The Attack on Teachers and Their Unions

In February 2010, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the poorest and most densely populated city in the state, voted to fire all 93 teachers and staff at the city’s only high school because it was allegedly “failing”.

On March 1, speaking before the US Chamber of Commerce, President Obama cited this mass firing as a model of how to hold schools and teachers “accountable”. The local school board was actually following one of four “turn around” models the administration has put forward for districts to get a share of the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grant (separate to Race to the Top).

Seven months later in Washington DC, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, hero to education reformers everywhere, fired 241 teachers, almost all of them because of poor evaluations based on test scores. She warned another 737 deemed to be “minimally effective” that they had a year to improve before they were fired as well. Altogether almost a fourth of the entire unionized DC teaching workforce was fired or put on notice.

Who is to blame?

The idea of wholesale firings of teachers is the logical product of the “education reform” agenda which is now going into overdrive under the Obama administration. The advocates of “reform” focus on “bad schools” and “bad teachers” as the root causes of why children from poor communities don’t achieve their potential. Their solution is to close the bad schools and fire the bad teachers. And in their eyes, a large proportion of teachers, especially the veterans, are indeed bad and need to go. As an angry blogging teacher named Mrs. Mimi wrote after the mass firing in Rhode Island was announced, “the line of argument here is that someone must be fired and since we can’t fire poverty, parents, or children, teachers are the only suckers standing.”

The attack on teachers is of course is a classic attempt to misdirect the understandable anger of millions of working class parents and students at the state of their local public schools. Of course all kids deserve a great education in a safe environment with motivated teachers. But the state of education is symptomatic of the underlying problems in society not the cause of it. What is the reason for the massive increase in inequality in American society over the past 30 years or the millions of jobs lost and millions of home foreclosures during the current economic crisis?

To reiterate the point made at the beginning of this pamphlet, unemployment is hitting young people particularly hard at the same time that rapidly rising tuition in state college systems is putting college beyond the reach of many working class youth. Then there is the rapidly rising number of homeless children and children living in shelters. These are the factors that are really destroying the future opportunities of young people. What ails American society and its schools is the diseased system of capitalism, not teachers, who in truth are overwhelmingly hard working and dedicated to helping children succeed.

Furthermore, it is obscene for America’s ruling class which is responsible for an economic disaster which is inevitably hitting women, racial minorities and the poor hardest to launch an attack on a profession which has historically provided a means of advancement for working class women in particular.

The future education workforce?

It is already the case in many cities that up to half of teachers do not make it past their fifth year. The reformers want to reduce the proportion of veterans even further while keeping a layer of highly paid “lead teachers” who will “mentor” the drastically overworked, high turnover remainder. This is despite the already mentioned research that shows that it takes at least five years to mold an effective teacher. The new model for the education workforce is already in operation in charter schools which are overwhelmingly non-union and where teachers are routinely expected to work ten or more hours a day and to come in on Saturdays. In this scenario, benefits like pensions become meaningless for most teachers because they will never work long enough to receive one. Raising a family of your own while being a teacher will also be impossible.

The reporter Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News and Democracy Now who has exposed many of the false claims about charters recently declared “one of the things that has struck me as I look at their various audited financial statements is that, generally speaking, the pay levels of the teachers in the charter schools are far lower than
they are for normal public school teachers, but the pay of the executives of the charter schools is far higher.” This shows how the charter schools fit right into the corporate agenda of reducing overall expenditure on education despite the large sums being invested in some charters today.

Programs like Teach for America, so beloved by education reformers, are also part of the union-busting cost-cutting agenda. Teach for America which recruits particularly at elite colleges and the New Teacher Project (generally known as Teaching Fellows) have recruited tens of thousands of young people and sent them into schools in poor communities. According to Teach for America, in 2007, they received more than 18,000 applications resulting in 2,900 new corps members. These applicants included “11 percent of the senior classes at Amherst and Spelman; 10 percent of those at University of Chicago and Duke; and more than eight percent of the graduating seniors at Notre Dame, Princeton and Wellesley.”

While there is no doubting the enthusiasm and idealism of large numbers of the Teach for America recruits, for the bulk of the young people involved their connection with teaching ends after those two years. Of course some of the TfA and Teaching Fellow recruits stay in teaching and those who do tend to become pro-union over time based on their experience. But for a section of upper middle class youth, teaching has become a form of national service, like a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. Ironically the TfA recruits receive grants from the federal AmeriCorps program.

Rarely asked is what message it sends to young people to have this type of teacher workforce. Having very enthusiastic young people teach your children sounds like and is a good idea but having half your teachers disappear every year because they have been worked into the ground or deemed to be “poorly performing” based on test scores is not good for students. A staff that is diverse both racially and in terms of life and teaching experience and that has real links with the community they work in is clearly preferable.

