the door at dozens of New York schools too, regardless of reputation. Public School 123, for example, now shares a building with Harlem Success Academy, after the city’s Department of Education (DOE) forced the elementary school (good test scores and all) to relinquish its third floor to the charter operator.
Over the summer, HSA hired contractors to dismantle classrooms while district dollars paid for renovations—of HSA’s floor only. Parents and teachers gathered outside, chanting, “Paint the whole school!”
When classes began in September, teachers and parents protested again after finding the school in disarray: movers had piled teachers’ equipment into unmarked boxes to make way for HSA. A special education class was moved to a dusty basement, and other classes were pushed into the library.
HSA hums a floor above the chaos.
“The charters just tell the city they need more space,” says Brian Jones, a teacher activist, “and the DOE is doing back-flips to make it happen.”
The charter companies focus on New York’s largely Black neighborhoods. “You don’t see charter conversions happening on the Upper East Side,” Jones says. They are exploiting a legacy of racial tension that has festered within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) since 1968, when the union went on strike to protest attempts by African-American communities to take more control over school management and curriculum.
A handful of reform groups continue to chip away at the UFT’s ruling Unity caucus, in power for four decades. Sally Lee of Teachers Unite, which organizes workshops on the union and workplace rights, says decades of Unity caucus rule have made the union either an enigma or a stigma for new teachers—who see themselves more as individual activists in their classrooms.
“We can only address this system by collectively organizing,” says Lee, whose organization primes new teachers to run for chapter chair. “And guess what? We already have this powerful teacher organization to do it.”
Lee and other New York teachers shared cautionary tales at the LA meeting about AFT President Randi Weingarten. As president of the New York local, she negotiated a 2005 contract that included merit pay and the oddly-named “mutual consent,” which allows principals to ignore seniority when filling open teaching positions.
As charters grow from inside public schools, they hire non-union teachers, increasing the ranks of displaced veteran teachers. When the contract opens in October, city leaders will push hard to fire teachers who can’t land a job after a year.
D.C. AND DETROIT: SECRET TALKS
The takeover has been achieved quietly in Detroit and D.C., where around half of school kids in each city are now enrolled in charters.
Under the emergency control of a state-appointed manager, Detroit opened 29 fewer schools this fall and put many high schools under control of private management groups.
The next target is the teachers’ contract. Proposed 10 percent wage cuts, elimination of step increases, and increased fines for work stoppages from $250 to $7,500 per day drew thousands of Detroit teachers to protest in late August. Talk of a strike circulated.
The union leadership agreed instead to extend contract talks until the end of October—a delay that’s become familiar for teachers in D.C. A small, outspoken group of teachers and union officials there has challenged the threat of a concessionary contract for two years.
Vice President Nathan Saunders and Trustee Candi Peterson have criticized President George Parker (and Weingarten, who joined the D.C. talks over the winter) for keeping teachers out of the loop and failing to mobilize rank-and-file pressure against schools chief Michelle Rhee. The teacher activists drew Parker’s ire this fall for publicizing details of a draft contract, which included plans for large buyouts of veteran teachers and a “mutual consent” provision like New York’s.
Union leaders at the LA meeting shared strategies for caucus building with Saunders, who is gearing up for an election run in 2010. Upon return, the D.C. duo pre-empted Rhee’s announcement of coming layoffs, calling the community to join rank-and-file educators at a protest in front of district offices.
Wherever the Secretary of Education has sold his “reforms,” large chunks of public money have disappeared into private hands—and local unions find themselves under siege. Weingarten has maintained her signature openness to it all, as long as reforms remain fair for teachers and good for students. The National Education Association, by contrast, came right out and said it: Obama’s plan for more charters, more reliance on test scores, and more union concessions, does neither.
Duncan has stumped for his plan coast to coast. Teacher reformers, now equipped with a fledgling network of activists, aren’t waiting any longer to go national themselves.