Appreciating Organized Teachers and Their Unions in Teacher Appreciation Week

For over two decades our public schools have been trapped in a wave of massive education disruption—an effort to reform education by holding schools and teachers accountable for raising students’ aggregate test scores. But it didn’t work.  Overall test scores haven’t risen. When almost all U.S. public schools were on track to be declared “failing,” before the 2014 deadline when all American students were supposed to be proficient, Arne Duncan created waivers to blackmail states to agree to impose his pet policies if he would let them off the hook from No Child Left Behind’s accountability system. It is a truth universally acknowledged that No Child Left Behind left millions of America’s poorest children far behind.

In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch defines recent decades as an age of education disruption: “Today’s Disrupters…. want to reinvent education, reimagine it, replace it with another approach, either through technology or a market-driven choice system in which government supplies the funds and parents send their children wherever they want. Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing…. Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The Corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation, because high-tech businesses do it…. The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Whether or not it is useful in the business world, it is not useful in the lives of children, who need stability, not disruption. Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training, such as Teach for America recruits… Such teachers are paid less than experienced teachers, and few will stay long enough to expect a pension or expensive health benefits… Disrupters like to move fast and break things, including school systems, historic schools, communities, and the lives of students, families and education professionals. They take pride in disrupting established institutions and other people’s lives… Disrupters are unmoved when students and parents plead for the life of a community school slated for closure. Corporate Disrupters do not respect the teaching profession… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders…. The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority, which they consider to be barriers to removing ineffective teachers. They prefer untenured teachers who are willing to work long hours without extra pay and who are likely to change careers after two or three years of teaching.” (Slaying Goliath, pp 27-50)

Ravitch concludes: “Years from now, historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50)

Back in the early 1990s, education policy debates were more likely to focus on inequitable and inadequate school funding from state to state and on what to do about growing racial and economic segregation. Advocates worried about disparities in access to opportunity across neighboring school districts. School funding court cases were likely emphasize disparities in inputs—money spent on experienced teachers, money spent to achieve smaller classes, money spent for advanced curriculum, money for support staff and enrichments like art and music.  But after the mid-1990s the emphasis changed; court cases were now framed on how much funding would be needed to raise outcomes as measured by standardized test scores. As the entire conversation shifted to raising test score outcomes, so much that matters in education fall by the way.  And when test scores didn’t rise, privatizers were waiting to seize the so-called “failing” schools.  School accountability pushed the old injustices aside. Test score outcomes, not disparities in inputs, became the focus through the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. And fighting the privatization of public schools became a necessary endeavor.

In the past couple of years, before the coronavirus came upon us and before schools shut down to protect students, the narrative had begun to shift back to what is important: building the political will to guarantee every child opportunity in the public schools. That guarantee, of course must be defined in terms of inputs—public investment across the states. I give thanks to organized teachers for this shifting narrative.

Schoolteachers and teachers unions have been instrumental in forcing our society once again to see what have become outrageous resource disparities—inputs—in public schools across the United States.  In this Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to express my gratitude to the #RedforEd school teachers who went on strike through 2018 and 2019.  Striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions their schools have suffered as revenue has collapsed—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  The education budget crisis is widespread and deep.  But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.  When their states failed to live up to promises, teachers have been willing to strike again, and smaller strikes across other states have continued to reinforce the message.

In a its most recent, 2019 report that compares states’ spending on education to where it was in 2008 prior to the Great Recession, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits teachers’ strikes with forcing some reluctant states to address urgent but long overlooked school funding needs: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”

And teachers showed us, in Los Angeles and Oakland particularly, that school districts have been devastated when an out of control charter school sector sucks money out of the local schools. In research released in conjunction with the Oakland strike, we learned that the school district loses $57.3 million every year when students take their funding to charter schools.

