Sunday, August 24, 2014

Should Teachers and Principals Join Professional Unions?

Most of the reformers of public education are very opposed to teacher unions. They blame teacher unions for being nothing more than obstructionists to what they consider to be needed school reform. Reformers believe that merit pay, no seniority, no tenure, zero input into policy, and at-will employment will make teachers more “professional”.

Teachers in Louisiana generally have a choice of joining either the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) or the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT). Both of these groups function as unions and as professional organizations. They actively advocate for teachers in the courts and at the legislature, yet they also support policies and laws that benefit students and public schools. Some teachers have chosen to belong to an organization called A+PEL which provides teachers a liability policy but which proudly proclaims that it is not a union. Are teachers better off joining A+PEL instead of joining real unions? What about school principals? Should school principals belong to a strong organization that advocates for the rights of principals?

Many years ago when I first started teaching it was generally expected that teachers and principals would join their professional/union organization. In those days teachers, principals and supervisors were often members of the same organization. In Louisiana it was the LTA and LEA, the white and black teacher organizations that were the predecessors of the present Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE). My readers may be interested to know that one of my first jobs as a young staff member for the newly formed LAE in the late 1970's was to merge all of the parish black and white teacher organizations in Louisiana into one integrated group. This effort was pretty successful with most of the newly combined groups forming active local professional associations that were very effective in lobbying the legislature and also their local school boards on important education issues.

When I was a young teacher in the “old days” it was generally accepted that teachers should have a very significant voice in curriculum, student discipline policy, health insurance decisions, the wording of local school tax proposals, and most state legislation having to do with public education. It certainly was not a period of utopia for the voice of teachers, and in Louisiana we did not have collective bargaining for teachers except in New Orleans. We jokingly liked to call our influence through our professional organizations “collective begging.”

But the influence of teachers and principals through their professional organizations/unions was definitely much better than collective begging! Looking back on those days, I remember that teachers had a major influence on educational policy at the local, state and national levels. Teachers often were able to get local tax proposals worded in such a way that educators got guaranteed portions of new taxes proposals strictly for pay raises and benefit improvements. Even before my time, teachers achieved a major victory in reducing political influence and favoritism in the hiring and firing of teachers by passing the tenure law. It is interesting that now that tenure is under attack, most teachers can see much more clearly why teachers still need tenure.

Times have changed and teachers now worry about the unfairness of VAM, State Department manipulation of school performance scores, and abuse of teacher employment rights. The Jindal administration has pretty much destroyed the benefit of seniority, which recognized the dedication of teachers who worked for many years in one school system. In the past seniority was given proper consideration for transfers and layoffs. Now anybody can be laid off on a whim even if they have a great record of success in the classroom and have given many unpaid hours to club sponsorship and other school activities. As we have seen, entire faculties can be replaced by TFA 5 week wonders. There is no doubt in my mind that teaching as a profession in this country and in Louisiana is endangered as never before.

School principals are also under attack. Principals of schools that serve a high proportion of high-poverty, at-risk students are under tremendous pressure to produce higher test score results without consideration for the severe handicaps faced by their students. Many principals are under pressure to fire teachers they know are qualified, dedicated, and competent simply because of highly unreliable VAM scores. The forces of reform are actually working to discourage the best teachers and principals from tackling the problem of closing the achievement gap. Instead of becoming victims of the shame and blame system, principals should insist on support and resources for high poverty schools.

Public education and public school employees are under constant attack. Individual teachers are subject to possible dismissal because of VAM or because they teach in a school serving a high percentage of at risk students. Principals can now be replaced without due process of any kind even for frivolous reasons. Entire school systems such as EBR, Lafayette, Calcasieu, Caddo, St Landry, St Helena, Monroe City, Iberville, Tensas, are under attack because of state RSD takeovers and because of the growth of predatory charter schools. Statistics show that there is no evidence whatsoever that state RSD takeover and charter schools improve opportunities for children. Yet these trends are doing serious damage to the rights and benefits of both principals and teachers.

