Saturday, January 3, 2015

Teacher Union Alternatives?

One of the hallmarks of reformsterism continues to be a concerted effort to crush teacher unions. The bottom line is pretty simple-- privatizers and profiteers want to be able to hire and fire at will, and they want to be able to pay teachers whatever they feel like paying them. You make profit by controlling revenue and expense, and since education revenues are fairly static and beyond the easy control of reformster ed CEOs, the CEOs need to be able to control costs, and the number one cost in a school is personnel. Reformsters also want to be able to work their teachers with no constraints; nobody should be telling them that teachers won't be working twelve hour days, seven days a week.

So reformsters really want unions to go away.

In the New Orleans Advocate, we find Alexandria Neason pushing one form of anti-union baloney. Her article reports on a "trend" of NOLA teachers seeking out non-union alternatives, looking for other groups that "amplify teachers voices." And, holy smokes, what a list. America Achieves, Teach Plus, Educators 4 Excellence, Leading Educators -- a dozen Super Bowls couldn't use this much astroturf. I am not sure why Neason did not list the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a great alternative to the teachers' unions.

But it's an alternative that doesn't provide much of anything that a union does

The new organizations like America Achieves differ in their specific goals and structure, but they all seek to amplify teachers’ voice in policy debates, and they rarely, if ever, concern themselves with protecting one of unions’ main reasons for being: teacher tenure.

"Seek to amplify teachers' voices in policy debates." Seriously? I would love to see a specific example of that, but one is not forthcoming, so I'm going to assume that these groups are doing what astroturf groups have always done-- pursue their reformster-driven agendas while searching for teachers they can use as PR cover.

But what about the union function of bargaining contracts or providing resources and support for teachers under fire?

America Achieves, where Eckhardt is now the head of the teacher fellowship program, focuses less on advocating for specific positions and more on helping teachers learn how to advocate for themselves.

So, sure. When it's time to get a new salary set or it's time to defend your career against a biased or incompetent administrator, just march into district offices and take care of that yourself. America Achieves also rounds up teachers to provide fun audiences for things like NBC's Education Nation Reformster Infomercials, and they provided the teacher props for the Arne Duncan Meets With Live Teachers photo op of 2010. They also help teachers write op-eds and other great reformster PR. And when it comes to putting teachers in these settings, Eckhardt gets in a zinger:

But the group didn’t tell the teachers what to say — something Eckhardt said would never have happened with a union.

And, well, damn, he's not entirely wrong. In the name of unity, teachers unions can be absolutely terrible about allowing a diverse group of voices to speak. NY has its infamous loyalty oath. And nobody rises to positions of national leadership without proving to people in power that you're the Right Kind of Person.

I've been a local union leader in a tough contract year followed by a tough strike year. I know just how invaluable the resources and experts from the state level can be. I also know it would be foolish to assume that local, state and national union interests are always 100% aligned.

But Eckhardt's statement is disingenuous. Of course his group didn't tell teachers what to say-- they just made sure to select teachers who would only be inclined to say The Right Thing in the first place. I think some people imagine that politics works by giving somebody a pile of money and saying, "Okay, now you should pretend to be opposed to mugwump regulation." But it's much simpler to find someone who is actually opposed to mugwump regulation and use your money to give him a platform. Astroturf groups don't need to indoctrinate people-- just recruit the right people to start with.

Jim Testerman of NEA argues that NEA is a member-driven group where members set the policy. I wish that were more true of the national unions, but it's not. Consider last summer when both AFT and NEA members forced anti-Duncan resolutions on their leaders, who have since made sure that those resolutions had absolutely no affect on what NEA and AFT have actually done. Rank and file members have little hope of using their national or state unions as methods of amplifying their voices.

Of course, that's only part of the point. If you are a teacher who wants your voice to be heard in national policy debates, get a blog. If you are a teacher who wants a decent contract, protection on the job and some heavy guns to back you when trouble comes your way, join a union. It's as simple as that. Saying these groups are a substitute for a union is like saying a bicycle is a substitute for steak.

The astroturf threat is just the more modern approach to eroding unions. Indiana has just unveiled a pretty standard approach. Governor Mike Pence just unveiled "Freedom To Teach," and if that sounds kind of like "Right To Work," that's because they're the same idea.

Freedom To Teach will earmark a bunch of money for any school that wants to chuck out its old teacher pay method and replace it with a system that will pay all the teachers in the school way more. Ha! Just kidding, although Pence tries to sell the program with that page straight from the reformster handbook:

“Everyone knows that good teachers make a difference, we have to get even more good teachers in front of more classrooms,” Pence says. “You get more good teachers by paying good teachers more.”

The key to making this kind of merit pay work is that you only pay "good teachers" well. And since you are deciding what qualifies someone as a good teacher, you never have to find yourself employing more good teachers than you can afford. The rest will leave quickly, but so what? Your program allows you to recruit saying, "Come here! We pay a top salary of $125K!" Just make sure you don't include the ad copy that says, "You'll probably never see that money, and you'll start at poverty wages, but come be our fresh meat anyway."

Indiana House Democratic leader Scott Pelath explains his take on the program:

“‘Freedom to teach’ — those are just words,” Pelath said. “Those are words that were dreamed up in some think tank with pollsters sitting by their sides. That’s not about freedom to teach, it’s about deconstructing and deregulating schools to the point where they don’t matter anymore, and that’s what the goal is.”

And to pursue that goal, reformsters need to break the unions.

Look, I'm not a knee-jerk union booster. On the state and national level, unions are their own second-worst enemies. They supported Common Core when it should have been obvious that it was the tip of a reformy spear aimed straight at teachers' heads. They make terrible deals for "a seat at the table" and try to justify them with, "It could have been worse." They try to oppose testing and stick by CCSS, which is like saying, "Okay, I accept that the earth is part of a solar system revolving around the sun, but I still believe it's a flat disc on a turtle's back." Unions have been failing miserably to draw new, young members, and they are entirely too quick to squelch dissent in the ranks.

But there is no way to stand up and be represented in the room with the people with the power in school districts without some sort of union.

The most effective way for management to get rid of a union has always been clear-- treat your employees well and build trust that you will watch out for their interests as carefully as you watch out for your own. Even if you have a union, the relationship does not have to be adversarial. I've known managers in industry who had excellent relationships with their unions because they were honest, transparent and fair, and in those businesses, the union became an effective way to help run the company better.

But if you have decided, as many reformsters have, that the interests of your employees, your teachers, is in direct opposition to your own interests, if you have decided that every win for them is a loss for you, then you are going to find yourself facing a hostile union or something like it. You have created a rocky path for yourself, and all the astroturf in the world will not smooth it out (not even if you fertilize it with bullshit). You cannot create better schools by crushing the teachers that work in them. It's a cliche, but it's the truth-- our working conditions are student learning conditions.


  1. " our working conditions are student learning conditions." Excellent, I like it. I didn't know it was a cliche. : )

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  3. If you can't beat 'em, you could always start your own school through the instructions in this Wikihow site:

    I love step six, "find excitable and willing students to welcome to your school." I understand that you might want your students to be willing, but wouldn't it be better if they were also even-tempered?