To come back to the case of Central Falls High School, there is no doubt that it was performing poorly in various ways. However, it is worth noting that none other than the Rhode Island Education Commissioner had actually cited the school for improvement in reading and writing in a 2009 report. But even within the twisted logic of “accountability” does anyone believe that all 93 staff members were “failing”? Not the community, which rallied around the teachers.

The chilling message of this mass firing, however, is that if a teacher chooses to teach in a poor community where the challenges are greater and the possibilities of failure are as well, he or she is putting their career on the line. This is especially so in a system which measures success almost entirely in terms of test scores. On the other hand the jobs of those teaching in better schools in better off communities are more secure.

In the end, the Central Falls teachers got their jobs back but only by accepting a whole package of concessions they had originally refused and of course only after many months of being derided in the national media. They are expected to be “grateful” for this outcome and in the current economic climate many are undoubtedly relieved. The Washington DC teachers, however, are unlikely to get their jobs back anytime soon.

The attack on the teachers’ unions

It is utterly clear that a core aim of the education reformers is to destroy or significantly reduce the power of the teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The NEA is far larger but the importance of the AFT is that it represents teachers in many of the biggest cities in the country including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In recent times the NEA has been generally somewhat more militant. For example they had a more forceful position against NCLB under Bush. However, both unions worked very hard for Obama’s election, both initially supported Race to the Top and both were clearly surprised by the ferocity of the attack from Arne Duncan.

Before the Central Falls mass firing, the leadership of the teacher unions, especially Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, were busy ignoring all the warning signs. Weingarten talked continually about working together with the Obama administration in the vain hope they could be won over to a nicer, gentler approach. In January she went so far as to unveil her own plan for how to make removing “bad teachers” easier.

Another example of how far the AFT leadership in particular has been willing to go in compromising with the education reformers are the series of sellout contracts they have endorsed in the past period. For example, the New Haven, Connecticut teachers’ contract ratified in late 2009 provides for school wide bonuses (a major step toward merit pay) as well as the use of test data in evaluations. In addition, “failing” schools can be quickly closed and re-opened as charters with no guarantee that teachers at these schools can keep their positions. Both Weingarten and Duncan hailed this rotten deal. Weingarten told the Wall Street Journal, “I rarely say that something is a model or template but [the New Haven agreement] is both”.

But events have moved at such a pace that a year later even this sellout looks tame. In June 2010, the Washington (DC) Teachers Union ratified a contract that Weingarten played a direct role in negotiating which helped lay the basis a few weeks later for the wholesale firings described earlier. In exchange for significant salary increases and a merit pay program that can add $20,000 to $30,000 to teachers’ base pay, the contract guts tenure and seniority rights, already significantly eroded in DC. According to the Washington Post, the contract “allows principals to use performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff due to declining enrollment or program changes.” For the first three years, the pay raises and merit pay bonuses will be financed (to the tune of $65 million!) by the anti union Walton and Eli Broad foundations.

Contrary to the relentless propaganda of the corporate media, strong teacher unions are essential not just for the defense of teachers’ rights but for the defense of students’ rights as well.Teachers are an important voice in working class communities. They can be and often are the best advocates for quality education for children. But to play that role, they need to be able to speak out about conditions in schools. Historically, the ability of teachers to be outspoken and stand up to pressure from administrators and principals has been tied to their right to have a union and a strong union contract.

Without using seniority as the means for determining who will be laid off a union’s power is drastically reduced. Without seniority, management will find the way to get rid of workers they don’t like, including union activists. And to reiterate, getting rid of union activists in the schools will mean not just that teachers won’t be able to defend themselves against abusive management but that they will be afraid to speak out or blow the whistle on lack of supplies, overcrowding, incessant test prep, lack of appropriate services for students with special needs, i.e. all the issues that affect students.

In Washington DC it can be confidently predicted that many principals will now give the teachers they dislike or union activists the most difficult classes in order to lower their “performance” so that they can be either fired or weeded out in periodical staff reductions. What Michelle Rhee has put in place in DC is what the deformers are itching to replicate across the country.

Reaction to Central Falls and Race to the Top

Central Falls appeared to be a wake up call for the union leadership. The New York Times (3/16/10) reported that “Officials at the two unions…were so angry in the hours after Mr. Obama first endorsed the firings that an irreconcilable break with the administration seemed possible, perhaps bruising Democrats’ electoral chances in November. Recognizing how a permanent breach could hurt everyone, however, both sides sought to lower tensions, partly by encouraging a negotiated settlement in Central Falls.”

But as the article goes on to say, neither Obama nor Duncan has since backed off on supporting “tough action, including dismissing teachers en masse, to improve learning conditions at failing schools.” The real problem is the unions’ complete dependence on their relationship with the Democratic Party. For a “few hours” they may have contemplated a partial break but this is so outside their worldview that there was no realistic prospect of them taking this road at this point.

