Regardless of Janus Decision, ‘We’re Not Going Anywhere’

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

With the U.S. Supreme Court only weeks, perhaps days, away from issuing a  potentially momentous decision in Janus v. AFSCME, what will the fallout be for unions, educators and schools? That was the question before a panel at the 2018 Education Writers Association National Seminar in Los Angeles on May 16.

The panel, moderated by journalist David Washburn of EdSource, featured Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, William Messenger, staff attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, and Julia Koppich, president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm.

The issue before the Court in Janus is whether government employees who are covered by and benefit from a union contract, though not members of the union, should have to contribute to the union’s costs –  by paying an agency or fair share fee for their share of those costs  –  that support strong public sector collective bargaining. The petitioner argues that the First Amendment prohibits fair share fees. If the Court agrees, the rights and freedoms of working people to join together in strong unions will be significantly weakened.

Pressed by moderator Washburn about the actual agenda behind the Janus case (“Is this not just window dressing for union-busting?”), Messenger insisted that the only pertinent issue is the “freedom” to choose whether or not to be in a union. As far as whether or not unions lose members, and the impact on schools, “This is about choice only and I don’t see the connection,” said Messenger. “The case is a few degrees removed from any of those issues.”

Julia Koppich suggested to the audience that anyone who believed Janus was merely about the First Amendment was indulging in “magical thinking.”

“It’s important that we understand the malign intent behind Janus,” Koppich said, namely to severely reduce the bargaining power of public sector unions.

The case is bankrolled by the National Right to Work Foundation, Messenger’s employer, an is part of a well-funded network of corporate billionaires to use the courts to rig the rules against working people.

Eskelsen García told the reporters that NEA has only around 90,000 feepayers members out of 3 million. “I don’t think the National Right to Work Foundation will be satisfied with just that.”

It wouldn’t, she added, because “the case is just a pretext to get union members to drop their membership.”

Eskelsen García also pointed out that groups behind Janus already have launched aggressive drop campaigns seeking to persuade current union members to drop their membership and enjoy the benefits of membership on the dues paid by others. This exposes the true intent behind the case: divide and limit union members’ collective bargaining power and take away the rights and freedom of working people to speak up for themselves and their communities.  

“They want to keep the megaphone as small as possible,” she said. “This is about silencing voices.”

If the Court rules for the plaintiff, Washburn asked, how will unions change how they organize and engage. There’s no question that NEA and others will have to open “a new chapter,” said Koppich. “We don’t know yet what the impact will be on membership but unions will have to be creatively nimble moving forward. I do worry, however, that collaborative relationships in schools districts will be undermined. That can happen when fairness and due process, once embedded in the system, is no longer there.”

Eskelsen Garca agreed that the Janus case could make NEA significantly adjust. “We have to become more and more relevant. What we are doing has to touch the heart and minds of members and potential members. But it’s already happening.”

janus decision

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García (far right) discusses the potential ramifications of Janus v. AFSCME at the 2018 Education Writers Association National Seminar on May 16.

Support for labor unions has risen to its highest level in years and millions of American workers have recommitted to their unions and launched new organizing drives.

“Everyone is looking at what is happening across the country and are saying ‘listen to the teachers.’ ”

Koppich agreed. “Parents see teachers as being unfairly treated,” and schools underfunded.

Through their union, educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina have been speaking up and advocating for their students. They are speaking out against broken chairs, outdated textbooks that are duct taped together, mold on the ceilings, classrooms with more students than desks, and four-day school weeks.

As Eskelsen García told the journalists in the room, educators in Arizona were quick to reject Gov. Dave Ducey’s initial proposal to end the walkout because it focused on their salaries, not on reversing the chronic underfunding that has plagued the state’s schools.

These red state walkouts, in states without fair share fees many of which have no or very limited state bargaining rights, show the power of educators and their unions as advocates for students, Eskelsen Garcia said.

The question for the Court is whether it would rather see the power of those unions at the bargaining table in a controlled form or in the streets of state capitols.

Regardless of the decision, however, “educators are awake. There will be a new chapter,” said Eskelsen García.

“We’re seeing a greater level of activity now that we ever have before. But we still have to have one-on-one conversations with every educator. They need to know how we can help. The collective voice is all we have…and we’re not going anywhere.”

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‘Angel Bus Driver’ Turns School Bus into Hair Salon for Students

(Photo: KSL TV)

Along with her school books, 11-year-old Isabella Pieri always packs a sturdy comb and brush for her bus ride to school in the Alpine School District of Salt Lake City, Utah.

She will smile at bus driver Tracy Dean as she boards. She then takes her seat, anxiously anticipating what has become a morning ritual at the end of the ride.

In the school parking lot after the last student has stepped off the bus, Isabella will hand over her comb and brush to Dean, so the driver can begin braiding her hair. Dean says she makes it a point to set apart extra time each morning to help Isabella look her best.

“It just breaks my heart for the little girl and it makes me feel like I’m not just surviving for my husband and my own children, but to also help these kids,” Dean says.

Overcoming Adversity to Help Others
The morning routine started when Dean noticed that Isabella seemed to always have the same bedhead ponytail and somewhat somber attitude.

“I just thought, well, I’m going to talk to her and be her friend, buddy, big sister, or whatever I can be to let her know that I’m here for her,” says Dean, 47.

As fate would have it, Isabella noticed Dean fixing one of her classmate’s braids. She mustered up the courage to ask Dean if she could get her hair done too.

Tracy’s response: “Yes! I would love to. Just make sure it’s okay with your dad. I don’t want to step on any toes.”

Eventually, Dean learned that Isabella’s mother had passed away in 2016 from a rare illness and that her father, Phillip Pieri, has to leave for work early in the morning.

“Originally, I just gave her a crew cut because I didn’t know how to … get the tangles out,” Pieri told a reporter from local station KSL-TV.

Dean herself was coping with her own struggle as a seven-year survivor of breast cancer.

The media learned of Dean’s good deed, and after several television and newspaper reports appeared across Utah, the story went viral. Within days, Dean was receiving letters of appreciation from faraway cities in China, Australia, England, Ireland, and other countries.

“[The international response] just makes me smile from ear to ear,” says Dean, a member of the Alpine Education Support Professionals Association and Utah School Employees Association (USEA). “It has been amazing that [the story] has gone so far.”

Building Trust

While fixing Isabella’s and another student’s hair each morning, Dean and the children share accounts of what they did in class, after school, and even over the weekend.

One of Isabella’s teachers, LeeAnn Freeze, says she has noticed a bigger smile, brighter eyes, and stronger laughter from Isabella since she started getting her hair braided.

One day, when Freeze asked who was braiding her so skillfully, Isabella responded, “My angel bus driver.”

Phillip Pieri also noticed a confidence boost in Isabella.

“I was amazed,” he says. “Tracy didn’t have to step up, but she did.”

Dean has taken it a step further by visiting the Pieri home to show Isabella how to properly wash her hair and maintain good hygiene.

“You just never know what [the students] going through, and you shouldn’t be quick to judge,” Dean says. “It may be their way of reaching out for a friend or for help.”

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Two Early Career Educators and Those Who Helped Their Practice

Ashley Kincannon, an English teacher from Arkansas, and Arun Puracken, a social studies teacher from Maryland, are early career educators (those within their first 10 years of teaching) who took different paths into the profession. Kincannon went through a college education program, while Puracken first taught provisionally and then earned an alternative certification. Along the way, they each received help in becoming the great teacher/advocates they are today. Here are their stories.

