The big news—if you haven’t heard—is that the proposed Achievement First Mayoral Academy is moving forward, with important in Providence and Cranston this Wednesday (8/24) and at the Board of Regents (9/1). I’ll have more about that in the next three days.
Today’s post takes up the question of the teacher contracts. We have just seen the most important private-sector strike in years at Verizon, followed by what appears to be a retreat on the part of the unions. I was hoping for a hands-down victory for the unions against the highly profitable, tax-dodging company; that would have been extremely significant for all workers, including those in the public sector who are getting hammered by a crisis that started when governments everywhere bailed out the banks. We didn’t cause this crisis, and we shouldn’t have to pay for it; at Verizon, there is not crisis, and workers there should not have to pay. Instead, I think the return to work without a contract postpones the direct confrontation and puts the workers in a more difficult position. So it’s time for a teachers’ strike, right!?
Well, as much as some of us might want to see that, I think it not so likely in the immediate term. Instead, in a year when half the districts in the state have contracts up, we’ve seen a few contracts resolved already, and the results are not promising. Regular readers of this blog will already know the questions I and others have raised about the Providence contract; but now we also have contracts in South Kingstown and Cranston, and we’ll certainly see more in the coming weeks. I should state now, for the record: I think it highly unlikely that we’ll see a strike, as there hasn’t been one in four years in Rhode Island. And I suspect that the union leaders, both RIFT and NEARI, want to avoid such a situation at all costs.
In economic terms, the pattern seems to be this: zero raises for one or two or more years, increased healthcare costs, and (in the RIFT districts) a revised step scale. In Providence this means that step 10 is now step 12, and all the steps are pushed down. This is particularly unfortunate for folks who were on step 9 last year—they won’t actually reach the real step 10 for another two years. All of this means that teachers move backward in financial terms—and this seems to be true whether or not the district was hurt (SK) or helped (Cranston) by the Fair Funding Formula. One other aspect of this: these contracts seem to be gaining wide margins of approval in the locals, even though they move teachers back. This is particularly striking in the Cranston example, where the two-year pact replaces the last year of the old deal and cancels a scheduled raise. My interpretation of this is that people are scared by the example set in East Providence two years ago. The conventional wisdom seems to be: let’s keep our heads down and hope we don’t get hurt too badly.
But there’s another aspect to this, which is the question of conditions. And those conditions are about to change significantly, thanks to Commissioner Gist and her unique interpretation of RIDE policy. How can the leader have a “unique”, i.e. flawed, interpretation of policy? Simply put: the Basic Education Program does not mention seniority. But this did not stop Gist from calling openly for seniority to be abolished when she arrived in Rhode Island. RIDE has since been relatively quiet about this issue, but it was a clear signal to school administrations to start attacking seniority. This attack was quite sharp in Providence, and led to Criterion-based Hiring and the institution of “R’s in Pool”.
Now, numerous districts are pushing the limits, and it’s a big question in contract negotiations: how does seniority factor in to hiring decisions, promotions and transfers, etc.? The lawsuit launched by the Portsmouth School Committee earlier this summer will be significant for every district, so much so that the “non-economic” questions may be negotiated separately from the economic ones. So for example, teachers’ unions may settle on pay and healthcare without settling the questions of hiring, promotions, transfers, etc. I think this is a defensive modus operandi that accepts as a given the adverse conditions and that avoids mobilizing union members for protest or job actions—precisely those things that could actually shift the public discourse, which is currently entirely against us.
At stake here—and also in the question of the new evaluation system—is power. Specifically: does management have the power to manipulate teachers at will, or do teachers still have some of the protections they first won in the 1960s when collective bargaining became a basic right for public sector workers (in some places)? This is a very significant question—not just for individual teachers, but for the whole future of public education in general. I would argue that we’ve already seen a much more aggressive approach from management on all levels in the public schools since Gist arrived in Rhode Island. The signal has been given: make your teachers submit. But why?
The answer is: we are imposing education “reform” whether you like it or not. Whether it’s good for children or not (it’s not). Whether it attacks the poor and non-white or not (it does). Teachers’ unions are the main organizations that stand in the way of the imposition of standardized testing in all grades, scripted curricula, and a teach-to-the-test regimen that crushes the joy of learning and the role of creativity in education. Combined with the budget crisis, it means a tremendous narrowing of the curriculum, so that everything is focused on ELA and Math. To hell with art, music, physical education, foreign languages—even science and social studies are suffering. The direction and purpose of all this is a subject of debate—though I’d argue that a number of private interests with political connections stand to make a lot of money out of this “reform” movement.
But that makes it all that much more important that teachers and their unions stand up to the attacks—and not just in court. Action is decisive, and only mass action by teachers—action that disrupts the pro-management, “reform” status quo—will actually shift the terms of the debate and stop the demonization of teachers.