Right now the teacher retirement system is seriously endangered because many of the new charter schools do not participate in the retirement system and refuse to pay their portion of the unfunded liability of the retirement system. Our local school boards are now being required to pay in excess of 35% of payroll to the retirement system because of bad decisions by the legislature, and because of erosion of participation. Charter schools that are exempted from paying into the retirement system by the legislature, are still given the full MFP allocation from both the state and local. They can then convert these savings into excessive salaries for executives who do not contribute to classroom instruction. Some of the savings go to major advertizing campaigns designed to draw the best students away from public schools. They are doing all of this with our tax dollars, while often providing children with a substandard education! It is a fact that public education and professional educators are under attack in this state as never before, and for completely bogus reasons. Wake up!. . . . This is a crisis.

The good news is that recently the School Boards' Association, Superintendents Association, the Principals' Association and the two teacher unions have formed a coalition to combine their influence to fight for the survival of our public schools at the legislature and in court when necessary. Those efforts are already having an impact on the legislature if not yet on BESE.

But the missing ingredient is that too many teachers are not members of either of the two teacher unions, and have not exercised their democratic rights to communicate effectively with their legislators and BESE members. If there ever was a time for teachers to become involved politically in defending their profession and the public school system it is now! Complacency will only result in further damage to public education and teacher rights and benefits.

I have worked very hard to get teachers involved using this blog and by forming my Defenders of Public Education email system. It has grown to over 1200 participants. Because of these efforts, we have made real progress in the last two years in getting many legislators to support public education. But there are still not enough teachers involved. Please send me an email at asking me to put you on the Defenders of Public Education email list if you had not yet done so. This effort does not cost you one penny and may help save our public schools. Parents are welcome to participate also as “Defenders” and have become effective allies.

But by far the best way for teachers to defend their profession, their benefits, and their public school system is by joining and becoming actively involved in either one of the two teacher unions, the LAE and the LFT. Now is the time to join. When you do so, please let the teacher leaders know that you want to be involved in helping with any lobbying efforts needed to defend our profession and our public schools. The dues are really a small price to pay for the huge impact in making things better for both educators and students. Our opponents have lots of money to use against us. Please help your cause by making a financial contribution in the form of dues to your teacher union.

One final word: If you allow yourself to be discouraged from joining your teacher union by the label of union, then you are allowing the haters of the teaching profession to make it that much easier to defeat you. Members of the American Medical Association and the members of the Chamber of Commerce are just as much members of unions, but their organizations are not stigmatized by the label of union. There is no difference in what they do and what your teacher unions do. Also, if you join a fake union (often because it is cheaper) such as exists in Louisiana then you are putting weapons in the hands of the enemies of the teaching profession and those who would destroy public education. That kind of membership will only encourage more charter and voucher schools with low salaries, low benefits, and no job protection. Don't be a wimp. Stand up for your chosen profession and your public schools.

You certainly have my sincere gratitude and respect for choosing to be a teacher in these trying times. Thanks for being a teacher!


Lee Qarib said...

I have always belonged to an organization though truthfully find them too conservative. I think it's living in the south - I can't believe how much people take and still do nothing. Just talk behind closed doors...

Anonymous said...

The work that LAE does on behalf of its members is a labor of love. Many would say that we get paid for doing what we do, but the truth is many of us started in our locals as employees of school systems and donated much of our time and resources (though we earned very little) to our advocacy of educational employees because we believe in the professionalism of educators and all those who serve public school students. I have been involved In one way or another as a member or an officer since 1971. I certainly would not have it any other way.

The adverse reforms instituted by Governor Jindal can be reversed in only one way. Educators must become active politically and influence the change! This is what Mike is talking about. Our interests and the interests of children have been run over by a huge political, ultra-conservative machine. We cannot allow politicians to destroy public education in Louisiana. It is the only constitutionally protected system for guaranteeing the education of every Louisiana child. Charters and voucher schools can close and leave students out in the cold; public school systems cannot. They are constitutionally mandated systems that must serve their communities by law.

Dividing the limited funding amongst three different school systems rather than concentrating the funding into the one constitutionally protected system means that the public will not receive maximum return on its tax dollars. Right now, Louisiana has three struggling and warring systems that by themselves cannot optimize educational results. To turn all this around will take a more powerful political machine than the one that wrecked our public educational system. Join with LAE and make it happen!! Debbie Meaux

Michael Deshotels said...

Thank you Debbie Meaux. Even though I am now retired, I am still proud to be a paying member of the LAE. With leaders like Debbie, I believe much good will be accomplished.

Arthur Lepage said...

Get Your $4,000 In Your Pocket.