Kincannon is a fifth-year teacher at Lake Hamilton Junior High School in Pearcy, Ark., and she isn’t shy about sharing how her childhood was “unhappy [because of] a dysfunctional family background.” At 17, unable to tolerate her home life, she left and moved in with her boyfriend. When she graduated high school, she was nine months pregnant and married. Today, the couple have two children. Many said Kincannon would never amount to anything. But her teachers believed in her.

“My teachers were always kind,” she says. “They breathed life into me because I wasn’t getting that from anyone else,” says Kincannon, who attended a public high school in Jessieville, Ark.

Her teachers provided more than just emotional support. Like all great teachers, they set her on a path toward success. Two, in particular, encouraged Kincannon to pursue the teaching profession. “To hear someone tell me I could be a teacher and to know these teachers cared about me—because of them, I became a teacher,” she says.

After earning an English degree in secondary education, Kincannon became a teacher in 2013. She immediately connected with mentors who guided, encouraged, and reaffirmed her practice. “I sometimes needed a little support and encouragement. As a young, novice teacher, you’re a minority surrounded by seasoned educators. It’s sometimes scary, but it was helpful to have support from mentors,” Kincannon explains.

To hear someone tell me I could become a teacher and to know these teachers care about me – because of them I became a teacher – Ashley Kincannon, English teacher, Arkansas

The Arkansas Education Association (AEA) supports her, too. Kincannon became a member of her state association last year when she met AEA leaders who recognized her talent and passion, and encouraged her to join.

Kincannon was an AEA student member, but didn’t continue her membership. “I wanted to join AEA because I loved the consistency of community, the support, the education I was receiving, and the wisdom passed on to me about my profession as a student member,” she says. “But, I [thought] I had to pay the full dues amount up front. When I learned I could pay monthly, I decided to join and dove in head first.” She attended district meetings, became a building representative, and started networking with other members.

Kincannon’s experience as a young, first-year teacher, and the support she received, motivated her to support other early career educators. During the 2017 AEA Delegate Assembly she introduced one new business item to support educators who are new to the profession but seasoned in life, and another urging support for educators under the age of 35. Both passed and the work to support these groups is underway.

Kincannon says, “If we don’t create a place where early career and young educators can see themselves in our association, they may not understand the importance of advocacy or the value of being a member of this professional organization.”

Paying it Forward

Support also helped Maryland’s Arun Puracken, a fourth-year teacher at Accokeek Academy in Prince Georges County, to fully embrace his role as an educator and union member.

In 2016, he applied for, and was selected to participate, via his local, in an Early Career Leadership Fellows program. He became part of a cohort of educators who were new to the profession and unfamiliar with the association.

Since that first experience, Puracken has attended numerous trainings and conferences around the country, tackling topics such as school equity, support for early career educators, and political activism.

“These experiences engage early career educators to be the next union leader,” says Puracken, “and they’re investing in me. I get to go to different places and converse with other colleagues in different areas of the country to talk about public education. [“It’s what helped me] learn about what it meant to do union work and why it’s important.”

Like Kincannon, who was encouraged throughout her profession and is now actively engaged in her association, Puracken is paying it forward, too.

“These experiences engage early career educators to be the next union leader …and they’re investing in me.” – Arun Puracken, Social Studies teacher, Maryland

Last fall, there was a vacancy to fill a building representative position. Although he was hesitant to apply, says Puracken, he adds, “I had no choice. I’m being flown out to different places for union work to learn what it takes to be a leader, and here’s an opportunity to be a leader in my building. I had to take ownership.”

But all of that was just the beginning. Puracken is now running for a school board seat, with the support of the Prince Georges County Education Association, the Maryland State Education Association, and NEA. “I’ve been supported with all kinds of association workshops,” he says, “and I’m going to be the example of policy that works for students, educators, and families.”

Together, Kincannon and Puracken are proof of how support can keep new teachers in the classroom, and empower them to make a lasting difference in students’ lives.

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A Push for a Living Wage

ESP members of the Loudoun Education Association rally for a living wage at a board of supervisors public hearing. (Photo: Philippe Nobile)

In protest of low pay and cuts to education funding, education support professionals (ESP) in Virginia’s Loudoun County organized a campaign last December they called, “A Push for Living Wage.”

Their objective: An increase in wages and salary steps while opposing a reduction in force (RIF).

Their plan included blasting school board members with emails, generating local newspaper and social-media coverage, and rallying at board meetings in matching red T-shirts while carrying colorful homemade signs. The plan worked, to some extent.

At a March hearing of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, several dozen ESP members of the Loudoun Education Association (LEA) showed their tenacity by once again donning red T-shirts, waving poster board signs, and distributing pamphlets encouraging a visit to their Facebook page: #LCPSLIVINGWAGE.

“We are here to educate the public about the abysmal pay of many employees who work 12 months a year, eight hours a day, and are paid less than $32,659, which is a living wage for Loudoun County (for one adult),” said David Palanzi, president of LEA, which consists of 3,400 teachers and 630 ESPs, known in Loudoun as “classified employees.”

“Loudoun needs schools where our custodians and all employees are paid a fair wage for the hard work they do,” he told board members. “The budget should not be balanced on the backs of classified employees.”

As news of the living wage campaign spread within the district’s 90 worksites, Palanzi says more and more classified employees became active within LEA. In recent months, there has been a slight membership increase among ESPs.

At an April 24 board meeting, just five months after starting the living wage campaign, board members voted unanimously to increase pay by 3 percent for ESPs, teachers, and other employees beginning in September, while not inducing a RIF.

“The living wage campaign really caught on, particularly with one conservative member of the board who we weren’t sure we could reach,” Palanzi said.

While curtailing campaign efforts for the current school year, LEA officials are in the process of working with several ESP leaders to keep the momentum going in their efforts to gain a living wage for ESPs during the next budget cycle.

“We still have not achieved a living wage, but we are getting there,” Palanzi said.

Moonlighting to Make Ends Meet

In Loudoun County, an upscale suburb near Washington, D.C., many school employees have to work second and third jobs to make ends meet. Even then, many cannot afford to live in the district where they work due to high housing costs and steep property taxes.

Mohamed Osman lives outside the district and earns $31,000 working eight hours a day as a district bus driver. He has a second job in the evening that keeps him away from home until midnight.

“Some of the drivers here work as Uber drivers to survive,” Osman says.

Megan Fay is a fulltime health clinic specialist for the district with a physician assistant’s medical license and master’s degree in physiology. She earns $29,000 a year.

“My job requires making calculations for insulin doses and administering insulin to children with diabetes,” she says. “I’m here advocating for a living wage for all classified staff.”

Karen Tyrrell is a technology assistant at Belmont Ridge Middle School with 13 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree from Duke University.

“After all these years, I still don’t earn a living wage,” says Tyrrell.

Technology assistant Paula Vorndran has worked 17 years for the district. Married, she earns less than $21,000 a year.

“If I was on my own I would not even be able to afford an apartment in Loudoun,” says Vorndran, who has a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications. “I like the job, the people, and working with students.”

Under the current pay system that includes 28 steps, technology assistants are not paid a living wage until step 18 ($33,103). Health clinic specialists like Fay will not earn a living wage until step 13 ($32,861).

The Long Commute

One of the biggest issues for bus drivers who live outside county lines is their early morning commute.