Race to the Top, as detailed in the last chapter, represents an enormous intensification of the education reform offensive. It is therefore a major threat to the teacher unions. Besides using the hysteria created by the RTTT “competition” to pass measures raising charter school caps and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, education reformers in many states have pushed for tying tenure to test scores and getting rid of seniority in district wide layoffs or staff reductions at individual schools. What Michelle Rhee got at the bargaining table others have sought to push through state legislatures with the very active support of many prominent Democrats.

Some of the NEA affiliates have resisted this push for concessions. Unfortunately this can’t be said of the AFT. Take the example of Colorado where the RTTT competition led to a law tying 50 percent of teacher evaluations to standardized tests. Furthermore, according to the New York Times (5/31/10), “teacher effectiveness will be considered before seniority in deciding who gets pink slips once the new law takes effect in 2014.”

The Colorado Education Association, part of the NEA, campaigned aggressively against this law but outrageously the Colorodo AFT affiliate and Randi Weingarten came out in support. The law’s author, Senator Mike Johnston, declared that in terms of getting sufficient support to get the bill passed, “AFT support was a game changer.”

Weingarten’s support for this law, for sellout contracts in New Haven and Washington DC and her apparent willingness to compromise on every aspect of the education reform assault flow from the AFT leadership’s failed strategy of “negotiating concessions” and relying on allegedly friendly politicians, particularly in the Democratic Party to “do the right thing”. We are told that “negotiating concessions” is better than having them “imposed on us.” In reality concessions are simply a step to more concessions and in this environment no concessions short of total surrender would satisfy our enemies. Further, by failing to clearly and publicly take on these attacks on education, the unions are also failing in their role of educating the public, and providing an alternative voice to the corporate anti-teacher, anti-public education campaign.

Although the NEA has generally taken a better position on high stakes testing and RTTT, their leadership has also balked at the radical change in strategy that will be required to put the unions back on their feet and begin to mount a serious resistance to corporate education reform and in defense of public education.

But while the leadership sells out or dithers, the anger at the base of the teacher unions is growing steadily. Neither the NEA nor the AFT conventions at the start of the summer had a speaker from the Obama administration. It was admitted in both cases that there were real concerns about the reaction that Arne Duncan, for example, might receive from delegates who would normally cheer for the Democrats. The NEA by a narrow majority passed a resolution criticizing federal programs for “undermining public education”. The NEA’s president, Dennis Van Roekel, summed up 18 months of Obama education policies by saying, “This is not the change I hoped for” and correctly concluded “Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced”.

Weingarten, on the other hand, unable to have Duncan on the platform of the AFT convention in Seattle, instead decided to have Bill Gates, one of the key corporate education reformers, deliver a keynote address. It must be said she never loses an opportunity to show herself to the corporate elite as the voice of “reasonable”, “moderate” teacher trade unionism. This provocation led to a walkout by some delegates.

Victory of CORE in Chicago

The Chicago public school system and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) which is affiliated to the AFT has suffered more than many at the hands of the education deformers. Richard Daley, the perennial mayor and a pioneer of “mayoral control” of the schools, appointed Arne Duncan to be his “CEO” for education in 2001. In 2004, Duncan launched “Renaissance 2010” (“Ren10”) and presided over the closing of a host of neighborhood schools especially in poor neighborhoods, the rampant growth of charters and the increasing militarization of the schools. In Chicago, teachers at closing schools had a year to find a full time position in the system before being laid off. As a result of this and the growth of non-union charters, the union lost a fifth of its membership in recent years.

During most of this period, the CTU had a particularly ineffectual and bureaucratic leadership. But resistance began to grow. In order to fight against “Ren10”, teachers, parents and students came together to form the Grassroots Education Movement. In particular they fought the wave of school closings. They held forums, public protests that mobilized thousands and intervened forcefully at every public hearing. This campaigning had a real effect on public opinion in the city and in 2009 they succeeded in stopping six out of 22 proposed new closings.

Out of these struggles, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) emerged in the CTU, centered around a layer of younger teachers. They stand for full public funding for public education, limiting standardized testing, repealing mayoral control, for more democratic structures in the union and oppose RTTT and merit pay for teachers. They also say the union should stop squandering its funds supporting anti-education politicians and put the money in the strike fund instead.

In June CORE won a resounding victory in union elections, getting 60 percent of the vote in an amazing 68 percent turnout. CORE’s victory, alongside the emergence of rank and file resistance in other cities, must be the signal for rallying activists in both teacher unions across the country to begin developing an alternative leadership that can rise to the challenge posed by the corporate assault on public education.