We Have a Contract!!! . . .
While the media in Madison clearly didn't think that it merited significant coverage, the story of the week for Madison educators was that MTI members from all 5 bargaining units voted unanimously Wednesday night to ratify contracts for the 2014-15 school year. The rest of MMSD's staff should soon follow suit and we will see all of MMSD staff members operating under a contract for at least one more year.
This means that as of the 2014-15 school year it is highly likely that Madison educators will be the only union operating with a contract, not a handbook, in the state of Wisconsin. The Walker administration's goal of eliminating collective bargaining for Wisconsin's public sector employees will be almost completely achieved. They will be hoping that they can even work to eradicate the contracts negotiated by MMSD and MTI.
This movement to eliminate the power of educators in shaping their working conditions and the way they deliver instruction is not a positive one for educators, for public education, but most importantly it is harmful to the students in the schools. While some would focus on the potential economic impacts of public educator unions, and the effect that collective bargaining has on local budgets, the real issues aren't about the money as much as they are about the way our schools function and what they teach. Yet, we continue to see public educators attacked because of our supposed disastrous effect on the state's economy.
Just look at the issues that have been the most contentious in recent years here in Wisconsin. Money and benefits are not often found at the top of the list. Would Wisconsin's educators prefer to be well respected and highly paid, of course. However, educators here, and from around the state rallied to the capitol in 2011 after they had already conceded the financial aspects of the "reforms" that the GOP sought. We rallied, protested and worked for a recall of Walker primarily because of the attacks on collective bargaining, not because of the monetary impacts of his policies.
This isn't to say that educators in Wisconsin wouldn't appreciate and haven't asked for increased financial compensation. We all know that in American society, your wages are often equated with the respect that your position receives from the public. The fact that so many citizens and politicians believe that educators are overpaid is one symptom of the lack of respect given to those who work in our schools. To slash public school budgets and freeze or cut public school employee wages demonstrates the shift in priorities that our political leaders espouse. Educators are pushing back in this area, but often are willing to compromise wages for other things.
The struggle has continued for over 2 years now, and many in the public still misconstrue the drive that Madison's educators have to retain their collective bargaining rights as purely self-serving and financially motivated. They ignore the fact that the most contested issues of recent years have focused on things like planning time, educator evaluations, student testing, conferences, and communication with families. Educators in Madison are working to stand up to the "reforms" that we see implemented in districts across Wisconsin and the nation. We see many of these "reforms" as being harmful to our students and driven by financial interests that take money away from schools and students, and funnel it to individuals and companies that profit from our educational efforts.
We need our collective bargaining agreements and the legal protections they offer us so that we can continue to advocate for our students and for public education without fear of reprisal from those who would seek to "reform" our schools. We need the voices of educators in the discussions that result in changes in our instruction, discipline and climate in public schools and in public education overall. These voices need to be free to express honest opinions, not muted by fear of disciplinary action or termination based on our educational beliefs. They need to be free to support our families and students as we work together to improve educational outcomes for all students.
We are seeing significant efforts made to "improve" and "reform" our public schools, and the most powerful voices are coming from people who are frequently not experienced educators. In fact, many of the most powerful education "reformers" are business people, politicians, or entrepreneurs who don't have any idea what students really need.
The forces that sought to eliminate collective bargaining in Wisconsin, are one and the same as the ones that are working to privatize our public schools. They claim to have the interests of all students at heart, but a closer look at the results of their actions shows a very different reality. Privatization is about profits, not students and education.
Public educators face "reforms" in many areas. We are being forced to implement curriculum, standards and policies that we question the validity of. This gives "reformers" ammunition to attack us and to say that we stand in the way of progress. Yet, what public educators in Madison are saying is not to rush headlong into reforms without a proven track record. We don't want to see our expertise and experience ignored in the wave of "new" ideas, ideas which are often already a significant part of what we do in our classrooms and schools. Instead, we are advocating for a closer look at what our challenges are, and a joint effort with administration and the community to address these challenges in a positive and proactive manner.
Instead of arguing about the need for national standards, many educators would prefer to have policy makers, administrators and community members understand just how the implementation of CCSS impacts our students. Standards are "tools" that we can use to help guide instruction, but when they drive a testing industry, a publishing industry and change school experiences for students significantly their value is diminished. Educators need to be able to communicate the real impacts of "reforms" honestly and openly.
Public educators also have a responsibility to advocate for our students and their families. Too often we see groups that claim to represent families actually act as representatives of other interests. Parent Trigger Laws, vouchers, and other supposed parent/student advocacy options only represent the interests of a small number of families and students. Educators and families need to build relationships and work as advocates for each other so that we can really get at the issues underlying Achievement Gaps and equality of educational opportunity.
I am grateful to my union leadership, my fellow union members, MMSD administration and school board, and my community that we will have a contract through 2015 so that I can continue to advocate for my students, families and schools. I sincerely hope that we are able to continue to work to extend our contracts even further into the future. A future that will allow for the voices of all educators, in all Wisconsin communities, to have a powerful voice in public education.