“Many of the bus drivers live in neighboring counties an hour’s drive from Loudoun,” says bus attendant Maryann McHugh, who earns $26,000 annually after 12 years on the job. “Some of these drivers get up at 3:30 a.m. to be at work on time and don’t get home until around 7:00 p.m. They have dinner, go to bed, then do it again the next day.”

In Loudoun, bus drivers do not begin to earn a living wage until step 10 ($33,306). The highest step pays drivers $53,582. Even after reaching step 28, a school cafeteria worker earns far less than a living wage: only $22,322. Paraeducators do not earn a living wage until step 23 ($32,823).

“Many of us live paycheck to paycheck,” McHugh says. “But we remain hopeful.”

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Arizona Teachers Poised for Largest Walkout in Nation

Teachers from Highland Arts Elementary School stage a final walk-in Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Mesa, Ariz. Communities and school districts are preparing for a historic statewide teacher walkout on Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Today, the Arizona teacher with 48 students in one class period—and 43 English-language learners in another—will aim to speak with every one of her students. The elementary school counselor with exactly 1,430 children in her care will triage countless emotional and academic crises.

And at least one of their colleagues will say, “Put the rubber band back on that textbook so we don’t lose the cover,” or “Sit over here. The lights work here.”

Tomorrow, they’re not taking it anymore.

In what may be the largest educator walkout in history, these educators will join tens of thousands of teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) across all of Arizona in walking out of their neglected classrooms. Led and supported by the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Educators United (AEU) through its #RedforEd movement, Arizona educators are bringing their demands for adequate educational funding directly to state lawmakers in Phoenix, where they will be joined by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.

“I’m walking out because I know that my students—and all students in Arizona—deserve more. They deserve more. They deserve to be learning in a fully funded classroom,” says kindergarten teacher Amy Ball, who has taught for 12 years in central Phoenix. “Every single student in Arizona deserves to have the most opportunities for success.”

No state in the country has cut school funding more than Arizona. Between 2008 and 2015, state lawmakers cut funding per student by 36.6 percent, according to a national analysis by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Second is Florida, which cut funding by 22.2 percent during those years.)

This year, Arizona lawmakers are spending 13.6 less on students than they did in 2008. Even as the economy has rebounded from last decade’s Great Recession, Arizona lawmakers have opted for more tax cuts, instead of investing in public schools. Last year, Arizona lawmakers cut school funding by another 1.2 percent.

“We can no longer allow the status quo in this state go unchanged. We need to bring the change our students and families need,” said AEU leader and AEA member Noah Karvelis. “We have kids sitting in broken desks, studying out of 25-year-old textbooks in rooms with leaky ceilings. This is unacceptable.

“We are truly in a state of crisis.”

Arizona teachers and ESPs have had enough. Their #RedforEd movement started this spring with teachers wearing red shirts in solidarity. It has led to multiple rallies at the state Capitol over the past few weeks, and feeble offers of salary raises from state lawmakers.

Last week, nearly eight out of 10 Arizona educators voted to walk out on Thursday. Their effort may be larger than statewide walk-outs in three considerably smaller states—West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

“It is your courage, it is your voice, and it is your advocacy for all of Arizona’s students that have brought us to this historic [moment],” said AEA President Joe Thomas. “This is clearly a mandate for action.”

Pledge your support for Arizona’s educators as they try to get students the resources they deserve.

Salaries are not the issue—although they are terrible. The latest NEA Rankings & Estimates, released earlier this week, shows Arizona teachers earned an average $47,402 a year in 2017, putting them at 45th in the nation. Teachers describe earning so little money that their own children qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and yet they still invest hundreds of dollars a year to buy paper, books, mousetraps, and more for their classrooms.

What’s driving Arizona educators to take action is the lack of opportunities for their students. Arizona students are regularly denied physical education, music and art. Classroom technology is 22-year-old computers, held together with duct tape. Class sizes often top 30 in elementary schools and 40 in high schools.

“I’m walking out because enough is enough. I have spent 30 years in education and in that time we’ve seen cut after cut after cut and excuse after excuse. We’ve absolutely had enough,” says technology specialist Thomas Oviatt, an educator for 30 years. “Not only do I think Arizona students deserve better, I think every student deserves better.”

On the AEU private Facebook page, teachers describe how they struggle to provide what their students need to learn. “I teach in a self-contained special education classroom for students with high needs. Most are students with autism or intellectual disabilities. In the past four months I have spent over $500 on curriculum because I do not have any in my classroom,” writes one Arizona teacher.

We’re talking about school globes that spin to show two Germanys (the Berlin Wall fell in 1989…), or reading books that include “a cute dating story by Bill Cosby.” Teachers are using textbooks that are older than they are. Most Arizona school libraries haven’t had money to buy new books since 2008.

Forget about soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms. There are public schools that limit the use of air-conditioners from 10 am to 2 pm only. In one classroom, an inventive teacher set up a homemade air-conditioner using a Styrofoam ice chest and some electric fans. “The rooms were still about 90 degrees inside. The poor kids had headaches and couldn’t learn,” she describes.

“The 33 second graders in my classroom deserve to have smaller class sizes, they deserve to have updated technology, they deserve to have desks and chairs that aren’t broken,” says Phoenix teacher Alexis Aguerre.

Tomorrow, educators are going to let everybody know that Arizona can do better for its children: “I think the Red for Ed movement means hope,” says Aguerre. “It means that we are willing to fight for our families and for our students.

“Being a part of this movement has given me a renewed hope that we can do better for our kids.”

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Meet 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning

Mandy Manning, an English and math teacher who teaches refugee and immigrant students in Spokane, Wash., was named the 2018 National Teacher of the Year on Friday by the Council of Chief School State Officers (CCSSO).

An 18-year teaching veteran, Manning has taught at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School for seven years, where she has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to students who are adjusting to life in their new community “Every student in this country deserves access to a teacher who is committed to their success,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of CCSSO, and Manning embodies that dedication and spirit.

“I am honored and excited to be the 2018 National Teacher of the Year,” Manning said. “This year I hope to engage the nation in a conversation about how we can encourage students to experience things outside of their understanding. When we move out of our comfort zones, visit new places, listen to others’ thoughts, and share our own opinions, we become compassionate and open. This is the first step in creating a more hopeful, safer, and kinder society where everyone can be productive, global citizens.”

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García called Manning  “a shining example of how teachers transform the lives of their students every day, engaging them and creating enthusiasm for learning. .. Mandy sees no barriers—only bridges.”

Manning began her career as an educator in the Peace Corps in Armenia, and has taught in Japan and in schools across the U.S. These experiences have instilled a global perspective in her teaching.

“Student-centered teaching is essential to my successes in the classroom,” said Manning. “Globally, we need to encourage others to explore, be fearless and embrace new experiences with compassion. I want to inspire educators and students as I have been inspired, to see potential in every voice and opportunity in every classroom.”

Manning’s students at Joel E. Ferris High School come to the U.S. from all over the world:  Syria, Chuuk, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Myanmar, Sudan, Mexico, and Tanzania. Most of them are seeking safety, “but they don’t always feel safe here,” said Manning. The current political climate has only increased fear and anxiety, making it hard for newcomers to share and learn from others. Manning says her role in the classroom is to “help them understand current events, know their rights, and provide a safe and welcoming environment.”

As a National Board Certified Teacher, Manning is seen by her colleagues by her colleagues as a mentor and an enthusiastic collaborator. She was also instrumental in re-evaluating her school’s discipline plan. Manning led a committee of key stakeholders that adopted a progressive, evidence-based behavioral intervention plan that placed enhanced academic and social behavior outcomes over punishment. Implemented in 2016, the new plan led to a 74 percent decrease in suspensions in the first year.