This year, organized teachers were leaders in another urgently important effort. When by mid-December, nobody had raised the needs of public schools in any of the debates held among a big field of Democratic candidates for President in 2020, teachers unions were instrumental in bringing 7 of the candidates to Pittsburgh for the Public Education Forum 2020. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers deserve thanks not only as primary funders of the event but also as conveners of an astounding partnership of sponsors, who brought organized urban parents, organized teachers, organized education support staff, civil rights organizations, philanthropic organizations, public school students and advocacy organizations to be part of an open conversation with the candidates for President. This was the most diverse and inclusive event I have ever attended. Organized teachers and the dues they pay were essential for bringing 1,500 representatives of an incredible coalition—the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education-Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino—together in common purpose.

Jitu Brown, executive director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, described state takeovers and school closures and declared, “We don’t have failing schools, but we have been failed…. People are fighting for justice (in their public schools) all over the country.”  One questioner—a public school student from Camden, New Jersey, plaintively asked the candidates why his school doesn’t have a librarian or a music teacher when he knows about other schools near his which have a library and a music program. A participant in the 34 day hunger strike which, in 2015, saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closure asked a candidate, “What will you do to help local schools avoid closures forced by privatizers?”  Several questioners asked candidates to support full-service, wraparound Community Schools, voiced support for culturally responsive curriculum, and asked candidates to address the school to prison pipeline with restorative justice programs.

At the Public Education Form 2020, several candidates including Joe Biden went on record to promise that if elected, they would prioritize tripling the investment in Title I, the federal education program whose purpose is to provide additional funding for public schools serving high concentrations of very poor children. Candidates were asked by participants to address the federal government’s chronic failure to live up to its promise to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, while this year, Congress is paying less than 15 percent.  And there was discussion of the outrageous lack of oversight in the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.  Not one of the candidates for President endorsed standardized test-based school accountability.

I know that this spring teachers deserve all the praise they are receiving for staying in touch to support their students and helping children transition to online learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. But my special thanks this year in Teacher Appreciation Week must go to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with all of their state and local affiliates and also to independent teachers’ organizations for their policy leadership. Organized teachers speaking on behalf of children, not merely for their own financial interests, have been instrumental in shifting the national conversation away from test score outcomes and back our collective responsibility for equalizing resource inputs.

One of my biggest worries during upcoming months is that with schools closed, with the media attention focused on the medical and business implications of the pandemic, we’ll all lose track of what public school educators have been teaching us all through the strikes and the incredible December forum in Pittsburgh.  A deep recession will inevitably follow the economic shutdown due to the pandemic, and the collapse of state budgets will inevitably threaten public school funding.

Privatizers and Disrupters—people who are unlikely to give up easily—are sure to seize the pandemic months as a time to restore their agenda in the public mind.  In his 2011 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why business interests and privatizers are likely to push back: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

This week, to organized teachers who have been teaching us all how we have failed our public schools and our children, and to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, I say thank you!  Please keep on keeping on.

Koch Brothers Plan New Scheme Fully to Privatize American Education—at Public Expense

Last Friday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described this year’s wave of strikes and walkouts by school teachers: “Something funny happened on the way to the labor movement’s funeral.  When Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his antilabor colleagues on the Supreme Court handed down the Janus v. AFSCME decision last June, unions braced for the worst.”  But, Milbank concludes: “Labor leaders ought to thank Alito—and send chocolates to the Koch brothers for bankrolling the anti-union court case.  Their brazen assault, combined with President Trump’s hostility toward labor, has generated a backlash, invigorating public-sector unions and making a case for the broader labor movement to return to its roots and embrace a more militant style.”

I don’t know about the implications for all of labor, and I’d argue with Milbank’s point that this year’s strikes by teachers have been primarily a response to the Janus decision. The growing wave of teachers’ strikes has instead been a cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay.

