When Unions Lead Education Reform

Rachel M. Cohen November 9, 2017

Chicago school teachers display protest signs from inside a school bus as they leave a demonstration outside the Chicago Board of Education building on June 22, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the sum­mer of 1995, Adam Urban­s­ki, pres­i­dent of the Rochester Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, and Helen Bern­stein, for­mer pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Teach­ers of Los Ange­les (UTLA), orga­nized a group of union lead­ers from 21 locals across the coun­try to dis­cuss how teacher unions might mobi­lize their resources to strength­en and improve pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The Teacher Union Reform Net­work (TURN) launched one year lat­er, and over the next two decades, the vol­un­tary net­work would con­vene sev­er­al times per year to share ideas on how their Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) locals could do things dif­fer­ent­ly and better. 

In Octo­ber, mark­ing a notable shift for this gen­er­al­ly loose, infor­mal net­work of locals, TURN released their first-ever nation­al report—a chance, they say, to revi­tal­ize pub­lic edu­ca­tion and strength­en democ­ra­cy through the col­lec­tive wis­dom of teach­ers.” The report empha­sizes pri­or­i­ties that have been large­ly side­lined by cor­po­rate school reform­ers over the last few decades, such as strength­en­ing cit­i­zen­ship, pro­mot­ing racial inte­gra­tion and pro­vid­ing wrap-around social ser­vices. How­ev­er, lack­ing a well-defined orga­niz­ing strat­e­gy, it’s not clear how TURN’s ideas will amount to more than an aspi­ra­tional blueprint.

The report is divid­ed into four sec­tions: pro­mot­ing learn­er-cen­tered” schools, rec­og­niz­ing teach­ing as a pro­fes­sion, pro­mot­ing excel­lence with equi­ty and pro­mot­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for edu­ca­tion­al equi­ty. With­in each of these sec­tions, TURN lays out pol­i­cy ideas — rang­ing from the rel­a­tive­ly spe­cif­ic (sup­port­ing pre-kinder­garten and full-day kinder­garten pro­grams for all chil­dren) to the fair­ly vague (devel­op­ing authen­tic, per­for­mance-based and broad-based assessments”).

Fund­ed by the Ford Foun­da­tion, the report has four lead authors with deep ties to the labor move­ment. Adam Urban­s­ki is still pres­i­dent of the Rochester Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, and Ellen Bern­stein is pres­i­dent of the Albu­querque Teach­ers Fed­er­a­tion. Tom Alves is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sun Juan Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, and Richard Kahlen­berg is a senior fel­low at The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion. Urban­s­ki told In These Times that between solic­it­ing feed­back from oth­er TURN mem­bers at nation­al gath­er­ings and dis­trib­ut­ing the evolv­ing draft for elec­tron­ic input among their TURN region­al net­works, close to 1,000 edu­ca­tors helped them write it.

This was a huge change for the TURN net­work to come to a con­sen­sus,” said Bern­stein in an inter­view with In These Times, explain­ing that the project took them a lit­tle over three years to complete.

We’re advo­cates of improv­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion, not replac­ing it with char­ters and vouch­ers and pri­va­ti­za­tion,” Urban­s­ki said, empha­siz­ing that tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools can be lead­ers of change, and that the report could be viewed as a sum­ma­ry of our learn­ing over the last twen­ty years.”

TURN shares some sim­i­lar­i­ties with anoth­er grow­ing labor effort—Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good—where­by unions part­ner with local allies to push for more com­mu­ni­ty-ori­ent­ed demands in their con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, such as less puni­tive school dis­ci­pline poli­cies and more equi­table access to health­care. Although unions have gen­er­al­ly been legal­ly restrict­ed to bar­gain­ing over lit­tle more than wages and ben­e­fits, more locals are com­ing to think that ced­ing to this legal real­i­ty with­out a fight is nei­ther the right thing to do, nor some­thing unions can polit­i­cal­ly afford.

Like Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good, TURN mem­bers also believe teach­ers need to approach bar­gain­ing more cre­ative­ly and bold­ly. Specif­i­cal­ly, TURN wants to see unions nego­ti­ate over poli­cies that advance stu­dent learn­ing,” such as reduc­ing the num­ber of stan­dard­ized tests stu­dents must take while also push­ing for new kinds of assess­ments that mea­sure skills like creativity.

Ran­di Wein­garten, pres­i­dent of the AFT, told In These Times she can recall when her for­mer union, the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (UFT) in New York City, became a found­ing TURN mem­ber. At the time, she says, UFT was seen as a risk-tak­ing” local for join­ing this reform-mind­ed coali­tion. Today, how­ev­er, Wein­garten says TURN is seen not as unusu­al — but as the stan­dard oper­at­ing pro­ce­dure for teach­ers’ unions. She added that AFT’s val­ues are very much aligned” with TURN’s. Wein­garten, and the union is proud to join with TURN to turn their ideas into reality.

The NEA did not return mul­ti­ple requests for comment.

Some rank-and-file teach­ers have expressed skep­ti­cism about the TURN report — and TURN more generally.

Peter Greene, a class­room teacher of 39 years and a mem­ber and past pres­i­dent of his local NEA chap­ter in north­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, thinks TURN has an inter­est­ing his­to­ry, but their main achieve­ment seems to be find­ing unob­jec­tion­able broad descrip­tors for many of the same reform‑y ideas” that have long dom­i­nat­ed the debates. He says he thinks the four broad cat­e­gories includ­ed in TURN’s report are innocu­ous enough, but finds its lack of spe­cif­ic details suspicious.

For exam­ple, TURN calls for dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed pay” for cer­ti­fied teach­ers — as opposed to a tra­di­tion­al steps-and-lanes salary sched­ule. How­ev­er, TURN says this would be accom­plished with­out cre­at­ing a zero sum game in which aid to col­leagues reduces a teacher’s own chances of receiv­ing a fair finan­cial remuneration.”

Greene says the idea that school sys­tems could reward excel­lence with­out turn­ing it into a zero-sum game sounds nice. But with­out specifics, it’s just mag­ic think­ing,” he argues. School dis­tricts only have a finite amount of mon­ey. Every­thing is a zero sum game.”

Xian Franzinger Bar­rett, a pub­lic school teacher in Chica­go, told In These Times that the report’s over­all prin­ci­ples and vision tend to be pos­i­tive. But giv­en its lack of dis­cus­sion about the root caus­es of edu­ca­tion­al inequal­i­ty, he says TURN’s solu­tions seem insuf­fi­cient. It’s not enough to acknowl­edge that aus­ter­i­ty, racial seg­re­ga­tion and attacks on work­ers’ rights must end,” he says. We must face the real­i­ty that these are design fea­tures of the system.”

TURN’s report asks how edu­ca­tion can once again become the great equal­iz­er, and Bar­rett argues this change will come through teach­ing stu­dents to use their own pow­er to dis­man­tle unfair sys­tems. Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” he says, most of the teacher lead­er­ship groups’ neglect this focus of instruc­tion and education.”

For now, TURN lead­ers like Urban­s­ki and Bern­stein remain opti­mistic about their network’s poten­tial, and insist that a proac­tive, teacher-led pol­i­cy coali­tion can and will change long­stand­ing assump­tions about unions, school reform and pub­lic education.

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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