Saturday, June 30, 2012

Teacher Voice and Unions: Rivals or Partners?

I'm a member of a teacher voice group, and a member of a union.  Well actually more than a member - an activist.  I value both experiences a great deal.  I struggle to bring them together.
The Teacher Leader Network Forum (TLNF), the granddaddy of teacher voice groups, has been a valuable community for me to talk to teachers across the country, and broaden my perspective on education policy and its impact on the classroom.  At the same time, as a union activist, I have my hands on levers to make that policy perspective influence local and state policy.  I see the two things working together, but I also feel a tension between teacher voice and teacher unionism.
The emergence of a plethora of teacher voice groups such as VIVA (Voice Ideas Vision Action), Teach Plus, Educators for Excellence, and the Center for Teaching Quality (sponsor of TLNF) throw that tension into higher relief.  These groups tend to be nimble, low budget, and high tech - and very effective in developing a big picture perspective in participants.  The question becomes are they alternatives to the unions or are they complementary?
Unions theoretically are supposed to bring the voice of workers to the table.  They suffer some disadvantages in that task in education.  They are huge, expensive bureaucracies which become caught up in issues of institutional sustainability which often can obscure their original intent and purpose.  Their orientation to economic issues, while essential to public policy, obscures important professional issues, weakening impact and credibility.  The focus at the state and local level on the nuts and bolts of unionism, on the legalistic aspects of contract negotiation and administration, obscures the big picture.
In the best of both worlds, the union would cultivate the capacity of members to see the big picture, then marry that perspective to the nuts and bolts of policy making via collective bargaining agreements and legislation.  Unfortunately, engagement of a high capacity membership is not perceived to be in the best interests of the union bureaucracy.
In the best of both worlds, teacher voice groups would help teachers not just become adept at persuading the powerful, but actually become powerful themselves.  Unfortunately, the messiness of power is often treated as "unprofessional," as if we could somehow surf above the fray, pure and innocent and virtuous.
What if we thought of unions and teacher voice groups as complementary, rather than mutually exclusive?
I just heard of an effort to bring together a union and a teacher voice group in partnership.  Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, invited VIVA to build a teacher voice network in the gateway (smaller) cities of Massachusetts.  Toner regards VIVA as a partner who can build the capacity of the union by engaging teachers with interests beyond the traditional bread and butter issues of industrial unionism.  VIVA, for its part, partners with an organization with a robust capacity for making real impact in terms of access to the levers of power that can make the vision real.
There is a risk for both: an engaged membership may make uncomfortable demands on the union; the teacher voice group may have to descend from the ivory tower into the impure realm of political sausage making.  But the potential results in terms of great public policy, as well as the health and well being of both institutional partners, seem well worth the risk.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rights: Use'm or Lose'm

It is one thing to have rights, another to have a mechanism for exercising those rights, and yet a third to actually exercise them.
On the first and second points, there is an active national effort to destroy our limited rights to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (expressed in the first amendment) and due process (as in the fourteenth amendment aka just and sufficient cause.)  We as teachers typically exercise those rights through our unions and through an orderly grievance process spelled out in collective bargaining agreements, rather than avail ourselves of remedies available through the legal system. 
Yes, as teachers and public employees we labor under restrictions that do not apply to the general public, but historically we have had certain rights and protections pertaining to our chosen profession.  State by state, those rights and protections are being systematically stripped away, a death by a thousand cuts.
Both the rights (expressed through collective bargaining) and the mechanism for expressing those rights (a system of grievances and arbitration which sits outside the court system) are being abrogated.  My view is that this allows deferred compensation such as pensions to be treated as a piggy bank by unscrupulous politicians.  The disempowerment of workers facilitates our rightward lurch towards a capitalist/fascist dystopia.
On the third point, for those of us who have not yet experienced the cataclysm which is North Carolina, Wisconsin or Michigan, rights mean nothing whatsoever if they are not actively enforced.  Every act of meek submission to authority is another nail in the coffin of teacher voice.
Too many of us view teaching as apolitical, on the excuse that conflict will hurt our students.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As government employees OUR JOBS ARE POLITICAL!  That is reality.  It goes against our natures, as the sort of human beings who enter a service profession, to embrace conflict.
The bottom line is that the conflict has embraced us.
It is not our fault.  It becomes our fault if we don't push back by whatever means are at our disposal.  Yes, some of those means are political.  The venues can be corrupt and scary.  Activism and leadership require courage - the courage to live with the consequences of your inevitable mistakes.
Those who would destroy our profession, "destroy the village to save the village," fail to realize that every act of disempowerment promulgated against educators, students, and citizens is a distraction from our core mission and a disruption of school culture and community.  Culture and community are critical to a successful education system. 
I don't believe we should be blaming teachers by complaining about their passivity.  This is a symptom of an increasingly dysfunctional and totalitarian political culture.  Rather, we should acknowledge the harsh realities of citizenship and government employment, and as compassionate leaders help nurture engagement. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Could Ike Have Foreseen the Education-Industrial Complex?

