Are Efforts to Rejuvenate the Roles of Teachers Unions in Reforming Education Undermined by the Obama Administration and Foundations?

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May/June 2011; Source: Poverty & Race (PDF) | Nearly all of the debate around public education, whether in support of “traditional” public schools, or for privatized support of charter schools, or voucher programs seems to leave teachers unions on the side of the road, as though the unions have little to say other than to serve as an obstruction to change.

A sixteen-year high school teacher in the Maryland suburbs, now the National Coordinator of the Mooney Institute for Teacher Union Leadership, Mark Simon, has a very interesting piece in the latest issue of Poverty & Race looking at efforts from the unions to address school reform issues. According to Simon, the teachers who created MITUL in 2005 “ . . . wanted to define what progressive unionism is . . . [and] cultivate bold, creative, reform-oriented union leaders and locals.”

Based on the press coverage of teachers unions and the unrelenting anti-union attitudes of some of the nation’s well publicized “reformers,” most people probably have no idea about this effort of teachers themselves trying to reform and rejuvenate the teachers unions. The elements of the MITUL strategy included “ . . . plans for building community alliances, taking up strategies for improving teacher quality, and helping teachers to adopt approaches to teaching . . . to re-think seniority rights . . . to invest in peer review and other innovations to teacher evaluation . . . [and] for the union to be connected with other movements for social justice and economic change . . . ”

It sounds like a very positive, energetic effort to reform the teachers unions without abandoning a commitment to unionism. Simon, however, suggests that the the Obama administration isn’t in line with MITUL goals: “From the beginning of its term in office, the Obama administration looked to some of the same foundations and think tanks that had brought corporate-style reform strategies to Bush Administration education policy development – the Gates Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, the Broad Foundation and the Ed Trust.” He cites these funders, plus “hedge fund managers who bankroll Democrats for Education Reform” as having capitalized a “ . . . campaign . . . to disempower teacher unions and make public education cheaper by accelerating turnover in the teacher workforce –getting rid of older teachers, hiring younger ones who don’t plan to stay long, reducing legacy costs in the form of cutting pensions and teacher health care.”

Simon is clear that he and his MITUL colleagues fought against the defensive union tendency to fall into “ . . . living the stereotype as obstructionists and defenders of the status quo,” but at the moment, “ . . . things have dramatically taken a turn for the worse.” Read Simon’s piece in PRRAC’s newsletter and tell us what you think of his critique of reform approaches as well as his recommended reforms for the teachers unions.—Rick Cohen