But Milbank is correct that the Janus decision has not undermined membership in the two big public sector teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association: “The American Federation of Teachers expected it might lose 30 percent of its revenue after the high court gave public-sector workers the right to be free riders, benefiting from union representation but paying nothing.  Instead, the 1.7 million-member union added 88,500 members since Janus—more than offsetting the 84,000 ‘agency-fee payers’ it lost because of the Supreme Court ruling… The NEA had projected a loss of as many as 200,000 members, based on previous drop-membership campaigns.  Instead, the 3 million-member union is actually up 13,935 members…and the increase in membership among new teachers is particularly encouraging.”

Milbank quotes Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, identifying the source of the money behind the attack on public sector unions that culminated in the Janus decision: “The Koch brothers and their team… expected us to hide under the bed and shake in our shoes… We stood up on soapboxes and stages and painted picket signs.”

It is a very good thing that the teachers’ unions are geared up for a fight, because on Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s James Hohmann reported: “The donor network led by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch will launch a new organization next month to focus on changing K-12 education as we know it.  The effort will begin as a pilot project focused on five states with a combined school-age population of 16 million kids, but officials said Monday that they aren’t ready to identify them yet because they’re still finalizing partnerships with some of the country’s leading educational organizations.”

The details of the new Koch-driven plan aren’t clear, but there are some hints: “Previewing their K-12 push, Koch strategists pointed to research being conducted with their financial support by Ashley Berner at Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for Education Policy.  Her main interest is expanding what she calls ‘educational pluralism,’ which is when government funds all types of schools, including explicitly religious ones, but does not necessarily run them.”

Hohmann quotes some of the background materials distributed when the new K-12 initiative was announced. These materials describe Berner’s work: “Berner points to examples such as the Netherlands, which funds 36 different types of schools, from Islamic to Jewish Orthodox to socialist…  Alberta, Canada funds homeschooling along with Inuit, Jewish, and secular schools.  In Australia, the central government is the nation’s top funder of independent schools. Other countries with plural school systems include Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.”

Hohmann quotes Berner, who calls her school choice plan “pluralism” and considers it a middle ground in the debate about the privatization of public education—even though her idea privileges privatized schools and seems entirely to erase the idea of a universal public school system: “It’s the democratic norm around the world.  In pluralism, choice and accountability are two sides of the same coin…  We’ve got to start supporting politicians who are willing to make compromises.  Americans are tired of the battles between charters and district schools; these take up too much energy and resources. A pluralistic system doesn’t pit entire sectors against one another.”

So… Berner steals the word “pluralism” as a new brand for multiple forms of school governance. According to Berner—and apparently the folks at the Koch network—pluralism in school governance seems to mean we’d have all sorts of privately governed and managed schools—all of them paid for with our tax dollars. The Koch Brothers are setting out to help Betsy DeVos realize her dream.

Hohmann quotes a Koch network spokesperson pretending that this new effort will not be anti-public school teacher: “For too long, this issue has been framed unnecessarily as us vs. them, public vs. private, teacher vs. student, parent vs. administrator… The teachers who have expressed frustration in the past several months are good people.  I mean, they’re teachers.  We all remember the positive impact that a teacher or several teachers have had on our lives.  They’re expressing legitimate concerns.  But the current approach means that nobody wins, so they need better options.”

Who are “the country’s leading educational organizations” with which the Koch Brothers plan to collaborate?  I am pretty sure these educational partners will not be the teachers’ unions.  In fact, we’ll be counting on the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to provide leadership as we try to protect public schools from this new attempt to privatize the common good.

Teachers Union Prevails at Supreme Court; Tomorrow CTU Will Show Why Unions Matter

On Tuesday, in the teachers’ union case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in a 4-4 split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of public sector unions to charge fees to non-members for the unions’ protection of all teachers in collective bargaining. The case intended to undermine the power of unions was brought by a libertarian organization, the Center for Individual Rights.  Ten California teachers had agreed to sue to eliminate the membership fees they are required to pay to their local teachers’ unions even though they are not members.  Tuesday’s split decision by the Court upholds a 1977 Supreme Court decision that divided union dues into two categories—establishing that non-members must pay their teachers’ unions for representing them in collective bargaining but that union members must also pay a second fee to support the unions’ political activities.

