Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2016.
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This week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier.

“We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color,” said John Kim, the Advancement Project’s executive director, in a statement.

UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview that his union sees collective bargaining as an important tool available to fight for equity and justice. “A lot of people consider teacher union contract negotiations to be about narrower issues like salaries, benefits, and work rules—and all of those are important and we deal with those—but we’re using these agreements to expand what the union goes to the table for.” Caputo-Pearl says UTLA can ultimately be a vehicle to push for collaborative policy alongside community organizations. “We’re bargaining for the common good,” he declared.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

But now, partly because of the historic action the Chicago Teachers Union took in 2012, when its members went on strike not just for themselves, but also for increased public services for the broader community, more and more unions have started to reconsider their fundamental roles and responsibilities. By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that if you operate within the confines of the law, you restrict the things that potentially give you power,” says Lerner. “We have to be willing to go beyond what the law allows.”

In 2014, leaders from public sector unions and community organizations gathered at Georgetown University for a national conference, entitled “Bargaining for the Common Good,” aimed at charting this new path forward. Writing in Dissent, Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, said that three distinct priorities emerged from the proceedings: using the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; working with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognizing militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.

A burst of activity followed the Georgetown conference. “It’s been amazing to see how many unions, community groups, and people have adopted the ‘bargaining for common good’ frame and language,” says Lerner.

This past December in Minneapolis, a coalition of unions and community groups brought 2,000 people together to craft a collective agenda for social justice. “Participants highlighted the immense control wielded by a dozen huge corporations, including U.S. Bank, Target, and Wells Fargo, over Minnesota’s economy,” wrote McCartin, and “agreed to collaborate on an array of interlocking campaigns and direct actions in 2016.” Since then, the groups have already successfully pushed for paid sick leave in Minneapolis, and similar ordinances are on the horizon in Saint Paul and Duluth. Groups that can endorse candidates are also working together “with an eye toward building independent political power and wielding greater influence in state elections,” says Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota.

Last summer in Seattle, teachers went on strike for five days—their first strike against the district in 30 years—winning not only cost-of-living increases, but also a guarantee for daily recess for all elementary school students, and the creation of “equity committees” to address the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students.

In Saint Paul, the teachers union began to rethink collective bargaining as far back as 2013, convening regular meetings with parents and community members to formulate a shared vision. When the school district refused to negotiate with the union over their community-driven proposals, insisting that teachers could only bargain on matters related to wages and benefits, the union stood its ground.

Teachers held “walk-ins,” launched social media campaigns, and threatened to go on strike. In the end, teachers won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and established more equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the [union],” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former Saint Paul teachers union president. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

Ricker now serves as executive vice-president for the American Federation of Teachers, but the work she started in Saint Paul continues. This year the union negotiated a new contract, filled with more community-oriented provisions, such as increased funding for alternatives to punitive discipline policies.

“For too many years we just dealt with the problems we saw from within the walls of our classroom, but now we understand that our contract is the most powerful document we have to improve the learning conditions for our students,” says Denise Rodriguez, the current Saint Paul local president, in an interview.

Caputo-Pearl cites the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network that formed in 2014 comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as a key factor helping to drive this labor shift. “They’ve helped us reframe the conversation around bargaining and move this process forward,” he says.

Indeed, the effort is growing.

Last month, the NEA and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers organized a two-day conference for teacher union locals across the Northeast region, focused on bargaining for the common good. It was the first geographic gathering of its kind. Participants explored how to bargain for issues like adequate nutrition for children, strong public libraries, longer recess, and smaller class sizes. A host of community organizations came, as well as representatives from the Seattle and Chicago teachers locals, who spoke about their own “common good” organizing.

“The members loved hearing about unions being on the offense, rather than the defense,” says Lerner.

“We offered locals a chance to think more deeply about their upcoming contract negotiations,” says Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing. “We’re really watching these ‘a ha’ light bulb moments happen for members when they realize that bargaining can once again be a powerful tool for the issues most prevalent in our lives.”

Arrests and Suspensions Are Out of Control in Baltimore Schools

Originally published in VICE on March 9th, 2016.
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An eight-second video was released last week showing a Baltimore school police officer attacking an unarmed student while another cop stood by and watched. The clip went viral and spurred national outrage, as well as calls for a federal investigation. The two officers, Anthony Spence and Saverna Bias, turned themselves in Tuesday night to face second-degree assault and misconduct in office charges—Spence is also charged with second-degree child abuse—and had posted bail by early Wednesday. But with criminal trials still pending for the six cops charged over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year, the footage has stoked an already strained conversation around policing in Baltimore City.