In addition to her work in the classroom and as a coach, Mandy, an NEA member, is deeply involved in her local and state union. She started as a building rep, discussing important workplace issues with her co-workers, representing their interests and concerns at union meetings and getting them involved. She is currently on the executive committee of the Spokane Education Association.

“Mandy understands as a leader, being part of a strong union helps her students succeed,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association. “As a teacher, I couldn’t be more excited to have her represent us.”

As the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Manning is looking forward to serving as a full-time spokesperson and advocate for teachers and public education.

“Public schools aren’t failing,” she said. “We are being successful, and we are changing lives.”

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Bargaining for the Common Good in Higher Education

The story around parking at UMass Boston is decades long, and rife with buried trash, political corruption, and imprisoned public officials. The latest twist is this: The university is building a new garage, and it plans to charge everybody—students, custodians, faculty alike—$15 a day to park.

“For students, across the school year it adds up to almost the cost of an additional class, and the university is saying that they can add that cost to their tuition bills…so, more debt!” says Annetta Argyres, a UMass Boston faculty union leader. “Also, consider our classified employees, who are our lowest paid employees. They are required to be on campus five days a week, 50 weeks a year. It adds up to an enormous amount of money, far more than any raises on the table.”

A possible solution is this: A growing movement around “bargaining for the common good.”

In common-good efforts, unions partner with community groups—students, parents, racial-justice organizations, etc.—around contract demands that benefit not just the members of the bargaining unit but also the wider community, explains Marilyn Sneiderman, director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University. (Read more about it from Sneiderman, here.) Since 2012, several K12 NEA-affiliated unions, most notably in St. Paul, Minn., have used this strategy to win contract provisions that include more school counselors and librarians, and less standardized testing.

It makes sense to also use bargaining for the common good in higher education, especially at public institutions whose missions—and funding—are entangled with the well-being of their communities. They’re often the largest local landowners and employers, and fuel the economic development of their regions. Bargaining for the common good can transform institutions “from crucibles of inequality into epicenters of democratic…empowerment,” said Joe McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

Recently, Argyres and other Massachusetts Teachers Association members, as well as leaders from the California Faculty Association (CFA), attended a convening at Rutgers, co-sponsored by NEA, with more than 200 union, community and racial-justice leaders, where they learned how to run these types of campaigns.

“We’re in a time and place where people are willing to look differently at their unions and the work that they do,” said CFA Vice President Charles Toombs, who led a delegation of CFA members to the Rutgers event. For CFA, this has meant re-writing its bylaws so that it focuses more on anti-racism and social justice.

“This social justice work is going to be a way to insure strong membership,” said Toombs. And, even more important, “in a state like California, to ignore these issues is to do a disservice to the students we teach, especially as we have so many students of color and DACA students.”

In its last contract, CFA won a new article that addresses “cultural taxation,” or the penalty paid by many faculty of color for the disproportionate work they do to support students of color. Now, money has been allocated to help compensate faculty, often in the form of release time, who do “exceptional work with those students,” said Toombs.

This is an example of common-good bargaining—it takes a common-good issue, like the success of students of color, and codifies it in contract language. “It’s a way to bring our concerns with anti-racism and social justice into the contract,” said Toombs.

Common-good bargaining is also a way for “not only our members to see why they need unions and what they do, but also our larger community to see why we need unions and what they do,” said Argyres.

In Boston, common-good bargaining may start with parking—the union’s proposal calls for no student parking fees—but it may lead to bigger issues around public land use and student services. “We need to get more bold and more creative about how we use our contracts,” said Argyres, who also plans to invite students to the faculty union’s next bargaining session with the university.

“We see no reason that they shouldn’t be there for open bargaining,” she said. “This is a conversation that affects all of us.”

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Educators Push Teacher Pay Penalty Into National Spotlight -NEA Today

“Something has to change,” says Noah Karvelis, a teacher at Trios Rios Elementary School just outside of Phoenix. Only in his second year teaching, Karvelis has already seen too many colleagues walk away from the profession in a state where the salaries are so low. Arizona ranks last in teacher pay and in per-pupil spending.

“Being a teacher isn’t a viable career choice here any longer,” Karvelis says.“No one got into this profession to get rich. But we do expect to be able to make a living. And in Arizona, that’s not the case.”

Between 2014 and 2016, Arizona educators increasingly fled the state for jobs in neighboring California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where teachers make on average $10,000-15,000 more than their counterparts in Arizona.

“Each day that goes by without action by our elected officials, another teacher decides to leave Arizona,” said Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.

In 2015, special education teacher Robin Edgerton left the Lake Havasu School District for a position in Needles, California, that doubled her salary. She commutes 40 minutes from her home in Lake Havasu.

“I went from living paycheck to paycheck, to where now I can buy a house,” Edgerton told The Arizona Republic. “With Arizona pay, it never would have happened.”

Over the past few weeks, educators across the state have mobilized to demand a 20 percent increase in teacher pay (which would still place Arizona below the national average) and a return of pre-recession school funding levels. With each unacceptable response from Governor Doug Ducey and the state legislature, the #RedforEd movement has grown stronger, joining educator-led protests in other states that have pushed low teacher pay and the divestment in public education into the national spotlight.

The walkout of Oklahoma educators has entered its second week and their counterparts in Kentucky continue to protest funding shortfalls and a bill that would decimate their pensions. The fire was lit in February by the historic nine-day strike by West Virginia educators (“That victory has been incredibly empowering for educators in Arizona,” said Karvelis). Since then, it has swept through other states as teachers and other school staff have become fed up with inadequate resources and the penalties they have to endure to stay in a profession they love.

The dramatic resurgence of the teacher pay issue specifically, says Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute, has been simmering for some time.

“You’re seeing two factors—the debasement of the teaching profession and the erosion of wages and benefits to the point where educators are rightfully angry,” says Mishel. “They’re determined to protect their families and their profession.”

Video: Tulsa educator Jennifer Thornton supports herself and her teenage son on less than $2K a month.

A Man-Made Crisis

“Wages for teachers have been falling relative to comparable workers all over the country for many years,” says Mishel. This “teacher penalty” continues to grow,  forcing many educators out of the profession and making it less and less attractive to potential candidates.

And many who remain are forced to take second jobs just to make ends meet. A 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that about 16 percent of teachers across the nation work second jobs outside the school system.

According to a new EPI analysis by Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, teacher pay (adjusted for inflation) fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. Even when accounting for benefits, the teacher compensation gap widened by 9 percent, to 11.1 percent over that same time frame.

In Arizona, teachers earn just 63 cents on the dollar compared with other college graduates—the widest pay gap in the nation. The gap is 79 cents in Kentucky, 67 cents in Oklahoma, and 75 cents in West Virginia.

It’s a gap that is abated by collective bargaining, according to 2016 analysis by Allegretto and Mishel.  They found that in 2015, “teachers not represented by a union had a 25.5 percent wage gap—and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers.” (See Mishel’s recent summary of the research into collective bargaining’s impact)

Since the successful strike in West Virginia, in which teachers and education support professionals pressured Governor Jim Justice to agree to a 5 percent pay raise, the message around education funding and teacher pay has clearly struck a chord with the general public.

“We’re seeing an outpouring of support and respect for teachers in these states,” says Mishel.

