Bill Murphy has spent the past 16 years as a K-12 educator. He got his start as a special education teacher in rural Louisiana. He has since worked as a teacher and special education director at a charter school in Massachusetts and as the principal of what became one of the highest-performing traditional public schools in Baltimore, MD. Bill has worked in senior district roles and in charter management organizations since returning to Louisiana with his wife, a native New Orleanian, and their son, who currently attends Lusher.
Recently, I attended several meetings at which the potential unionization of teachers at Lusher was discussed. Attending such meetings is in some ways a luxury, just as is the fact that my family had the opportunity to choose between two strong public charter options for our son. I know I am in an enviable position of privilege relative to many families in New Orleans.
At these meetings, debate occurred that was often full of bluster and emotional appeal but a bit light on specifics and rigorous thought. In many ways it was predictable and disheartening as this is generally how these pro-/anti- union discussions go. However, one thing struck me as deeply problematic and it was directly related to the idea that being a Lusher parent is a position of privilege.
The pro-union voices asserted time and again that parents should have no stake in this discussion. Parent input was unwelcome by a number of staff and board members, all of whom were pro-unionization. Parents who had any opinion were described as not trusting teachers, meddling, and infringing on teacher “rights.”
It was one of those times that, as a parent in New Orleans who has secured a spot at a desirable public school, I felt like I was being told, “You’re lucky you got in to Lusher. If you don’t like something, what are you going to do? Transfer and compromise your child’s education so you can take the moral high road? Good luck. There are 200 kids waiting for his spot.”
Gratitude felt for the opportunity to send a child to a more-desired school option, however, ought not render parents mute. The idea that parents should be silent in the face of a decision that will have dramatic ramifications for their child’s education is alarming. Parents should have an opinion on this and every matter of schooling because we are the clients and consumers in our system of schools. The fact that the pro-union side is asserting otherwise should give everyone pause.
If someone naively thinks that a child’s school experience is not influenced by the presence or absence of a nationally-affiliated union, they are delusional. Having worked in multiple districts with nationally-affiliated unions, I know with certitude that unionization deeply impacts a child’s experience of school.
I am intimately familiar with teachers’ unions. My parents are both retired educators and career-long members of the New York State United Teachers. As a graduate student, I interned with a national union. As an early career teacher, I taught in a school at which I was a union member, and as a principal, I worked in a district with both a teachers’ union and a principals’ union. Based on these experiences, I consider myself to be agnostic in a pro- or anti- union debate. However, unionization can exacerbate rather than ameliorate imperfections when it is done poorly. I am confident that without the watchful eye of informed parents, nationally-affiliated unionization will almost certainly have a negative effect on the quality of education received by the children of Lusher.
Parents should monitor closely the construction of any policies or contracts and ensure all people involved keep such documents child-centered. It should worry the entire Lusher community the national union applying their agenda to Lusher is not talking about children and their needs. Their focus is entirely on the wants and needs of a national organization and a subset of Lusher adults. This is not an attempt to improve the experience of children at the school or in our city. It is taking Lusher’s focus off of doing what is logical, expedient, effective, and child-centered.
Similarly, the focus is increasingly not about local teacher voices. This is because nationally-affiliated unionization often sacrifices the individual voices of nearly all teachers by providing the artifice of increased influence through collective bargaining. The voice of local teachers is subordinated to a national agenda and what few local concerns are able to gain traction reflect not general needs or wants, but the specialized interest of persons who are often the weakest teachers in the building.
Many of the most highly effective teachers at Lusher have stated publically time and again that they feel they have a strong voice in the running of their school and ample opportunities to exert teacher leadership. Unfortunately, what appears to be a small group of teachers, backed by a national union with a clear agenda, are demanding more influence. It seems then that this is really about power and control, and about equating getting one’s way with being respected.
The problem is, in a professional setting, one can be treated with dignity while one’s suggestions might not carry much weight because they lack merit. If one wants professional gravitas it should be earned. It cannot be granted through a 77-page document that reflects the wants and needs of a national organization and ignores the many teachers who already felt they had sufficient agency. This is the illusion of respect. Such a contract drives to the least common denominator and fails to elevate the strongest professionals by subordinating them to a national agenda.