Upon the clip’s release, politicians and advocates quickly began to criticize the city’s ill-defined school police policies, pointing out that there are no public arrest statistics, including who gets busted, why, and whether those incidents might have been handled outside the criminal justice system. There’s also little or no oversight of the school police budget and officers’ use of force. All of which is especially alarming given that policing aside, Maryland actually has some of the most progressive school discipline policies in the country—at least on paper.

Still, a lack of leadership and a persistent culture of criminalization within public schools have the city suspending, expelling, and arresting students too often—and in discriminatory fashion.

Baltimore’s unique place in America’s school discipline hierarchy emerged over the past decade. In 2004, the city’s school issued more than 26,000 suspensions in a school district of 88,000. Alarmed city advocates began speaking out, forming networks to push for disciplinary alternatives, and fighting for district leaders to reckon with the glaring suspension data. Research has long shown that excessive suspensions and expulsions are tied to higher rates of school absence, school drop-outs, and academic failure. Suspended students often sit around at home, or in low-quality alternative programs, falling further behind on their studies. There’s also evidence that school suspensions lead to higher rates of arrest and juvenile detentions, fueling what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”

In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who began overhauling the district’s school discipline policies. He worked to scale back not only the scope of offenses that could warrant an out-of-school suspension, but also expanded the number of restorative alternatives to keep kids in class and on top of their school work.

The results were dramatic. During the 2009-2010 school year, the district issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004. The suspensions were also significantly shorter, and graduation rates went up, particularly for young black men.

“One of the things that really sets us apart from other school districts is that students can no longer be suspended for low-level and ambiguous infractions, such as disrespect,” explains Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a local think tank and advocacy group. “Before, a child might say something edgy, and if an administrator didn’t appreciate what was said or how it was stated, that child could be sent home for five days.”

Advocates around the state began to push for similar reforms, and in 2014 the State Board of Education approved new regulations to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions across Maryland. The new policies encouraged teachers and principals to keep students in the classroom whenever possible and to promote alternative disciplinary measures. And the feds took notice: In light of Baltimore’s substantial drop in suspensions, and the statewide work done around discipline reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore in 2014 to unveil the first set of national school discipline guidelines.

But even as suspensions have plummeted, critics point to a series of disturbing school police scandals and argue that Baltimore City still hasn’t implemented many of the progressive policies passed statewide two years ago. The district hired a new CEO that year, Dr. Gregory Thornton, who has made less of a fuss about school discipline reform.

“You can have the most promising policies on the books but rules are only as good as their implementation,” says Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

“While there’s been great work done to write these policies, those changes have not been filtered down to the staff level—nobody has been retrained,” adds Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore.

For example, some suspended Baltimore students languish for months outside of school just because the district failed to make a final decision about their punishment. Neeta Pal, a legal fellow at the Maryland Public Defender’s office, says that when the district leaves students in this bureaucratic limbo—indefinitely suspended—it violates both state law and the US constitution.

One such student was 15-year-old Kuran Johnson, a ninth grader with a disability who was suspended this past October. Johnson spent four months in an alternative program, and was only allowed to return back to a traditional public school a few weeks ago after Nicole Joseph, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, threatened to sue. “This is their way to get rid of kids,” Sabrina Newby, Johnson’s grandmother, tells me over the phone. “They feel these kids are so easy to suspend, and then they wonder why kids end up dropping out or wind up in juvenile facilities.”

Following the standoff between students and police back during the April 2015 Freddie Gray protests, Karl Perry, a Baltimore high school principal, penned a memo in which he attributed the local uprising in part to their “soft code of conduct.” He promised a “return to zero-tolerance enforcement,” and within two months, he was hired to be the district’s Chief Supports Officer—overseeing, among other things, suspensions and school police.

Joseph wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun criticizing Perry’s remarks, arguing that zero-tolerance policies “feed the school-to-prison pipeline” and increase the likelihood at-risk students will be excluded from school. She called for reforms like increasing the number of mental health providers, promoting positive behavior interventions, and increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training.

She points out that in Baltimore, despite all the changes and national attention, black students and those with disabilities are still suspended at higher rates than the general student population.

“Yes, suspension numbers have gone down, in almost every district across the state, but the disproportionately is not going down,” Joseph says in an interview. “Both by race, and also for students with disabilities, these minority groups are not experiencing the same reduction in harsh discipline that non-disabled and white kids are.”

Officials with the Baltimore City Public Schools did not return repeated requests for comment on Perry’s remarks, on students left in suspension limbo, and on whether the district feels it has adequately implemented the state’s discipline regulations. Meanwhile, critics see the suspensions, expulsions, arrests and abuse cases as part of the same problem—a school culture that tries to kick students out rather than engage them where they are, as they are.

“We know so many of our kids have serious challenges, and one of the goals of our schools should be to address them, to help them, and not to punish them,” Egan says. “We have to change the culture so that schools actually take kids as they come. We can’t just pass the buck.”