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Massachusetts Teachers Union’s Stance Help Pro-Privatization Advocates

July 29, 2020

Given the way this pandemic is playing out, I have grave fears about the future of public schooling. The lack of leadership at the Federal level and in many states is leading to a situation where public schools are left to fend for themselves when it comes to making crucial decisions about school reopening. And, when the sole unifying entity in a State— the teacher’s union– makes some bone-headed proclamations that play into the hands of pro-school choice privatizers it does not bode well for the public schools.

Forbes education contributor Jeanne Allen’s article describing the recent actions of the Massachusetts Teachers Union makes me question the long range thinking of that group and, in turn, question the long range future of public education. As she notes, charter schools and Catholic schools spent the summer focussing on how they would open their individual schools in the Fall and developing contingent plans for actions they would take should the pandemic preclude live classes. In the meantime, public schools flailed about waiting word from the States on what they would do.  And when states failed to put together specific recommendations (in the name of “local control”), each district had to devise plans on its own. There IS one group in the State that could have played a role in developing a unified response to the issue: the teachers union. Had the unions spent five minutes thinking strategically they could have seen the train wreck that was about to occur. It was abundantly clear from the very beginning that the national leadership on the pandemic was completely absent and when, in April, the President decided this issue would be dealt with on a State-by-State basis the unions COULD have taken a step back and convened a group to devise a plan for schools that would make future transitions between remote and in-person learning more seamless. The unions COULD have proactively tackled the issue of how best to provide remote instruction realizing that such a stance would win over parents in the long run. Instead, at least in Massachusetts, the unions clung to the existing model of collective bargaining and fought to maintain the status quo at all costs. As Ms. Allen, no friend of unions, writes:

Massachusetts is a textbook case of vested interests over kids

The Massachusetts Teachers Association secured a major concession to delay school another two weeks to give teachers time to “prepare” for school. Districts will now be starting school September 15, rather than provide for students to begin their education on time or at least close to it, by taking advantage of the varied and innovative approaches that exist in these unprecedented times. That may work for wealthy families who can stay at the beach, or afford tutors, but what about the vast majority of families whose students lost ground this spring?

Ms. Allen then describes the work done over the summer by charter schools and parochial schools and contrasts it with the union’s actions over the summer:

And where was the organization that just negotiated the un-kid friendly concession to delay school again when Covid-19 hit?  It was busy negotiating contracts that forbid teachers to be working more than five hours in asynchronous work, and limiting to 15 hours real-time interactive work (including meetings with colleagues and professional development), setting a maximum limit of 20 hours of work per week. There were no requirements for student-facing time, no requirements for daily work (only per-week), and video could not be required at any time.

The goals of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is clear in this treatise, which outlines what they expect from the government during the crisis. This is not a proactive, forward-looking plan of action, but a manifesto with nothing about how education should be delivered.

The unions COULD have used the federal government’s failure and the failure of Governors to accept responsibility for devising a unified set of reopening standards as a teachable moment for the public: a chance to advocate for equitable state funding and a uniform set of standards. But instead, they were working on the traditional union issues: wages, hours, and working conditions of their employees. The pandemic crisis is an opportunity for unions to redefine themselves as allies of parents, as groundbreakers when it comes to new ideas, as being aware of the predicament businesses and parents face when schools are closed. I can’t help but think that were Albert Shanker alive he would have seized this moment. Jeanne Allen and the privatizers are.

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