Caucus within teachers union aims for major reform

Last month at Poly, the Baltimore Teachers Union held a rally in solidarity with the striking teachers in Chicago. But according to one caucus within BTU, the last thing Marietta English and the other leaders of the Baltimore Teachers Union want is to see is a repeat of Chicago's strike in Baltimore.

Back when Arne Duncan, now secretary of education under President Obama, was CEO of Chicago schools, he began to institute the school reforms that have since been nationalized as Race to the Top. At that time, a group of progressive educators formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to oppose the reforms. Through smart organizing, CORE continued to gain support and eventually took over the teachers union in Chicago and ultimately went on strike to oppose school-reform policies quite similar to those in place in the Baltimore public school system.

According to Bill Bleich, a 38-year veteran of city schools and the building representative (the teachers union's equivalent of a shop steward) for Poly, this is the path that inspired the caucus Educators for Democratic Schools (EDS).

When the current Baltimore teacher contract (which expires in June 2013) was put up for a vote in 2010, it contained many aspects of Duncan's Race to the Top school reforms, most notably merit pay. Bleich and a number of other teachers considered the changes dangerous for both students and teachers, calling the program "School Deform" and "Race to the Bottom." They spoke out against the contract, which lost on its first vote. When a very similar contract passed on the second vote, those who were against it came together to create EDS. Attendance at its meetings ranges from only a few to 60, though it has a much larger e-mail group.

Under the new contract, rather than earning seniority and pay increases for years of service and academic degrees, teachers earn Achievement Units (AUs) for contributions to student learning. The number of AUs a teacher earns is determined by evaluations. Arguably, then, teachers will be compensated for performance and so higher-quality teachers will be drawn to the system and rewarded.

Bleich sees more nefarious purposes behind the AU/merit-pay system. The first is to make education cheaper.

"With the new evaluation tool, all [Baltimore schools' CEO Andres] Alonso has to do is tell principals, 'Look, we don't want you to give more than 30 top rates at your school,'" he says. "This creates a more compliant workforce, where teachers who would speak out about the injustices of larger class sizes or something are fearful that they will be punished in their evaluations when that ranking equals pay."

Among EDS sympathizers, there is a great deal of fear. CP spoke to a teacher, who asked not to be named, in a public park. The teacher was forwarding us e-mails on his phone when he fell silent and looked over his shoulder. "See that guy over there with a dog? What's he doing? I bet he is with North Avenue. They have people everywhere," he said. "Marietta English is turning the union into another branch of North Avenue."

Bleich, who believes it is always important to speak out for justice and says that "the risks of doing nothing are greater," won't go so far as to say the union is another branch of Alonso's administration. "The Baltimore Teachers Union, and AFT [American Federation of Teachers] nationally have a policy of collaboration," Bleich says. "Which means, 'Don't seriously fight the school board, the CEO, or Duncan.' EDS doesn't agree with that."

Jessica Aldon-Jackson, BTU's public relations officer, agrees with this assessment. "That's the understanding we have when it comes to negotiations. But to my knowledge, there is no official policy."

Though Aldon-Jackson has never heard of EDS, Bleich hopes the group will be able to gain an increasing number of leadership positions within the union and gain a position that allows it to actively shape the contract. In the meantime, he says, the degree of autonomy varies from school to school. In his role as building rep at Poly, Bleich has led his fellow teachers in a battle for smaller class sizes-another of EDS's main goals. At the school there are different tracks students may be on. The "B course" contains the majority of the students; academically higher is the "A course"; above that is AP; and finally, at the top, there is "Ingenuity."

"It is institutional racism," Bleich says. "As you move up, there are fewer minorities and smaller class sizes. It's like saying, 'You don't deserve the same resources.' And when there were big budget cuts, the brunt fell on the B courses."

Bleich reports that the union succeeded in making the division more equitable and bringing down class size overall in the last few years.

There is a chance for EDS to make an even bigger impact this winter. The 2010 contract has a "twilight clause" which will allow it to abandon AUs and merit pay if student performance does not make sufficient improvement to justify the system, which would be replaced with the more traditional measurements to determine salary, like years of service and academic degrees.

"When we held a straw vote at Poly, the vast majority favored the traditional system," Bleich says. When asked why he thought most teachers at his school preferred the traditional system, he clarified, writing in an e-mail: "[T]eachers would need to feel perfectly comfortable being self-critical, and perfectly comfortable candidly discussing their strengths and weaknesses. However, what teacher is going to discuss his or her weaknesses-with complete candor-with an administrator who has a degree of control over the granting or withholding of tenure, over evaluations that help to determine pay levels, and who makes decisions about firings?"

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