The national agenda present in the standard nationally-crafted union contract should concern all members of the Lusher community. Typical contracts create procedures so onerous and limiting that children’s education is often sacrificed. They also create odd and arbitrary rules that inhibit rather than enhance a school’s functioning.
For example, as an early career teacher, the contract under which I worked prevented me from breaking up fights in my classroom. That contract also stated that the principal could only hold one staff meeting or professional development session a month, for no more than an hour, and always on the first or second Monday after school. It precluded him from visiting my room unannounced and, even more bizarre, disallowed teachers from being made to reach above the top of their earlobes while performing work functions. As a result, the worst teachers became rules-mongers who simultaneously clung to the letter of the contract, but blamed the absence of more frequent professional development and class observations as an excuse for their poor performance. They treated teachers who volunteered for extra duty, agreed to submit lesson plans for review, or reached above their earlobes, as pariahs.
Similarly, as an administrator in a district operating under a nationally-crafted contract, our textbook selections were subject to faculty votes in which all teachers, regardless of demonstrated knowledge or skill level, had an equal say. Moreover, prescriptive timelines of evaluation, coaching, and paperwork completion were so specific that a teacher could avoid consequences for inappropriate behavior for months by simply calling out sick on the day on which I’d scheduled their formal observation.
This meant that the weakest teacher in a school took the principal more than two years to terminate. Even though that teacher failed to follow simple directions, completed no lesson plans, and occasionally used racist and sexist terms when referring to children, by manipulating the timeline, they could prevent swifter action. Imagine the toll such a teacher’s presence takes on his colleagues, serving as a constant affront to their work and forcing them to mitigate the damage he is doing.
Whatever the outcome of the upcoming vote, parents should be vigilant in making sure similar policies are not enshrined in a collective bargaining agreement. Board members must take seriously their duty to govern Lusher in a manner that is best for our children. As such, they must prevent the sorts of contract stipulations I’ve described. Parents should be encouraged to voice their opinions regarding any agreement.
I understand why some parents are hesitant to voice their concerns. Despite our ability to exercise school choice, our city’s recent history has not always been one of educators listening thoughtfully to families. Even those of us operating from a position of racial and economic privilege, or who send our children to sought-after schools, are often treated as if we should “be grateful and be quiet.” I wish we had 50 schools to which I’d send my son so that the threat we might “vote with our feet” carried some weight. Our schools have made a great deal of progress, but more choices of varied character and greater strength are needed so that our “vote” will count. In the meantime, neither the presence nor absence of options is a reason to be quiet when we have concerns about our children’s school.
I also understand why some parents are willing to accept the assertion that they should not have an opinion about a nationally-affiliated union at Lusher because they love and trust teachers. My child has an excellent teacher. She is thoughtful and smart, making good choices about what is instructionally and socio-emotionally best for my son. She tolerates his idiosyncrasies with grace and aplomb. She is kind and carefully considers issues of race when teaching our biracial child. I trust her. I want her to be treated with the dignity that she deserves. Because she is really good at her job, and only because she is really good at her job, I also want her to have a strong voice in the running of the Lusher.
It is because I respect my son’s teacher that I do not want to see her subjected to a collective bargaining agreement that puts a national agenda ahead of her individual agency. While I think neither Lusher nor the New Orleans education landscape are perfect, a nationally-affiliated collective bargaining agreement will not serve her well. I know this because we have thousands of national test cases in which such contracts are a hurdle for excellent teachers. Sometimes the circumstances under which one is working are so extreme that what is gained by joining a union is greater than what is lost. This is not one of those circumstances.
I have heard many concerns from Lusher teachers that seemed sincere, legitimate, and logical. Even the weightiest ones though could be fixed by creating a teacher advisory committee with access to the board and the CEO. Concerns could also easily be addressed by creating more explicit and collaboratively-developed staff handbooks including processes for airing concerns.
I see no reason for a nationally-affiliated union and collective bargaining agreement, but that’s my opinion and perhaps teachers will choose differently. I hope that whatever the outcome, the pro-union contingent will cease the bitterly ironic practice of demanding more “voice” while telling parents to “be grateful and be quiet.”