A new poll by CBS found that 68 percent of Americans say teachers in their community are paid too little—a majority that cuts across political party lines.

This community support is absolutely critical. For too long, lawmakers have degraded the teaching profession with myths, exaggerations that serve to undermine public education and advance a school privatization agenda.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin pulled out this rhetorical toolbox last week when she compared protesting teachers to “a teenager who wants a better car.”

There are clear cracks in the mantra that tax cuts are the panacea for everything and I think they’re going to grow wider as the public becomes more aware of their impact. How quickly this pans out remains to be seen but the signs are all there.” – Michael Leachman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The remark was an offensive and clumsy attempt to divert attention away from the reckless tax cuts she and other politicians have championed that have decimated public services in their respective states.

“This is a man-made crisis,” NEA President Lily Eskeslen García told a rally of educators in Oklahoma City on April 2. “Tax giveaways to big business. Starving the revenue that pays for quality education—they’ve been digging this revenue hole for a dozen years.”

Michael Leachman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed the impact state tax cuts have had in Arizona and Oklahoma. While the individual tax breaks differ, the effect is the same: funding education has become increasingly difficult, which it turn makes it even harder to improve teacher pay.

Arizona and Oklahoma were cutting taxes before the Great Recession and haven’t stopped.

“While most states have gradually restored the school funding that they cut when the recession hit, Arizona and Oklahoma have not come close,” Leachman writes. “Most states have reduced average teacher pay since 2010, after adjusting for inflation, but Arizona and Oklahoma are among the deepest-cutting states.”

Although raising more revenue in these states is a daunting political challenge, the ground is shifting, says Leachman.

“There are clear cracks in the mantra that tax cuts are the panacea for everything and I think they’re going to grow wider as the public becomes more aware of their impact. How quickly this pans out remains to be seen but the signs are all there.”

No More Nickel-and-Diming

Arizona educators are all-too familiar with this stubborn allegiance to tax cuts for the wealthy. Derek Harris, a band teacher in Tucson, sat stunned at a meeting with lawmakers at the state capitol last month as educator protests began to gather momentum.

“They told us to our faces that the tax cuts were absolutely necessary and that the reason we had these budget shortfalls was because the district was spending the money fraudulently,” Harris recalls.

This spring the legislature stands ready to approve a capital gains tax cut that will benefit almost exclusively the 183 richest Arizonans — those making more than $5 million a year — to the tune of an extra $27,000 each.

Meanwhile, Governor Ducey has offered teachers a 1 percent pay raise.

Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol highlighting low teacher pay and school funding on March 28, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“It’s just another slap in the face,” says Harris.“It’s too much. We’re not going to be nickel-and-dimed anymore.”

On April 11, as part of the #RedforEd movement, teachers, education support professionals, and parents across the state are holding “walk-ins” to educate the community about the funding shortfalls facing public schools. Large-scale rallies will be held outside school buildings and are expected to attract huge crowds. The goal right now is to mobilize as much community support as possible to pressure Ducey—who on Tuesday dismissed #RedforEd as “political theater”—and the legislature to change course.

In addition to the 20 percent salary increase for teachers and the restoration of school funding to 2008 levels (approx. $1 billion), educators are also demanding competitive pay for all education support staff, a permanent salary structure that includes annual raises, and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

What happens next is up to the legislature. If they take no action, lawmakers should not expect educators to put down the megaphone and go home, says Joe Thomas, president of AEA. “I  have not seen this many teachers this frustrated since I’ve been in Arizona.”

Educators will only be more empowered and determined to stand up for their students and their profession, adds Noah Karvelis.

“We are no longer willing to come to school each day unable to do the job that we love so much. An entire generation of students have not been given the education that they deserve. That’s devastating to all of us.”

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Illinois Education Support Professionals Stand Their Ground During Challenging Strike

When 450 members of the Education Support Personnel Association (ESPA) in Palatine, Illinois, staged a strike last October at 20 locations, they were confronted with a judge’s temporary restraining order for 168 striking members to return to work at Palatine School District 15. The judge stated that their absence could cause a “clear and present danger” to the safety and health of the district’s special needs students. That was on day two.

“On the one hand, the district did not want to give these people a raise as low as 11 to 25 cents an hour, while on the other hand they were willing to go to court to bring them back to work because they were so essential,” says Bridget Shanahan, media relations director of the Illinois Education Association (IEA).

As the strike reached its fifth day, district officials released to the public a letter written two weeks earlier informing ESPA members that if they went on strike, all salary, health insurance (including drug prescriptions) and other “board-paid benefits shall cease for striking members.”

While district officials said they had communicated to ESPA members the ramifications they would encounter should they go on strike, members were not given a specific day when insurance coverage would halt.

“That was extremely disheartening,” Shanahan says.

Disinvestment in Schools

Before the end of the 10-day strike, those on the picket line received seemingly random emails stating that their prescription drugs were no longer covered and that their medical co-payments would increase.

“With no paycheck and no insurance, if you’re a single mother with children, then you are in financial trouble from day one,” says paraeducator Rosella Bartoli, ESPA’s medical and financial aid coordinator. “Our insurance should not have been cancelled. It was prepaid.”

According to UniServ Director Debbie Gorecki, it was the first time in Illinois history that an employer canceled health insurance during a labor strike.

“The district weaponized insurance by cancelling it on a rolling basis,” says Gorecki, who helped facilitate the strike team. Some members learned they no longer were covered for medical services only after they tried to use their insurance cards at a drug store or other medical facility.

“There are 20 schools and they only canceled a handful of members’ insurance in each school in order to scare folks to cross the strike line,” Gorecki says. “Many members also lost wages from second and third jobs in order to participate in strike.”

As with the success of the historic nine-day strike by West Virginia’s teachers in securing overdue pay raises and other walkouts by educators in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, Palatine education support professionals (ESP) banded together on the picket line and in February secured a five-year contract. Like their teacher colleagues, ESPA members stood their ground under tense conditions while protesting long-running, systemic disinvestment in public schools.

District Had the Resources

District 15 is the state’s second largest school district. When the strike began October 16, the two sides were divided by retirement policies and rules over when workers would serve as substitute teachers. And by wages.

“We did the research,” Shanahan says. “The district had the money to pay for the raise.”

During the strike, schools remained open for the district’s 12,800 students. ESPA members include nurses, paraeducators, sign language interpreters, and clerical service workers.

“Voting to go on strike was the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make at work,” says Angie Drazkowski, ESPA president. “We work hard every day to make sure our students’ needs are met, yet we are barely able to support our own families.”

Many ESPs in the district earn approximately $12,000 a year, according to media reports.

“This means most of us have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet,” Drazkowski says. “Our members work with the most vulnerable students in the district and also happen to be among the lowest paid.”

Nationwide Support

During the strike, IEA and Association locals in Illinois and across the nation contributed $70,000 to assist those on strike with various family and personal expenses.

“I’m humbled by the financial help that came in from NEA unions across the country,” says Bartoli. “We helped members with funds to buy groceries, pay utilities, make car payments … the usual daily expenses.”

Some members also received financial assistance to help meet child care, rent and mortgage payments. Interest-free loans through IEA were also available to members who missed pay periods.

“I spoke with members one on one and reviewed their bills,” says Bartoli. “It was emotionally difficult at times for me to listen to them describe the financial struggles they were facing.”

Despite tremendous hardship, fewer than 20 employees crossed the picket line, according to news sources. Before the end of the strike, the judge withdrew the restraining order and the 168 nurses and paraeducators returned to the picket line.