Lyle Denniston, writing for Scotus Blog, explains the significance of Court’s decision on Tuesday: “The most important labor union controversy to reach the Supreme Court in years sputtered to an end on Tuesday, with a four-to-four split, no explanation, and nothing settled definitely.  The one-sentence result in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association will leave intact, but on an uncertain legal foundation, a system of ‘agency fees’ for non-union teachers in California—with the legal doubts for public workers’ unions across the nation probably lingering until a ninth Justice joins the Court at some point in the future… The Court had heard the Friedrichs case on January 11 and, from all appearances then, it seemed to be on its way toward a five-to-four decision to declare that it would be unconstitutional for unions representing government employees to charge fees to workers they represent but who are not among its members, even when the fees cover the costs of normal union bargaining over working conditions, and not lobbying or outright political advocacy.  But the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month left the Court to either find a way still to decide the case, or to end it with an even split.”

Denniston continues by explaining what is likely to happen following the Court’s split decision this week: “Shortly after Justice Scalia died, the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group involved in the Friedrichs case, announced that it would ask the Justices to schedule a rehearing on the case if it were to split four to four.  The Center said at the time that it expected such a request would put the case off until the Court’s new Term, which is slated to begin on October 3.  Under the Court’s rules, a rehearing request in the Friedrichs case would have to be filed within twenty-five days following Tuesday’s ruling.  It would require the votes of five Justices to order such a reconsideration, and one of the five must have been one who had joined in the decision.  It is unclear how that rule would work when the judgment had been reached by an evenly divided Court.”

Why is the Friedrichs case so very important?  A decision against public sector unions’ collection of what are called “fair share” fees would have financially weakened unions.  Hannah Halbert of Policy Matters Ohio explains: “Fair share covers the administrative costs of bargaining and administering the contract.”  Strong unions matter in our society where the power of the top One Percent grows increasingly dominant. Unions are among the few powerful voices that challenge the growing influence of money through the super PACs. As unions representing industrial workers have faded, powerful public sector unions have become a target of the far-right. The National Education Association with 3.2 million members is the nation’s largest union.

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation commented on the broader significance of Friedrichs case in January during the oral arguments at the Supreme Court: “All unions—including, and perhaps especially public sector unions—also contribute to one of the most important foundational interests of the state: democracy.  And they do this in many different ways.  Unions are critical civic organizations that serve as a check on government power.  They are important players in promoting a strong middle class, upon which democracy depends.  They serve as schools of democracy for workers.  And teacher unions, in particular, help ensure that our educational system is sufficiently funded to teach children to become thoughtful and enlightened citizens in our self-governing democracy.”

No place is the important role of a public sector union more visible this week than Chicago, where the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has scheduled a one-day “action” tomorrow, April 1, to protest a budget morass across the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago that threatens not only the city’s K-12 public schools but also higher education and the health and social service sectors.  The school funding crisis in Illinois, complicated by the states’ failure to approve a budget for last year, is very real. The Education Law Center rates Illinois’ school funding distribution with a grade of “F” as being among the most inequitable across the states.  The Chicago school district which has been under mayoral control since 1995, is also trapped by massive long-term debt resulting from risky borrowing strategies that culminated in huge losses during the 2008 Recession, losses that Mayor Emanuel delays dealing with.  The Chicago Public Schools sold $725 million in bonds two months ago just to try to make it through the school year, but in early March, according to the Sun-Times, “Chicago Public School principals were being instructed… to stop spending money because the broke school district that has already imposed budget cuts, layoffs and unpaid furlough days is running out of cash to make a giant pension payment on June 30.” Governor Bruce Rauner’s failure to sign a budget for last fiscal year has also resulted in the threatened closure of Chicago State University.

