This summer, when President Obama laid out his plan to reshape public education, he wasn’t subtle with his symbolism: he was introduced by an eighth-grader from a charter school. Soon after, teacher activists from LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC met in Los Angeles. These reformers shared strategies to build union caucuses with parents and shape an alternative to the federal education plan.
The president’s "Race to the Top" fund, championed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, promises billions in federal dollars to cash-strapped states. But there will be "winners and losers," Obama says. The unprecedented payout takes a bead on teachers’ unions. Money will flow to districts that alter pay and seniority provisions in union contracts and states that roll out the carpet for (mostly non-union) charter schools.
Nonprofit and private charter school operators stand to make big gains from the federal incentive package. Several states have already amended their laws to expand charter schools, which are publicly-funded, but privately-managed. For instance, the Los Angeles Unified School District took a big step in that direction in August as charter operators and other groups got a crack at running 250 city schools, including 50 new, taxpayer-funded buildings.
"They got just what they didn’t have: real estate," says Alex Caputo-Pearl, a United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) board member.
Parents, students, and teachers from Garfield High in East LA protest outside the School Board on August 25, the day it passed a motion to expand charter schools—photo from UTLA
Since 2005, a reform coalition has run UTLA, bolstered by growing rank-and-file engagement in various caucuses, including Progressive Educators for Action, which helped propel the current leadership into power. The union has fought hard against layoffs, charters, and cuts to funding and health-care benefits. Teachers from several LA caucuses joined the July sessions, including some who launched hunger strikes against layoffs and criticized union leaders’ cancellation of a planned one-day strike in May. Some caucus members say the union’s effort to stem the charter tide was too little, too late. All agreed that UTLA’s focus needed to center on charters—fast. Proposals for the first round of new schools are due by November, giving charter operators with ready-made proposals a distinct advantage.
UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt says the union is moving on a multi-faceted plan, including possible legal challenges to the motion, which does not honor district rules ensuring teachers and parents a deciding vote on any charter conversion. Instead, the school superintendent will recommend bidders to the school board. UTLA contract language ensures teachers will be union in any new school built to relieve overcrowding, but it’s unclear whether the board plans to respect that.
The union is focused on organizing charters, following a victory this spring at Accelerated Charter, where teachers approached UTLA about joining up. Union leaders are also working with teachers at schools targeted for conversion and plan to put in their own bids for union-run schools. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Boston local just opened its first this year.
Pechthalt says the teacher-led vision "is not rocket science." It entails democratic control over budgets and curriculum that teachers, parents, and administrators can tailor to the school site. Past attempts to publicize such plans in the face of rampant teacher-bashing in the media, however, have been difficult. "We have to improve on that," says Pechthalt, "so that after a few months people can say, ‘I agree with the teachers’ vision for schools.’"
Chicago: Activists Everywhere
In a gentrifying Latino neighborhood in Chicago, Kristine Mayle learned firsthand about the "renaissance" Obama’s Department of Education wants to bring to the rest of the nation. The district shut down the award-winning De La Cruz Middle School where she worked, citing low enrollment and the need for major renovations, only to later lease the building to the charter operator United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) for $1.
Community organizations and parents from a feeder elementary school fought to extend De La Cruz’s life, however, the district, which had already authorized UNO schools in the area, was intent on the operator, despite its promise not to reopen the building for charter use.
UNO has a reputation for cherry-picking students. Mayle says UNO students were routinely kicked back to her school. UNO hires very few special education teachers, thereby failing to maintain De La Cruz’s legacy as a highly-touted special ed provider.
Secretary of Labor Duncan’s national initiative was born in Chicago where charters continue to expand under a privatization plan he brokered as schools chief in 2004. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has lost 6,000 members and 70 neighborhood schools have closed since 2001, making a new law that expands charter schools especially foreboding.
"There really was no pushback from the CTU at the onset of this program and now we have to play catch-up," said Kenzo Shibata of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE).
CTU Chief of Staff John Ostenburg responds, "We’ve been fighting this from the beginning," noting the union’s yearly actions against closings and its stalled push in the statehouse for a moratorium on Duncan’s plan. The AFT-affiliated CTU negotiated card check rights at new charters and the local organized several campuses of the state’s largest operator.
Several CORE members were at the LA meeting. Originally formed in spring 2008 to push the CTU to stand up to the city’s school restructuring plan, the youthful caucus grew quickly. CORE’s website offers news and grievance forms and features its candidates for pension trustees, who promised to forestall plans to slash the teachers’ fund. Members are active on Chicago-area news and blog comment sections, an attempt to counter teacher-bashing. Shibata says a "Twitter army" posts live reports from school board meetings and teacher actions. "We’re everywhere," he says.