Building Student Trust

The contract agreement reached February 15 is retroactive to when the previous contract expired last June. The agreement includes a two percent average annual wage increase, single-employee health insurance (fully paid by the district), and stipulations of fulltime status at 5.5 hours per day or 27.5 hours per week. Also, up to eight ESPs per year will be eligible for a $9,000 retirement bonus with the provision ending 2020.

“With that, we can now focus on rebuilding and reconnecting with the district,” Drazkowski says.

Each of the 20 school buildings in the district have one or two ESPA building representatives.

“With so many members spread out across the district, a lot of us didn’t know each other,” says Bartoli, who works at Lincoln Elementary School. “The strike helped bring us together. A lot of friendships were made.”

In addition, Bartoli stresses that the new contract is meant to help attract and retain the best and brightest ESPs possible.

“The district should want to have more consistency in the lives of our students,” says Bartoli, who has worked in the district for 18 years. “We are neighbors to these kids and their families. We know their older brothers and sisters because we were here when they came through these schools.”

By retaining dedicated and qualified educators, student safety and learning conditions will improve, Bartoli says.

“We want to be here for students on a long-term basis so they can get to know and trust us throughout their school years,” she adds. “How much is that consistency worth to students and the district? A lot I would think.”

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Striking the Right Tone: Staff Collaboration Key to a Healthy School

Nurse Sheryl Lapp (right) often meets with staff members like teacher Sandy Doyon to coordinate students’ health care needs.

Three students with food allergies are sitting at the nut-free table during lunch at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in South Plainfield, N.J. In accordance with a new school protocol, they have invited several friends to join them.

“It used to be that they could invite only one friend to sit with them,” says school nurse Sheryl Lapp. “But one student had several friends and couldn’t pick just one, so we worked to create an environment of acceptance instead of exclusion.”

Among some students, it is socially prestigious to have lunch in the peanut-free zone. Among teachers, food service workers, and paraeducators it is imperative to know the health plans of students with food allergies. They must also be trained to recognize symptoms of a first-time allergic reaction in a previously undiagnosed student. In case of an emergency, working as a unit is vital.

At Kennedy, teamwork, camaraderie, and mutual appreciation are the pillars upon which the school operates. This spirit of staff cooperation stems from the same impulse present at most if not all public schools: the desire to help one another succeed on behalf of students.

“It’s the tone of the building,” says teacher Sandy Doyon, vice president and building representative of the South Plainfield Education Association (SPEA), which includes 450 paraeducators, secretaries, and teachers. “We have great administrators and educators who put students first and know how to work together.”

Kennedy can boast almost 100 percent participation in SPEA.

“The folks here are very supportive of NJEA (New Jersey Education Association),” Doyon adds.

In Sync

At most schools, a principal’s leadership style pervades the buildings, playgrounds, cafeteria and all points in between. Whether positive or negative, it trickles down through the staff.

“Our principal is very supportive and fair, calm, and friendly,” Lapp says. “He can work with everyone here as well as the superintendent and board members.”

Principal Kevin Hajduk arrived at Kennedy in 2015 after serving as principal of South Plainfield Middle School.

It’s one thing to state that staff workers at Kennedy work well together. Educators at many schools do that. It’s another to see their teamwork reflected in the smallest detail.”

“Kennedy was known for its progress on state assessments, great programs, and very supportive staff,” says Hajduk. “Immediately, you can see they are a close-knit group.”

It’s obvious that Hajduk’s loyalty runs deep. After all, he was born in South Plainfield and graduated from South Plainfield High School in 1995.

“We are a family-oriented team,” he says, “with students at the center of the discussion.” Of the school’s 55 staff members, only Hajduk and the physical education coach are male. The unity around gender may be a factor in the team’s success, though Hajduk chooses to credit each individual’s willingness to try new things, resolve disputes quickly, acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses, address certain concerns in private, compliment each other on jobs well done, forgive one another when mistakes are made, and offer feedback when asked.

“It takes all of us, working together, to know our roles and to execute them effectively,” he says. “Respect, trust, and good team communication are our keys to success.”

School Hub

The second grader entering nurse Lapp’s office rushes past a teacher in Lapp’s office and blurts a quick “Hi.” The student is distracted by debris lodged in her eye.

“Let me see…don’t scratch,” says Lapp, whose multi-purpose office is a school hub of sorts.

The sun-soaked space includes a vast storage area for medical supplies and two private restroom facilities—one for hurried teachers and another for students who might experience a stomach-related emergency.

“Sometimes, it’s like I’m the school mother,” says Lapp, who joined Kennedy in 2013 replacing a nurse who had been at the school for 25 years.

“You never hesitate to ask Mrs. Lapp for anything,” says paraprofessional Juliann Bickunas. “She’s well-trained for the job and works well with everyone.”

In a corner across from Lapp’s orderly desk is a wheel chair, oxygen tank, and low-rise bed where students rest after Lapp has tended to a nose bleed, bruised eye, knee scrape, or puncture wound that could be located almost anywhere.

Even teachers are known to visit Lapp’s office for a quick consultation.

“I’m here for them, too,” she says. “Staff members consult me about their own pains, bumps, and bruises as well as those of their students.”

At Kennedy, Lapp works as closely with education support professionals as with teachers and administrators on the academic progress, and emotional and physical health of the school’s 280 preK–fourth graders.

“We talk a lot amongst ourselves,” says Amy Leso, third-grade teacher and a 2002 graduate of South Plainfield High School. “When I have a student with an allergy, I’ll mention it to other teachers and staff.”

Staff are trained to maintain student confidentiality but to also collaborate on care.

All for One

It’s one thing to state that staff workers at Kennedy work well together. Educators at many schools do that. It’s another to see their teamwork reflected in the smallest detail.

Custodian Marilu Hernandez, who has worked at Kennedy for six years, often collaborates with Lapp on choosing the safest cleaning products for students as young as age 5. They read bottle labels together.

“Always, students come first with Mrs. Lapp, the teachers, principal…all of us,” says Hernandez. “When a teacher calls me [after a student has an accident], I go quickly.”

Nurse Sheryl Lapp at work in her multi-purpose office.

Teacher Heather Hearne-Pascale says Hernandez and Lapp are familiar faces in her classroom of nine K–second graders with multiple disabilities. Each student has a different health care plan involving seizures, diabetes, or life-threatening allergies.

“The majority of my students can’t tell me what they’re feeling, especially when it comes to toileting,” Hearne-Pascale says. “We have a lot of little accidents.”

Five paraeducators work with Hearne-Pascale on helping students with everything from language and communication skills to toilet training and personal hygiene.

Outside the classroom, paraeducators are responsible for escorting the students to the cafeteria, gym, music, and other classes.

“All our teachers know these students by name,” Hearne-Pascale says. “We look out for each other and each other’s students.”

Special education teacher Brittany Lillis, who teaches third through fifth grade, also credits caring parents with helping to maintain a healthy school climate.

“We listen to them and they to us,” she says. “You get to know them, which helps us even more to serve our students.”

The margin for error regarding student health and safety becomes slimmer when parents are factored in, explains teacher Alicia Berardocco.

“Parents are very accommodating here,” she says. “We communicate on a daily basis with some of them.”

Crisis Contained

Last fall, Lapp had to rush out of her office to help a student having a seizure in a classroom.

“Most seizures last about five minutes,” she says. “This one went on for almost 15.”

