Latest in Detroit Schools Tragedy: Possible Resolution on Teacher Pay for Days Worked

My husband’s aunt, who would be 115 years old if she were alive today, did not believe in teachers unions.  As a young woman in West Virginia she taught for several years.  She boarded in someone’s home, occupied a second floor bedroom, and ate meals with the family.  As she got older, she came to believe that teachers today are spoiled. Early in the 20th century, teaching was the occupation of young women who stopped working when they married and their husbands supported them. My husband’s aunt didn’t believe school teachers needed a living wage. Times have changed, but apparently many people fall back on unexamined habits of thought.

If there has ever been a time when the importance of a teachers union ought to be obvious, we’ve reached it right now in Detroit.  Thank goodness Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, could drop everything yesterday and rush to Detroit to support the local Detroit Federation of Teachers as they negotiated a better outcome for Detroit’s teachers.  Weingarten is quoted by the Detroit Free Press: “It is outrageous and appalling that people who have been the glue of this system cannot even be guaranteed a salary for the work that they do.”

After two days’ of teacher sickouts, the Associated Press reported last night that after intense negotiations between the school district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, with the added weight of national AFT staff, came an assurance from Detroit Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that teachers will be paid for all of their work during this school year. The Michigan Senate has already passed a $720 million long-term rescue plan originally proposed by Governor Rick Snyder to aid the school district. Late yesterday the Michigan House Appropriations Committee finally voted to approve its own rescue plan; it will move forward for a vote by the full House later this week. However, the plan approved by the House committee yesterday reduces the rescue plan from $720 million to $500 million and will restrict labor agreements and collective bargaining in the future for Detroit’s teachers. If the House passes its own plan, House and Senate will still need to reconcile their bills.

Treatment of school teachers has been a real problem this week in Detroit, where there has been wrangling in the Michigan legislature about cutting teachers’ pay for work they have already done during this school year. Lori Higgins reported for the Free Press that two-thirds of Detroit’s teachers are on what is called “an extended pay plan” by which they have arranged that their pay for the nine-month school year is instead broken into twelve installments to ensure that part of their income arrives over the summer.  It is very common for school teachers all over the country to be paid on twelve-month schedules.

The current Detroit Schools’ emergency manager, Judge Steven Rhodes, held a news conference on Tuesday to explain that emergency state aid of $48.7 million allocated to the district last month by the legislature will cover expenses only through June, and that teachers on 12 month pay schedules would not be paid over the summer, as promised in their contracts, for work completed.  Higgins quoted Judge Rhodes: “We said all along that the $48 million… was only enough money to fund our expenditures through June and any expenditures we were obligated to pay after July 1 would have to come from the reform legislation.” The plan was that upcoming reform legislation in the form of a $720 million rescue plan would cover the summer paychecks.  Higgins added that leaders of the Detroit Federation of Teachers remember Rhodes’ telling them in March that the $48.7 million would be enough to pay all the teachers for their work this year, including those on 12 month contracts. Rhodes told teachers earlier this week that he did not recollect that conversation.

Yesterday was the second day of a “sickout” organized by the Detroit Federation of Teachers to protest the legislature’s failure to solve the fiscal crisis for Detroit’s public schools.  Higgins reported that, Kevin Cotter, the Speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives does not seem sympathetic to the teachers participating in the protests: “These egotistical teachers have lashed out at the children who rely on them and accomplished nothing but disrupting their students’ education.  Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.”  This is, of course, the sort of rhetoric for which Michelle Rhee was famous.  She was fond of castigating teachers for prioritizing their own needs over the needs of  “StudentsFirst.”

Richard Perez-Pena, writing for the NY Times provides the background about the financial crisis in Detroit’s schools, a crisis that has developed under appointed state fiscal managers: “Several years in a row, the district has done short-term borrowing just to keep operating; and with little ability to repay, nearly all of that debt just gets rolled over into the next year’s budget.  The district’s year-end budget deficit ballooned to a projected $320 million this year from $94 million in 2013—nearly half the total $667 million general-fund budget.  And that doesn’t count the district’s immense long-term obligations: $3.5 billion in debt, pensions, and other costs.”  Perez-Pena adds: “A year ago (Governor Rick) Snyder, a Republican, proposed a $715 million aid package for the Detroit district, but it has been bogged down in the Republican-controlled legislature…  In January, the district warned it would simply run out of cash and have to shut down in April, with more than two months left in the school year.  To avoid that, the governor and the Legislature approved $48.7 million in emergency aid in March, but that was enough to keep the doors open only through the end of the year.”

Perez-Pena adds that the district’s financial crisis has made working and learning in Detroit’s school very difficult.  Class size in grades 6-12 is set at 38 students, though a shortage of teachers has created even larger classes in many schools.  “Many of the schools are literally falling apart, with crumbling plaster, water damage and leaks, roaches, rats and mold in the buildings.”

In addition to huge expenses for debt service, Perez-Pena attributes the crisis to, “the sharp decline in the city’s population. In addition, more than half the students going to publicly funded schools in the city attend charter schools, which have proliferated in the last generation.”  Ideological support for charter schools among Michigan’s legislators has resulted in the closure of neighborhood public schools and at the same time sucked money out of the public system. Expansion of market choice through charters has not worked as intended in Detroit.  The state legislature has neither adequately regulated charters nor reigned in the for-profit charter chains that dominate Michigan’s charter sector.

