"There is something awful going on in America. It has to do with scapegoating teachers, demonizing unions, and undermining education." That commentary is from former U.S. Assistant Commissioner of Education Diane Ravitch. Ravitch, who today is a professor and author, also is concerned about excluding teachers through top-down reforms. But that's exactly what anti-union forces are trying to do in Connecticut.
As education reform moves forward in the state legislature with a substitute education reform bill, teachers and their union now find themselves being told to take a seat on the bench by wealthy and powerful interests, from CEOs to charter management companies to out-of-state, ultraconservative, anti-union organizations. Make no mistake; they look to privatize education and run roughshod over teachers' rights in the closing weeks of what was supposed to be the collaborative "Year of Education."
Teachers are a mainstay of the middle class and part of the 99 percent. They wouldn't have much of a political voice without their union to give them a collective voice. So, if you wanted to minimize teachers' voices, you'd have to weaken their union by creating a false narrative. That narrative contends that the union is the protector of the status quo that's undermining our economy.
Why are teachers and their union the focus of such falsehoods? Teachers didn't wreck the economy. Wall Street investors and shortsighted bankers did. Why do teachers continue to be bashed with the false dichotomy that we cannot be for both positive change for students and for collective bargaining? It's because we've stood tall as a counterweight to the wealthy and powerful interests who want to relegate us to the sidelines in the most important education debate in a generation.
To the benefit of students and public education, teachers' voices were heard by members of the General Assembly's education committee last month as it adopted a substitute education bill in a 28 to 5 vote. To their credit, the lawmakers' vote indicates they regard teacher professionalism and unionism as compatible. They recognize that collective bargaining helps establish mutual respect between teachers and management, essential to accelerating student improvement. It also anchors the change process in good faith, written agreements and a formal dispute resolution process, making everyone accountable by clearly setting expectations.
The substitute bill recognizes that teacher contracts improve student learning and help attract high-quality teachers to low-performing schools. States and nations that have some of the best schools have unions that are afforded a well-deserved voice. Think Massachusetts. Think Germany and Finland.
Now is the time, more than ever, for teachers to be part of the discussion and debate. Unlike the corporate privateers and union foes, who rarely set foot in a classroom, we know what is needed to prepare students for the economic challenges ahead. In communities across the state, teachers unions are strong advocates for their students and the professional side of teaching, as well as for the economic status and the legal representation of their membership — the traditional side of the equation.
With this balanced equation as a backdrop, we have not hesitated at the state level to take a leadership role in promoting educational improvement. We called for higher standards and better teacher evaluation when school accountability legislation was adopted by the legislature in 2010. And we've been out front for years fighting for everything from smaller class sizes to overhauling the flawed No Child Left Behind Act.
We'd be the last to insist that teachers have all the answers. With the release of Our View from the Classroom reform plan in January, we sought collaboration and respect, not domination. And collaborate we do — from parent-teacher conferences to teacher-legislator-governor meetings. It's our obligation to do both, no matter how much anti-union groups or those who seek huge potential profits in public education stomp their feet.
Phil Apruzzese is president and Mary Loftus Levine is executive director of the Connecticut Education Association
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at