Fortunately, classroom staff knew to remain calm, began tracking the time and the length of the seizure, monitored the student’s breathing and protected the student’s head until Lapp arrived and activated EMS.

“Our secretary knew whom to call…our maintenance staff were on standby to help with whatever was needed,” Lapp recalls. “We are very lucky that our school administration recognizes the importance of having a full-time nurse in the building.”

The student received efficient care and was back in class within several days. The student is among 8 percent of children in the U.S. diagnosed with food allergies. Of this group, 40 percent have the potential for a life threatening severe reaction known as anaphylaxis, which causes blood pressure to drop and airways to constrict.

Anaphylaxis can be fatal without rapid treatment. According to EdSource, a non-profit education news website, almost 20 percent of severe allergic reactions at schools happen to children who have not been diagnosed.

“Sometimes you don’t know until the first time,” says Lapp.

The incident at Kennedy was an example of the high level of collaboration and commitment to the health and safety of students.

“In a school environment that stresses communication and collaboration, I think you’ll find low levels of absenteeism and high levels of [staff] morale and student achievement,” Lapp says.

In Good Hands

Lapp maintains a drawer in the front desk reception area filled with student-specific and stock EpiPens organized in baggies. EpiPens are auto injectors with spring-activated needles and can be administered in a thigh through clothing. Each baggie contains a printout of the student’s medical history and photo, and the EpiPen.

“Many of our staff have been trained to recognize symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, how to administer an injection and follow-up procedures,” she says.

The school’s specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) also collaborate on student psychological assessments and case management.

“She (Lapp) tests thoroughly,” says speech therapist Peggy Monagle. “The students we work with have many medical conditions which require in-depth knowledge of their situation and cooperation from everyone.”

School psychologist Ashley Kellett recalls the many cross-departmental meetings between social service workers, teachers, and others where student health issues are analyzed.

“With certain students, you have to determine what’s causing the (psychological) problems,” Kellett says. “For that, you have to be organized and work together.”

For More:
Nurse Sheryl Lapp and other staff from Kennedy are featured in a video as part of the Classroom Close-up NJ series sponsored by NJEA. The video premiers May 6. View here:

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Educators Take to the Streets in Oklahoma and Kentucky

The crowd cheers during a rally at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Monday, April 2, 2018. Educators were holding separate protests in Oklahoma and Kentucky on Monday to voice dissatisfaction with issues like pay and pensions. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

More than 30,000 angry and frustrated educators from across Oklahoma walked out of schools and swarmed the state Capitol on Monday to demand that state lawmakers invest in public education, while thousands more in Kentucky also rallied to protest legislative neglect.

“Why are we walking? There are 700,000 reasons why! Our students deserve better,” said Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) President Alicia Priest in a video statement. “We’ve all heard stories from students, parents, and teachers affected by 11 years of [budget] cuts to our classrooms. They see broken chairs in classrooms, outdated textbooks that are duct-taped together, and class sizes that have ballooned.”

Meanwhile, as state lawmakers turn their backs on students and educators, Oklahoma teachers are selling plasma to make ends meet.

“This is a man-made crisis,” echoed NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, who joined Oklahoma teachers in their protests Monday.

“You are part of a movement that cannot be stopped,” Eskelsen García told the crowd. “For a dozen years, we sent emails and letters and phone calls and visits. For years, we’ve explained what was happening as they ignored the needs of public schools. And they ignored us. And now we are taking to the streets.”

Oklahomans aren’t the only ones who are fed up with state lawmakers who pay lip-service to public education. On Monday, thousands of protesting Kentucky educators gathered in Frankfort alongside NEA Vice President Becky Pringle to demand increased investment in schools and to decry a state bill that would decimate their pension. And, in Arizona, too, thousands of educators rallied in Phoenix this weekend to call for increased funding and pay raises.

Many educators are looking for inspiration in West Virginia, where teachers and education support professionals in a massive, sustained show of strength and solidarity walked out in every one of the state’s 55 counties for nine days last month, forcing reluctant state lawmakers to invest in teacher pay and commit to reducing health insurance costs.

“There’s a tipping point where people say enough is enough, we need to make some noise,” Eskelsen García told MSNBC on Monday. “We need to make everybody see what’s happening to our students.”

The frustration has been building for years, as state lawmakers have increasingly cut funding for public schools rather than raise revenues to pay for the services that students need. Arizona is the worst: between 2008 and 2015, lawmakers cut per-student funding by 36.6 percent, according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Oklahoma, it fell 15.6 percent; and, in Kentucky, 5.9 percent.

“You are in the front of the lines to ensure your students have the kind of education that inspires their imaginations and unleashes their brilliance. So don’t be shy about your business. Don’t be afraid of your power”- NEA Vice President Becky Pringle

As a result, in 2016, Arizona’s average teacher pay was last in the nation, while Oklahoma’s ranked 47th, according to the NEA Rankings and Estimates report. In both states, teachers can make $10,000 or $15,000 more just by driving across state lines. This makes it extremely difficult for principals or superintendents to hold onto qualified teachers, even as research shows that a well-qualified teacher is the key to student success.

But this uprising of educators isn’t just about teacher pay. It’s about investing in public school students. Last week, Oklahoma lawmakers put together a funding bill that union leaders called a “down payment” on education. “It’s enough to buy about one textbook per student, and our kids need a whole lot more than one textbook,” said Priest. “They need art and music and advanced classes, smaller class sizes and everything else they’ve lost in the past 10 years of budget cuts. One textbook per child isn’t going to cut it. The legislature needs to raise more revenue for our children.”

In Arizona, teachers are calling for a $20,000 pay raise, and also for education funding to be restored to pre-recession 2008 levels. “Every single kid that I’ve ever had deserves more than this,” said Arizona Education Association member Noah Karvelis, an organizer of Arizona Educators United, to NPR. “There are kids who are not being given a fair chance here.”

In Kentucky, schools in 20 counties closed last week and many closed on Monday because of teacher protests over pensions. Last week, House and Senate lawmakers passed a surprise bill that will move all new teachers into a 401K-style retirement plan with no guaranteed returns. It was originally filed as a wastewater services bill, but changed without public notice to a pension bill. The legislative bait-and-switch made it impossible for Kentucky educators to speak to legislators about their opinions on it.

Meanwhile, Kentucky also has suffered cuts in education funding. On Monday, Pringle told Kentucky educators: “You are in the front of the lines to ensure your students have the kind of education that inspires their imaginations and unleashes their brilliance. So don’t be shy about your business. Don’t be afraid of your power. My question this morning to you is, ‘What are you prepared to do?’”

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Alaska Paraeducator Named 2018 NEA Education Support Professional of the Year

NEA Vice-President Becky Pringle (left) and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss (right) with 2018 ESP of the Year Sherry Shaw

In an environment known for its icy cold climate, Alaskan Sherry Shaw knows how to keep warm. She stays busy, inspired by her work as a special education paraeducator and coach at Tanaina Elementary School in Wasilla, and member of NEA-Alaska and the Matanuska-Susitna Classified Employees’ Association (MSCEA).

Her advocacy on behalf of students and colleagues includes extensive volunteer work with the Special Olympics and other community organizations. Shaw can expect to add a few more items to her calendar in the upcoming year after being named the 2018 National Education Association (NEA) Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year during Saturday’s ESP of the Year Award Banquet at the NEA ESP Conference in Orlando, Fla.