Last year the alarm was sounded by Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the organization that launched the movement for “portfolio school reform” and that generally enthusiastically supports school choice through the expansion of charters. In the summer of 2014, after Lake visited Detroit, she offered this critique of Detroit’s charter school sector: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

In the meantime, some legislators have seemed willing to use the financial crisis in the public schools as a way to avoid paying school teachers for days they have already spent working with the city’s children.  It is a good thing that some resolution seems to be emerging, but it has been very clear this week that Detroit’s teachers have needed their union to protect their basic rights. The situation in Detroit is appalling.

Why Unions for Teachers in Public Schools and Colleges?

Why do educators need unions?  Aren’t teachers professionals and doesn’t it diminish their professionalism if they join unions?  These are questions underneath several of the big issues in education—charter schools as non-unionized competitors for public schools—the role of due-process rights for teachers—the cost of professional salaries for teachers and the cost of fringe benefits and pensions at a time when many politicians want to slash taxes and reduce the size of government.  It is sometimes instructive to look at an old issue from another angle, however, and the plight of adjunct faculty in colleges and universities is another context to examine the need for unions.

Adjunct faculty are the teachers who, these days, are likely to have earned a Ph.D. but have not found full time work.  It used to be that these part time college teachers were found teaching remedial classes or any of the many sections of freshman English, but increasingly they are picking up courses across the academic disciplines.  In an important piece in The American Prospect, Justin Miller explains:  “Part-time. Contingent. Non-tenure track. Casual. Adjunct. Non-standard. Peripheral. External. Ad hoc. Limited contract. New model. Occasional.  Sessional. Call them what you will, but these professors have now become the majority of college and university faculty.  Their jobs are defined by low pay, limited instructional resources, tenuous employment security, and a complete lack of institutional support for their own research and writing.  Contingent faculty has become a subset of the new working poor—the subset with Ph.D.s… Today, part-time adjunct instructors comprise more than half of all faculty (not including those at for-profit institutions); another 20 percent are full-time without tenure.”  Miller adds that of all college faculty, “Just 30 percent are traditional tenured or tenure-track appointments.”

The phenomenon of colleges hiring adjunct faculty is a subset of what is now called “just-in-time” employment.  Instead of staffing on a regular, full-time schedule, employers wait to see exactly their needs and then hire by the task—whether it is hiring a waitress on short notice for peak hours or finding guys to unload a truck right after it has come into town or hiring a college teacher for an extra section of freshman English during fall semester when most arriving students try to take that course.  Originally the idea was that contingent faculty would spend a few years gaining experience before joining a tenured faculty, but as colleges have been forced to cut spending, more and more adjuncts have become trapped in a system in which they earn between $2,700 and $3,500 per course and patch together employment from a number of colleges and universities across a region just to try to make ends meet.  Many find that no matter how hard they hustle, their families need food stamps and Medicaid to survive.

Over the years unions have been slowly increasing their membership among contingent college staff: “Traditional higher education unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and the National Education Association had been organizing contingent faculty for decades—mostly, however through comprehensive faculty unionization efforts, not by specifically targeting contingents.” They are now stepping up efforts, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has launched what it calls the “Faculty Forward” initiative, demanding benefits along with year-long contracts for the adjuncts it organizes.

Joe Berry of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) is, according to Miller, credited with developing a regional, rather than a college-by-college organizing strategy. Miller quotes Berry: “That’s the way building trades organized 130 years ago—not by individual employer, but by those practicing the craft in that immediate area and then they made all employers have the same standards.  Entertainers—the musicians, the actors—organized on that basis. There’s a lot of precedent…. It’s the workplace-appropriate strategy for organizing this sector.”  A regional union for contingent faculty makes very good sense for a Ph.D. who in one semester drives considerable distances each week to teach classes at community colleges in three counties plus another class at the state university.

Due to persistent cuts in state budgets from the combined long term effects of the Great Recession and tax cutting across many states, Miller believes when organizing is undertaken within institutions, is likely to be more successful at private than in public colleges and universities.  He cites Tufts as an example: “In Tufts’s School of Arts and Sciences, more than half of the instructors are not in the tenure stream.  In September 2013, part-time lecturers voted to form a union… About a year after the unionization vote, the administration and the union settled on a contract that’s since become a model for SEIU’s Faculty Forward campaign.  It offers, at a minimum, year-long contracts for all adjuncts and up to three-year contracts for those with more experience.  The part-time lecturers also get first notice and a guaranteed interview for full-time openings.  Increased compensation was, of course, a key part  of the contract, with as much as a 40 percent pay bump for those teaching Romance languages.  By 2016, all part-timers will make at least $7,300 per course; those with eight years of service will earn a minimum of $8,760.  And work done outside the classroom will be compensated.”

Teachers—whether in public schools, or in charter schools, or in colleges and universities—need protection of their rights and salaries in an economy that seeks to cut costs as its first priority.