In his farewell speech in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the new military-industrial complex.  What he perhaps did not foresee was how that complex would become a paradigm for policy making outside the field of defense.  In the excerpt below I changed a few words, such as “military” to “education” and “federal contract” to “foundation grant”, and am struck by how Eisenhower’s prescient warning rings true for education in 2012.
"This conjunction of an immense education establishment and a large education industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the education-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge commercial and education machinery with our peaceful methods and goals, so that we may prosper together.
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-education posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.  In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary teacher, toiling in her classroom, has been overshadowed by task forces of researchers in foundations and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a foundation grant becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
The structure of the military-industrial complex has become a meme. It has recreated itself in the schools and universities of America.  A shadowy, revolving door world of government and quasi-government agencies, think tanks, foundations, corporations, universities, political and advocacy groups, and private contractors, form the ecosystem of education policy.  Oh yes – and unions, to be fair.  We need to call this out – it is the Education-Industrial Complex.
A self-reinforcing scientific-technological elite, detached from the everyday realities of the work, performs vast social engineering experiments behind closed doors in a cloud of group-think and acronyms.  Fueled by the endemic soft corruption of revolving six figure sinecures, as members pass easily from government to foundation to university, etc., this elite presumes to manipulate the masses of citizenry for their own good.
I have seen this with my own eyes.
It will take an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to deal with the consequences.  But where will that citizenry come from if their education is being engineered by people whose interests are money, status, and power, rather than democracy?

Monday, June 11, 2012

I Wanna Vote For This Guy For Something

Van Jones gave an incredible speech at Netroots Nation.  I wanna vote for this guy for something.  He said many things that made a lot of sense to me.  Watch the video.
One was, reelect Obama, then hold him accountable.  You can’t elect a president, then say “Mission accomplished!” and go home.  That was the fundamental error of 2008.  You have to stay active and committed and push the guy to do the right thing.  It reminds me of what Saul Alinsky said:
It is not enough just to elect your candidates. You must keep the pressure on. Radicals should keep in mind Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to a reform delegation, “Okay, you've convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!” Action comes from keeping the heat on. No politician can sit on a hot issue if you make it hot enough.
The same lessons apply to unions.  Support your union.  Make it stronger.  Then hold it accountable. You can’t declare victory and leave.  The pressure has to be applied continuously.  Unions built the middle class. Everything Jones says about Obama applies to unions. 
Let’s take it down another order of magnitude.  Our local just reached tentative agreement with the school district.  We have controversial provisions.  Yes, you can get pissed off and walk away.  But Jones’ message resonates even here: ratify, then administer.  If you ratify, then go home for four years, you deserve what you get.
Organizing and activism are a pain in the butt.  Too bad.  That’s the price we pay for democracy.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

You're Fired!