Over the winter, teachers worked with the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a collection of community organizations and parent groups, turning out more than 1,000 people to protest 22 slated school closures. "The CTU finally joined the protest and then released a flyer to delegates saying they organized it," says Shibata. "Either way, we got them out and won a big victory." The board decided not to close six schools.
New York: Two Tiers
Charters are knocking on the door at dozens of New York schools, too, regardless of reputation. Public School 123, for example, now shares a building with Harlem Success Academy (HSA), after the city’s Department of Education (DOE) forced the elementary school (good test scores and all) to relinquish its third floor to the charter operator.
Over the summer, HSA hired contractors to dismantle classrooms while district dollars paid for renovations—of HSA’s floor only. Parents and teachers gathered outside, chanting, "Paint the whole school!"
When classes began in September, teachers and parents protested again after finding the school in disarray. Movers had piled teachers’ equipment into unmarked boxes to make way for HSA. A special education class was moved to a dusty basement and other classes were pushed into the library.
"The charters tell the city they need more space," says Brian Jones, a teacher activist, "and the DOE is doing back-flips to make it happen."
Charter companies focus on New York’s largely black neighborhoods. "You don’t see charter conversions happening on the Upper East Side," Jones says. They are exploiting a legacy of racial tension that has festered within the AFT-affiliated United Federation of Teachers (UFT) since 1968, when the NYC union went on strike to protest attempts by African-American communities to take more control over school management and curriculum.
A handful of reform groups continue to chip away at UFT’s ruling Unity caucus, in power for four decades. Sally Lee of Teachers Unite, which organizes workshops on union and workplace rights, says decades of Unity caucus rule have made the union either an enigma or a stigma for new teachers—who see themselves more as individual activists in their classrooms. "We can only address this system by collectively organizing," says Lee, whose organization primes new teachers to run for chapter chair. "And we already have this powerful teacher organization to do it."
Lee and other New York teachers shared cautionary tales at the LA meeting about national AFT President Randi Weingarten. As president of the New York local, she negotiated a 2005 contract that included merit pay and the oddly-named "mutual consent," which allows principals to ignore seniority when filling teaching positions.
DC And Detroit: Secret Talks
The charter takeover has been achieved quietly in Detroit and DC, where around half of school kids in each city are now enrolled in charters. Under the emergency control of a state-appointed manager, Detroit opened 29 fewer schools this fall and put many high schools under control of private management groups.
The next target is the teachers’ contract. The prospect of a proposed 10 percent wage cut, elimination of step increases, and increased fines for work stoppages from $250 to $7,500 per day drew thousands of Detroit teachers to protest in late August. Talk of a strike circulated.
The union leadership agreed instead to extend contract talks until the end of October—a delaying tactic that’s become familiar for teachers in DC. A small outspoken group of teachers and union officials there has challenged the threat of a concessionary contract for two years.
Vice President Nathan Saunders and Trustee Candi Peterson have criticized President George Parker (and Weingarten, who joined the DC talks over the winter) for keeping teachers out of the loop and failing to mobilize rank-and-file pressure against schools chief Michelle Rhee. Teacher activists drew Parker’s ire this fall for publicizing details of a draft contract, which included plans for large buyouts of veteran teachers and a "mutual consent" provision like New York’s.
Union leaders at the LA meeting shared strategies for caucus building with Saunders, who is gearing up for an election run in 2010. Upon return, the DC duo pre-empted Rhee’s announcement of coming layoffs, calling the community to join rank-and-file educators at a protest in front of district offices.
Wherever the Secretary of Education has sold his "reforms," large chunks of public money have disappeared into private hands—and local unions find themselves under siege. AFT’s Weingarten has maintained her openness to it all, as long as reforms remain fair for teachers and good for students. The National Education Association, by contrast, came right out and said it: Obama’s plan for more charters, more reliance on test scores, and more union concessions, does neither.
Duncan has stumped for the Federal plan coast to coast. Teacher reformers, now equipped with a fledgling network of activists, aren’t waiting any longer to go national themselves.
Paul Abowd lives in Detroit, where he writes for Labor Notes. His work has appeared in Monthly Review WebZine and The Electronic Intifada. This article is reprinted here with permission from Labor Noteswhere it first appeared in the October issue.