Tomorrow’s protests will also target the governance of increasingly unpopular Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Teachers Union’s day of action will demonstrate the needs of Chicago’s children in public schools, and it will also provide a voice for others who are being left behind in the state and city budget crises. Here, according to Chicago’s DNA Info, is how CTU spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin describes the purpose of tomorrow’s one-day city shutdown: “Mayor Emanuel is tone deaf and blind to what is happening to the people of this city.  On April 1, we expect to be joined by a number of sectors facing budget cuts, layoffs, social-service cuts, university closure and people seeing a reduction of health-care benefits for low-income, immigrant and working-class people.”

DNA Info quotes the Service Employees International Union’s statement supporting the day-long action of the teachers: “SEIU Healthcare Illinois is proud to stand in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union and the April 1 day of action. Just like the teachers, the tens of thousands of nursing-home workers, home health-care workers and child-care workers whom we represent find themselves under attack at the bargaining table by Gov. Bruce Rauner and greedy nursing-home owners who refuse to honor their dignity.”

Teachers’ Union Engages Community to Confront Cult of Efficiency Pushed by Politicians

In her recent article in The Atlantic, Using the Restroom: A Privilege—If  You’re A Teacher, Alia Wong seems obsessed with one problem for teachers—particularly for elementary school teachers: There is little time in a school day for a teacher to have a few moments of solitude or get a cup of coffee or  use the restroom.  These problems were more serious back in the days before teachers’ unions grew their membership and their protections for teachers’ needs and rights.

I know something about this because my mother was an elementary school teacher. When we moved to Havre, Montana in 1960 in the middle of January, my mother immediately took a job to fill a mid-year opening.  It was the rule back then in Havre that teachers took the children outside twice every day for recess unless the temperature dipped lower than 15 degrees below zero. My mother’s first purchases in that town were a much warmer coat and boots with thicker pile lining. Teachers’ unions have brought teachers some relief—lunchroom aides and recess supervisors in many places—so that teachers have a few relatively short breaks during the school day.Personally I think that is a good thing.

I am always puzzled by what has become a dominant belief—that teachers have it easy. In a recent commentary, Jeff Bryant describes what we hear all the time: “that teachers have ‘cushy’ jobs with short workdays and summers off.  This attitude has become so run-of-the-mill that we actually have a political candidate running for president in the Republican Party—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—who openly chastises teachers for being ‘part time workers’ who get ‘full time pay.'”  I remember how hard my mother worked to keep her full time job in perspective as she fulfilled her other responsibilities in our family, and I also remember my friend Chelli’s mother—a truly dedicated elementary school teacher, whose crawl-space garage attic was so packed with lesson plans and projects from years of teaching that it took my friend months to empty it out after her mother died.  The materials in that garage attic reflected a history of generations of our community’s children.

Jeff Bryant documents the impact of the persistent trashing of teachers by the media and politicians, along with the impact of sanctions-based school reform and funding problems, on the pipeline of school teachers willing to do this hard work of managing and nurturing groups of children year after year: “Many states are currently experiencing steep drops in enrollments for teacher preparation programs.  As Education Week recently reported, ‘Massive changes to the profession, coupled with budget woes, appear to be shaking the image of teaching as a stable, engaging career.  Nationwide, enrollments in university teacher-preparation programs have fallen by about 10 percent from 2004-2012.'”  The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, and more recent programs from the Obama administration that emphasize rating and ranking of teachers by their students’ standardized test scores have fed teacher blaming.  While these test-and-punish policies have not significantly invested in improving schools, they have made firing teachers one of the punishments for schools in the poorest communities where it is difficult to raise test scores quickly.