I've met an incredible artist and human being here at Netrroots - Paradise Gray.  A Democracy for America Scholar, he is my roommate here in Providence.  He is a Hip Hop producer and activist who uses video for the political empowerment of urban youth.  His artistic partner is singer Jasiri X, who is featured in the video below.  As a musician, this style was outside my experience, but once I got know their work, I could see the extraordinary technical mastery, the bold political commitment, and best of all the universal appeal.  

Enjoy, look up Jasiri X on YouTube - there are dozens of powerful videos. Please share and tweet.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Awakening a Sleeping Giant

NEA vice president Lily Eskelsen's Netroots Nation keynote last night addressed the attacks on NEA.  She spoke of how we are on the front lines, because eliminate us, and the 1% takes away the largest single institution defending the middle class.
I saw this coming years ago.  I always believed that my union should be much more proactive in reaching out and embracing the aspirations of other working people, even if that occasionally meant compromising some of our institutional priorities.  I believed that vigorous action when others, such as private sector unions, were the front line would protect our union. 
Too late.
This why I have always had an interest in progressive causes and have tried to learn from leaders of other unions. It’s why I provide as much support as possible to groups like the Vermont Workers Center.
There is a tension between my interest in collateral circulation with other activists and my union's need for control.  In internal conversations concerning member engagement one point always stands out:
The problem with membership engagement is that you end up with....engaged members.
Engaged members make mistakes.  Engaged members may not have enough experience because they haven't had a chance to make mistakes.  They may do things that contradict the leadership, either accidentally or on purpose.  But if they just pay other people to be activists, they never learn how to be active themselves.  Lurking in the background: an awakened membership may well make different demands on its own leadership.
In order to have a truly engaged and effective membership, union leadership and staff have to give up control.  Engagement is the only recourse in the present crisis.  The equation looks like this:  There is a tradeoff between institutional control and member engagement.  Member engagement is the last, best source of power in the current struggle.  For our union, therefore, survival involves giving up control.  That's scary for some people.
Real organizing means helping people to find their own voice, not teaching them to parrot yours.  What better group to do this than an organization of teachers?
Awaken a sleeping giant of engaged teachers.  It's the only way.

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Netroots Nation: Why am I here?

Attending Netroots Nation for the first time as a Democracy for America Scholar. What do I want to achieve?
In the last few years I've been deeply engaged in the nuts and bolts of progressive unionism and education policy.  After working all day teaching young children, then negotiating, serving on the VT-NEA Board, working for the US Dept of Education, etc., there is precious little time left for all of the other worthy progressive causes in the world.  But I believe that connecting across policy spheres is crucial to the success of progressive causes.  I am here to make that connection and learn about all the things I've been missing while actually doing the work.
One of the things I've noticed about the radical right is that there think tanks cross issues.  Look at Hoover - they have specialists in defense, economics, domestic policy education etc.  This enables them to develop a narrative across disciplinary boundaries.  The different policy areas become mutually reinforcing.
Contrast with the left.  Think tanks, such as they are, tend to work within silos.  The issue orientation leads the public to latch onto specific issues rather than a coherent and self-reinforcing narrative.  Teachers go, "LGBT, Native American? Those aren't my issues - I'm not gay, I'm not Native American."  Well dammit these are our issues.  Urban is a rural issue.  Rural is an urban issue.   
We are all in this together.
The great narrative battle is between private good and the public good.  The right believes there are very few public goods - maybe defense, but that the benefits of the society accrue to individuals, and therefore society can be atomized, privatized and government shrunk until it can be "drowned in a bathtub."
My view, one I hope we share, is that there are great public goods, things which are too profound and important to consign to the markets.  Drive a Ford or a Chevy, eat Rice Crispies or Cornflakes?  Private goods - that can be settled by markets.  But education, healthcare, marriage equality, civil rights public transit, the environment and, yes, defense, are great public goods, matters of profound social consequence in which we all have too big a stake to turn our back on the collective enterprise.  I refuse to turn my back on my neighbor.
We are our neighbors’ keepers.
I am hoping to connect with this bigger narrative here in Providence.  Wish me luck.
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