Parents, Teachers and Unions: Can't We All Just Get Along?

Teachers and pro-teacher community groups rally in front of a building the Chicago Teachers Union has designated its strike h
Teachers and pro-teacher community groups rally in front of a building the Chicago Teachers Union has designated its strike headquarters on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012 in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 if an agreement over teachers' contracts is not reached with Chicago Public Schools by Monday. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

Widespread shuttering of public schools has filled the news this month -- from New York to Chicago, Philadelphia to Birmingham, Ala. Triggered by a convergence of forces, including the growth of charter schools, new accountability systems, and dwindling state budgets, the atrophying of our nation's public education systems should be cause for alarm. This divestment does not bode well for the development of our nation's most precious long-term asset, namely, our children.

Our public schools are failing too many children, to be sure. This should be a wake-up call for public school parents and teachers to come together. Yet we've more often positioned ourselves on opposite sides of the educational debates. Meanwhile, the educational battleground has been taken over by larger interests who have no particular accountability to any of us, let alone the general public: multimillion-dollar corporate foundations, think tanks, and private for-profit educational industries including charter school management companies and standardized test developers and administrators. The standardized testing industry alone has grown into a half-billion dollar industry since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated testing of all public school students. High stakes testing has become our nation's educational accountability system. Yet the skills measured by these tests bear minimal correlation to what is needed by our children for productive participation in society.

My own relationship to schools and teachers unions puts me squarely in the middle between the two camps. I spent two decades as a Boston Public School parent and parent activist. I also come from a couple of generations of union organizers. The only time I ever crossed a union picket line was when I became a member of the school board for the City of Boston. The teachers' and firefighters' unions were picketing the Mayor's State of the City Address. As a public official, I was expected to attend, with a seat reserved for me in one of the front rows of the auditorium. At the time, I was still bristling over the teachers' union's support of seniority over affirmative action. After I crossed that picket line, my dad, in his 80's, shook his head and remarked, "You young people don't understand... "

I'm not proud of my decision to cross the picket line that day. But it highlights one of the rarely tackled tensions among good folks who want to see our nation's public schools work better, for all kids.

My dad has since passed away, but I think about his reaction often. As an organizer, I believe that problems are best solved by those on the front lines. These are the people who best understand the issues, and have the most at stake to see them solved. In public education, that would be students, parents and teachers. This is not to minimize our differing perspectives. It is to remind those of us who believe that public schools should remain in the public domain of what's at stake if we don't come together.

The path to opposing corners of the public education debate has been circuitous. For those who would vilify our nation's teachers' unions, a short history lesson is in order.

The National Education Association was founded in 1857, with a focus on raising teacher salaries, educating freed slaves, and challenging child labor laws and the forced assimilation of Native Americans. At that time, teachers were typically paid in room and board by local communities. By the beginning of the twentieth century, teachers' pay had moved beyond the barter economy. The American Federation of Teachers was formed in 1916 with a focus on salaries and discrimination against women, at a time when female teachers routinely earned half the salary of male teachers, and some teacher contracts dictated the length of female teachers' skirts. The 1960s saw the growth of collective bargaining for public employees -- at least in part to professionalize a workforce frequently subject to undue political influence.

As a school board member in Boston in the 1990s, I once met a high school teacher who recalled for me the days when a $500 donation to a school board member's election campaign could buy you a guidance counselor position, $1,000 a teaching position. Political control over teaching positions fueled the call for job protection on the part of teachers unions. Education reform legislation of the last two decades took on some of these issues. In Massachusetts, the Education Reform Act of 1993 specifically outlawed school board involvement in hiring and firing of teachers.

There has historically been a tension between teachers' unions focusing on the improvement of public education versus working conditions. The more that unions have focused on teachers' working conditions, the less parents have felt compelled in recent years to stand behind the unions. This schism becomes more marked when parents and community organizers attempt to address the vast gaps in quality and equity between schools serving black and brown students, and wealthier schools that serve predominantly white students. Union history has also fed the tension with parents and communities, particularly African-Americans. The AFL-CIO, of which the AFT is a member, did not integrate African-American labor groups until 1961. The NEA only combined with the American Teachers Association, which represented African-Americans, in 1966.

The Chicago Teacher's Union strike of September 2012, which I watched from a distance like most of the nation, might be a model for the rest of the country of how to forge parent-teacher relationships to demand school change. The CTU's strategy was brilliant in its' melding of a platform that included both working conditions and larger educational policies and practices. This, parents and community could get behind. And they did, in large numbers.

The union's position took on the broader issues facing public education today -- not just the working conditions of their rank and file. Their concerns included teacher evaluations and salaries, and also linked job security to school closings, a hot button issue to many parents.

The CTU's platform became a rallying cry against the expansion of charter schools, the privatization of public education, and the inequities that exist between schools serving low-income children of color and wealthier white children.

While the CTU didn't get everything they were after, their organizing raised awareness about the larger trends towards privatization and increasing isolation of the lowest income children in inferior, under-resourced schools.

The CTU's effectiveness in the nation's third largest school district was greatly assisted by the organizing that union leadership did - -not just among their own ranks, but among parents and community groups. By the time the teachers went on strike last September, these other constituencies understood the union's position, and many fiercely supported it. Without this, the strike and its outcome may have looked very different.

Those of us who live and teach and raise our children in communities where public schools are struggling should take notice. If we don't work together -- parents and community members and teachers -- to weigh in with one voice on educational policies in this country, we will continue to be left in the dust by more powerful interests. It's time to sit down together, as the teachers' union and community leadership did in Chicago, and work through our differences. I am confident we will find a common agenda and be able to develop a shared platform for change. And that it will be based on the real experiences in schools of what works and what doesn't, not the theorizing of distant forces. Together, parents, communities and teachers could become a powerful force for public education that is effective, equitable, and accountable to those it serves.