Tired of being scapegoats for all the ills of the public schools, 200 teachers from 15 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico were in Chicago July 6 for the National Conference to Fight Back for Public Education.
The attendees—and there were more of them than organizers had expected—came for a variety of reasons. All were upset about the attacks on teachers and students. Some were already leading fights against the attacks as reform officers in their locals. Many wanted to find out how fights were being carried out in other cities. Others were dissatisfied with their locals or their national unions.
Rob Panning-Miller, a Minneapolis high school teacher, said he wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth how various “reforms” such as charter schools and new forms of teacher evaluation are playing out on the ground for classroom teachers. What he hears from his union’s national leaders about changes in particular cities, he said, is often quite different from what teachers in that city have to say.
Many at the meeting saw a lack of leadership in their national organizations, the NEA and AFT, which have reacted to the demonization of teachers by endorsing too many elements of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” agenda for schools. That agenda relies on standardized testing, substitutes merit pay for seniority, strips teacher tenure, ousts teachers deemed “ineffective,” and privatizes public schools by converting them into non-union charter schools.
The effect is to place the many burdens of poor communities at teachers’ feet and to encourage school districts to break the rules to show progress—as scandals over cheating on tests in D.C. and Atlanta have shown.
Panning-Miller ousted a 22-year incumbent when he ran for president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers in 2006. Now an executive board member, he said teachers in the Twin Cities are grappling with the spread of charters. “The district is essentially saying, ‘We don’t know how to educate your children, so we’re giving up and contracting out,’” he said.
No Joy in New York
Kelley Wolcott, a Brooklyn high school teacher, was motivated to attend after seeing the way her union, the United Federation of Teachers, navigated this year’s city budget negotiations.
New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg slashed $1 billion from services—after extracting another $60 million in concessions from teachers. Schools will see 2,600 teaching vacancies go unfilled as well.
Bloomberg had threatened for months to fire 4,000 teachers.
“It was devastating to see how the UFT operated, to see the lack of democracy,” Wolcott said. “They didn’t care about people who had real things to offer.”
Wolcott came to Chicago after spending two weeks in a tent city, dubbed “Bloombergville,” erected outside New York’s city hall to protest budget cuts. Now she’s convinced activists like herself need to do more to transform the union.
“We want our union to serve the membership and the city as a whole,” she said, adding that union leaders are “more sympathetic with the political agenda in D.C. or Albany than what their members want or need.”
Nowhere was that more clear to attendees than in this week’s headlines. Their conference was the day after the National Education Association’s annual convention, during which the union officially joined the AFT in endorsing a type of teacher evaluations that have led to mass firings in places like D.C.
Although the NEA convention endorsed Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential bid, Rosa Jimenez, a Los Angeles high school teacher, was skeptical that putting more union resources into elections was a winning strategy. “Look at what’s happening in California,” she said.
The state returned to Democratic control with Governor Jerry Brown’s victory last November, but Brown won’t close corporate tax loopholes or tax the rich, and signed a budget that trimmed $3.4 billion from education.
“We put so much money into elections and it isn’t working,” Jimenez said, advocating more money from the national unions to the locals to train teachers to be organizers.
Inspired by Reform Victories
Wolcott said she was inspired by reform efforts inside union locals in cities like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago, where the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) swept elections for top office in the Chicago Teachers Union last year. “It’s a real ray of hope, that we can fight back from the grassroots against this campaign to destroy us,” Wolcott said.
CORE hosted the conference, organized together with Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), the reform caucus inside the Los Angeles Teachers union, and teacher activists from several other cities.
Even where reformers have won power, they haven’t been able to beat back all the attacks that hurt teachers and students, as both PEAC and CORE members testified.
Chicago’s mayor just rescinded teachers’ scheduled raises, while state legislators passed a bill weakening seniority, advancing performance evaluations that could be tied to student test scores, and erecting high hurdles before teachers can strike. The Los Angeles teachers union agreed to a contract this month with four furlough days. The schools will lose 2,000 library aides and counselors.
Where to Find the Money
But the Chicago Teachers Union is engaged in a campaign with potential. The union is targeting the financial sector, saying that rather than take advantage of deals made in flush times, Bank of America and other big banks should renegotiate financing contracts that are costing the school system $35 million a year.
After the conference, participants rallied with the CTU at Bank of America. The union held a march and rally after meeting with the banks the day before.
The union is also demanding that the city reshape its spending priorities. Chicago drains $250 million yearly from schools and doles out cash to politically connected developers and big banks through a “tax-increment financing” scheme, which was supposed to subsidize development in blighted areas but instead handed out millions to build luxury housing and big-box retail stores.
“There are over 100 schools that don’t have stand-alone libraries because Chicago’s elected officials are spending millions on political patronage and calling it economic development,” said Jesse Sharkey, CTU vice president.
The union has rallied teachers, parents, and community members to mount actions, including taking over the showroom floor of one of the largest TIF recipients, a Chrysler dealership in Chicago's tony Gold Coast. A CTU-sponsored People’s City Council Meeting—a community town hall—drew 1,200 parents, teachers, and students and 15 council members yesterday for a listening session.