Although these days teachers’ unions are routinely vilified by politicians and the media, it is in a very recent article from a leader of one of the biggest teachers’ unions, that we find the most complex and nuanced picture of the challenges for teachers and the role of a local union affiliate in trying to improve the schools on behalf of children.  Mary Cathryn Ricker, formerly the president of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Federation of Teachers and now executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, describes her union local’s years-long effort to counter what she experienced as the dominant view of teachers’ unions: “On a local TV station’s evening news show, a Minnesota Republican state senator, Richard Day, had even declared, ‘We all know Minneapolis and St. Paul schools suck.'” Ricker led a local teachers union that, “crafted A New Narrative for Teachers, Educators, and Public Education, which became our guiding document.  Our narrative was anchored by five key themes: we are committed to building a good society; we believe in honoring the value of and cultivating each student’s potential; we believe that working in community is essential to student success; and we believe that educating students is a craft that requires talented and committed professionals.  We are committed to working collectively as a powerful force for justice, change, and democracy.”

Ricker’s union set out to engage parents and the community around realizing these goals—ultimately by opening up contract negotiation meetings to the community, who became increasingly engaged by the issues that matter to parents: “In 2011, we went into contract negotiations with a more developed plan to democratize the process.  We encouraged anyone involved with the education of St. Paul children to attend.  We managed to schedule negotiations on the same evening every week—Thursdays from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.—to help fit it into busy lives.  The first session attracted just eight people, but the audience grew steadily after that.  By the end of the nine-month-long process, nearly a hundred union members, parents, and others from the St. Paul community were showing up….” In 2012, the union formed study groups that included parents and members of the community, a process that led up to the expiration of the contract in 2013: “In April 2013, the study groups presented their contract ideas to our union’s executive board.  The priorities included: educating the whole child, authentic family engagement, smaller and more predictable class sizes, more teaching and less testing, culturally relevant education, high quality professional development for teachers and education assistants, and a significant increase in access to our preschool program.  After a thoughtful discussion, we adopted their priorities and directed the union’s bargaining teams to negotiate on that basis.”

The school district balked, however:  “In Minnesota, matters not directly related to a teacher’s wages, benefits, or working conditions are permissive, not mandatory subjects of bargaining.”  The district also demanded that the negotiations go into mediation, a closed-door process that shut out the public.  The union, however, had engaged the community so deeply in the process that the community ultimately joined with teachers to demand the kind of reforms the community had said were needed by the children.  And the union threatened to strike.  “In the end, we averted the strike and made progress on nearly every issue for which we had fought.  We won a commitment to expand the preschool program and to hire additional nurses, counselors, librarians, and social workers.  We won an agreement for reasonable and predictable class sizes and a reduction of standardized testing.”

Ricker describes how the teachers’ union working with the community was successfully able in St. Paul to counter what Jeff Bryant calls the “cult of economic efficiency” that threatens not only the well being of school teachers but also the future of the institution of public education in America:  “So what’s going on here?  For sure, those who say teachers have a cushy job—including blowhard pols like Christie—are to be ignored.  But like what so often happens in the current education debate, contentious arguments get mired in detail while much bigger issues are allowed to lurk in the background unaddressed.  Those much bigger, unaddressed issues affecting teachers’ work environments are the current love affair with economic efficiency and the cognitive dissonance among believers in the education ‘reform’ movement that although teachers are  the ‘single most significant’ determiner of students academic outcomes, we need to make their jobs harder and less secure… For instance, lawmakers continue to pass budgets and push policy ideas that increase class sizes or fail to reduce them where class sizes are too large… (Y)ou can always find an economist, usually working for a conservative think tank, who argues that class size matters little to student test scores… Another favorite of the efficiency cult is to tie teacher pay to student test scores, either through performance pay scales or an evaluation process… Research also shows teachers’ evaluations based on student test scores continue to be mostly inaccurate, unreliable, and subject to too many variables.”

While teachers’ unions have helped teachers like those described by Wong in The Atlantic who need a break once in a while during the day to meet their basic needs, Mary Cathryn Ricker demonstrates how the teachers’ union in St. Paul, Minnesota accomplished so much more.  With strong leadership and a democratic process that listened to members and worked with the community, the union brought its institutional power behind an effort to confront “the cult of efficiency” that Bryant decries and to insist that the public schools better serve the myriad needs of the students.

I urge you to read both Bryant’s and Ricker’s articles.