Union-teacher coalition hopes to 'interrupt' dialogue about school improvement
The now 20-year-old Teacher Union Reform Network issues document in advance of Janus decision
As teachers unions await the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, a coalition of teachers and union leaders is calling for practices such as “flexible, site-specific” negotiated agreements that would override district-union contracts and new salary structures that recognize teachers’ expertise and different responsibilities.
In "Our TURN: Revitalizing Public Education and Strengthening Our Democracy Through the Collective Wisdom of Teachers," the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN), advocates for “quality bargaining” that prioritizes student learning, reductions in the number of tests students take and “multiple, accurate and job-embedded measures” used for teacher evaluation. They also suggest that parents and community members be part of the contract negotiation process.
“Some of what we propose may surprise readers who hold stereotyped views of teachers and their unions,” they write.
While the organization is now more than 20 years old, this is the first time TURN has issued such a statement.
“We need to interrupt some of the dialogue going on in public education that says public schools are a mess and unions are bad,” says Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, one of first AFT affiliates to participate in TURN. “We hope it interrupts this idea that privatization and charters under the heading of school choice is the only conversation happening, because it’s not.”
She called the Janus case an effort to “weaken the unions” and said that it’s the “strong unions that are able to support the kind of practice that needs to happen in schools.”
In the case now before the Supreme Court, Mark Janus, a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, is arguing that non-union members should not have to pay a fee — called agency or fair share fees — for the union’s work in negotiating a contract that applies to all employees for an organization, a practice that has survived since the 1970s.
“I went into this line of work because I care about kids,” he wrote in a commentary for the Chicago Tribune. “But just because I care about kids doesn't mean I also want to support a government union.”
If the Court agrees with Janus — and many observers expect that it will — the decision would overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and have a significant financial impact on public sector unions. The NEA, for example, could lose $1.5 million in fees.
Bernstein notes that her union’s contract doesn’t have a fair share provision, and that right-to-work states, such as Texas, don’t have collective bargaining laws. She added, however, that a decision in Janus’ favor could still have an impact on all affiliates and could be an opportunity to engage more teachers in unions.
'Truly a network’
TURN includes representatives from both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, such as Montgomery County (MD) Education Association, where district and union leaders, including those representing school administrators and classified employees, have long had a collaborative relationship in which they tackle major challenges together, even the budget.
TURN has been “teacher leaders and union leaders coming together to learn from each other. We were truly a network,” Bernstein says. “When one union starts working in an innovative way, we all learn from it.”
She mentions programs, such as Peer Assistance and Review (PAR), which originated in the Toledo Public Schools and outlines a process for supporting new and struggling teachers that is agreed upon by both a district and a union. In PAR programs, which now exist across the country, teacher leaders work as consulting teachers to help teachers improve and make recommendations to a PAR panel.
“It took time for teachers to understand and support the idea,” writes the author of a 2012 American Institute for Research report on PAR, “although once they did, the role of the consulting teacher became a strong example of what teacher leadership can look like within a human capital management system.”
TURN’s report also highlights districts in which teachers are involved in implementing standards-based curriculum, such as Baltimore City Public Schools and the Poway Unified School District in California, and the Washoe County School District in Nevada.
Moving to a regional structure
The national TURN network was not just limited to union leaders and members. District leaders were also invited to participate.
“You can’t talk about collaboration and have just one side of the table present,” says Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant and researcher who has studied teachers’ unions.
But during the era of No Child Left Behind, and the period during which much of the blame for low student performance was being directed toward teachers, the collaborative spirit began to break down, Koppich says. “Unions were really feeling besieged,” she says.
The organization also began to open the door to more district representatives that didn’t necessarily have the same commitment to partnering with the unions, she suggests.
“It worked when you had a strong union leader and you had a district that wanted to play ball,” she says.
Because national gatherings of the organization grew too large, TURN is now organized into six regional networks — California, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Northwest and Southwest. Koppich adds that going forward, this structure makes more sense.
“TURN came along at good time to create a safe space for progressive union leaders,” Koppich says. “Over time it became pretty clear that the issues were local.”
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