Teachers continue to be the greatest defenders of public education. It is not an accident that groups wishing to under-fund or privatize public education are the same groups attacking educators. Unfortunately, these public school “deformers” have found their way onto school boards and into administrative positions. They have made it extremely difficult to keep hidden agendas out of the decision making. This year’s contract negotiations between the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) and Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) are evidence of that. Luckily, there are still those on the MMSD Board of Education (BOE) who stand strong for public education, or the outlook would be even more dire. Without these advocates, we may not have made it to the bargaining table at all this time around. But, one thing remains certain; we need more people to take a stand for public education, or we will continue to slide backward.
One of the “fall back” positions of groups who aim to privatize is that the proposed changes are all about the children. In fact, in an email on September 27th, 2012, Belmore wrote
“As a district, we’ve been thoughtfully reviewing our responsibilities when it comes to our employees. Through the employee handbook process, we developed guiding principles. These principles put student learning in the forefront, with a respect for the fact that our employees are the people who directly or indirectly impact that learning.
As we thoughtfully and deliberately begin negotiations, we will continue to focus on these principles. We intend to negotiate in good faith in as timely manner as possible.”
However, when looking through some of the changes in our now ratified Collective Bargaining Agreements, only one modification seems to have the potential to help our students. This is the hiring timeline. In the past, districts surrounding Madison have hired earlier. The rationale has been that since other districts hire earlier, they get their first choice of the new teachers, thereby picking up the best and the brightest, and perhaps some minority recruits. (Note that this theory does not take into account the many reasons it may be more desirable to teach in Madison, such as the salary schedule or the quality of the educational programming.) In the 2013-2014 contract, the hiring window is tightened up, so that MMSD can hire externally as early as June 15th. If executed correctly, this change does have the possibility of affecting MMSD’s recruitment, thus impacting students. However, many of the other changes in the newly ratified contracts fall short of the mark.
The most radical change to the contract is found in the work preservation clause. MMSD will now be able to contract out work that in the past would have been filled by current MMSD employees. Any position that affects ten or more students will need Board of Education approval, before being filled by non-Union, non-MMSD workers. This decision puts the fate of privatization in the hands of the Board and opens the district up to non-instrumentality Charter schools that compete for public money, but lack the accountability and Board oversight of our public schools. As has been witnessed in Chicago, Charters can be used by right-wing groups as a means of draining public schools of their funding, decreasing enrollment, and ultimately stripping them of their merit. The contract changes don’t necessitate this path for Madison, but the Board is now, even more than before, the gatekeeper for these types of privatization measures.
Another change that moves MMSD in the wrong direction is found in the EA-MTI Collective Bargaining Agreement. This bargaining unit is composed of support staff, such as the Special Education Assistants (SEAs) whom I have written about previously. These workers are overworked and unappreciated, yet our schools could not function without their expertise. People in these roles directly affect student learning as well as the climate of the building, yet they do not make a livable wage. In fact, some of the district’s SEAs who are the head of their household are living below the poverty level and their families qualify for public assistance. This is shameful. But, what is even more shameful is what played out in the bargaining process. Written into the EA-MTI contract is the following, “The District has the discretion to require employee contributions not to exceed 10% of premiums” for health insurance. MTI’s bargaining committee fought relentlessly to preserve the pay and benefits of the EA-MTI bargaining. The decision allowing these workers to pay up to 10% of their premiums was made even after the largest bargaining unit, MTI’s Teacher Bargaining Unit, agreed to willingly pay into their own health insurance and absorb the extra cost, so that the EA-MTI unit would not have to carry this burden. I cannot imagine a situation in which underpaying SEAs and then taking more money from their paycheck would bring about a better outcome for kids.
There are other changes of this nature, such as the changes made to the USO-MTI Bargaining Agreement. In this contract, substitute teachers newly hired to the district will no longer get sick leave, unless they are in long-term subbing position. In addition to this, the substitute teachers’ salary schedule was flat-lined, or in effect removed completely. Whereas a quality substitute teacher used to be rewarded for experience, now they will get the same daily rate of pay, regardless of years of service. Is it best for our students to have inexperienced, unknown substitute teachers in their classrooms when their regular teacher is away at a training? This change clearly has nothing to do with improving the quality of education; it has the opposite effect.
The list of irresponsible changes continues with the removal of student per teacher ratios at the high school level and doing away with the five class maximum at the middle school level. At the heart of these changes is saving money and devaluing the tremendous workloads professionals in the schools endure. These are changes that would not have happened if it weren’t for the uneven playing field that Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 created.
Yet, thanks to Judge Juan Colas, our MMSD professionals have a contract. Many of our rights and benefits remain intact. The teachers maintained their salary schedule and retirement benefits were safeguarded district-wide. Because of a few strong warriors on the Board, all was not lost. This year, there will be three seats on MMSD’s Board of Education that will be up for reelection. This happens at a time that is critical to the future of our public schools. What we really need for the future of our students and our schools are elected officials that will not give into the pressures of a political environment that steals resources from our education system and then uses it as a scapegoat. What we need now more than ever are three more courageous defenders of public education.