“I work in special ed and I just love my students! I dedicate every moment I’m there showing them love and what they can do without limits. I’m at a loss for words right now, thank you so much!” said Shaw, to the rousing applause of more than 800 school support staff, administrators, and other educators from across the country who are participating in the 27th annual conference.

At the banquet, NEA Vice President Becky Pringle presented Shaw with a commemorative trophy, bouquet of red roses, and $10,000 check. Shaw also received a coveted ESP of the Year Hall of Fame plaque.

“Now, some people will tell you it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts,” said Pringle. “Sherry not only does 12 things at once, but she does them all phenomenally well.”

For 13 years, Shaw has worked closely with teachers to prepare classroom materials, modify curriculum, work one-on-one and in small groups with special education students, as well aid in the students’ socialization and behavior management.

The annual award is NEA’s highest for an ESP.

“NEA congratulates Sherry and thanks her for the dedication and passion she has for her students and her job,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “She understands that in order to nurture student success, educators must work hand-in-hand. Sherry’s drive and dedication to making sure her students start and finish the school day on a positive note serves as a reminder of just how important education support professionals are as members of the education team, helping students succeed and achieve.”

More than 2 million school support staff work in the nation’s public school systems, with more than 75 percent living, shopping and voting in the school communities in which they work.

The conference theme, Education Support Professionals Uniting Our Members and the Nation for Strong Communities, Empowered Educators, and Successful Students, set the tone for the dozens of workshops and discussions which focused on NEA’s goals and priorities including supporting the whole student, engaging early career educators, racial justice in education, effective teacher-paraeducator teamwork, and ensuring that the voices of educators are heard by legislators on Capitol Hill, and in city halls and statehouses across the nation.

“First in the building every day and typically last to leave, she is focused on creating the best experiences for all students as well as adults,” Tanaina Elementary School Principal Cheri Mattson stated in her recommendation letter to the ESP of the Year Selection Committee. “If it needs to be done, she is doing it, knowing it will help the students or adults gain confidence and success in the end.”

In addition to a career as a special education paraeducator, over the years Shaw has coached volleyball, basketball, cross country running, track and field, and cross-country skiing.

“My goal is to ensure students have a positive, fun experience,” she stated in her letter to the selection committee. “But not that they should just learn the fundamentals of the sport, but also the fundamentals of life, such as integrity, sportsmanship, working together as a team and how to be successful and achieve their full potential.”

Within the 900-member MSCEA, Shaw is a building representative at Tanaina while also representing MSCEA at other schools during discussions about workplace issues.

“I enjoy sharing how our union is working hard for us and answering questions they may have,” she states. “I encourage all paraprofessionals to take a more active role in our local chapter.”

As a local leader, Shaw has helped to promote ESP Appreciation Week in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District by raising funds for gift packages to ESPs in the district.

In Wasilla, Shaw helped to establish and manage a program to help families affected by drug abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness by providing food, clothing, hygiene products, and advice on how to access resources from the state.

School support professionals make up more than one-third of all public school employees. Within NEA, ESPs are categorized in nine career families:
• Paraeducators
• Clerical services
• Custodial and maintenance services
• Skilled trades
• Technical services
• Security services
• Transportation services
• Food services
• Health and student services.

“I have seen her in the hallways, on the field, and in the classroom doing what she does best … being an amazing educator,” stated MSCEA President Karen Salisbury. “She works with students, parents, staff, and community members with such uniqueness that each person feels special.”

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A Celebration of Diverse Books and Readers

Hundreds of third and fourth graders in a rainbow of Read Across America t-shirts packed into the NEA auditorium in Washington, D.C. today to kick off March’s month-long reading celebration.

“This is such a special day,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told the students, who came from schools “We are going to celebrate Read Across America for the whole month because there are so many good books to read! Books about different cultures, races, languages and traditions.”

This year’s theme is “Celebrating a Nation of Diverse Readers” and the event showcased best-selling diverse authors Kwame Alexander (Booked, Crossover), Jesse J. Holland (Who is the Black Panther?), and Gene Luen Yang (Secret Coders, American Born Chinese, Shadow Hero) as well as a 20 authors of diverse books featured in the Read Across America Resource Calendar. The books are not only written by diverse authors about diverse characters, but they are written in diverse formats – graphic novels, comics, poetry and prose – which allows students to enter the world of reading through a doorway that appeals most to them.

Gene Leun Yang told the gathered students to always try new things, and to keep trying. He told them about his “Reading Without Walls” challenge,  which challenges students to read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you, read a book about a topic you don’t know much about and to read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun. This might be a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, a picture book, or a hybrid book.

“Our students need to see themselves in what they’re reading,” says Judy Marable, a reading specialist who came with her students from Flintstone Elementary in Oxon Hill. “When they see themselves in the characters, or in the authors, they realize they can have different careers, lifestyles, and adventures – that everything is open to them, not just to some. Books open their eyes and their worlds.”

Books have opened the eyes of Madison Bartley, a third grader at Paint Branch Elementary School in College Park, Maryland. She says she loves reading, and her current favorite is the Dog Man comic book series by Dav Pilkey about a “crime biting” canine.

“I like the books because they are comics and because Dog Man explores the world,” Bartley says.

The students, from diverse schools across D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, divided up into groups for a series of reading and writing activities led by volunteers and local authors, like Leah Henderson, who wrote One Shadow on the Wall, a middle grade book set in contemporary Senegal that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, courage, and creating your own future.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me to interact with students and share our enthusiasm for books, especially diverse books,” Henderson says. “We’re fortunate now that there’s much more diversity in children’s literature. Now rather than just one book where students might see themselves, there are four or more books to choose from. It increases self-esteem and courage when you see characters who look like you, and also helps encourage a love of reading.”

NEA and Reading is Fundamental (RIF) co-sponsored the Read Across America event to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ 114th birthday. An estimated 45 million educators, parents and students will participate today and tomorrow in events nationwide.

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Educators Bring Corporate Tax Avoidance to the Bargaining Table

School districts across the nation have been hammered by relentless budget cuts for almost a decade. Even today, as the economy improves and massive tax giveaways to the wealthiest are a top legislative priority, public schools are still told that the well is dry, and key programs and positions must be once again slashed to close deficits.

The 3,700 members of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT), however, are not willing to accept austerity as reality. With contract negotiations around the corner in 2018, the educators in this 40,000-student district served notice that finding new revenue streams – notably pressuring the city’s wealthiest corporations to pay their fair share – was on the bargaining table.

That St. Paul schools needed more money was not in dispute. In 2017-18, the district faces a projected budget shortfall of more than $27 million. State aid has lagged behind inflation, class sizes have increased, key positions such as nurses and ELL teachers have been cut, and new programs with proven track records, such as restorative justice practices, were being squeezed out. For a district with large numbers of English learners, homeless students and students eligible for free and reduced lunch, the inability of funding to keep up with student needs has had severe consequences.

As bargaining got underway, the district insisted that there just wasn’t any money for these programs.

But St. Paul educators were having none of it. The money to help restore funding could be found in the massive tax breaks, loopholes and subsidies granted corporations and the property taxes private colleges and major non-profits don’t have to pay.

“Scarcity is a myth,” said SPFT president Nick Faber.  “Tax avoidance by some of the wealthiest members of our community is depriving schools of tens of millions of dollars.”

With an expanded bargaining team that included school and community service professionals, educational assistants, and teachers, SPFT offered 10 proposals in bargaining, developed after meetings with parents and community stakeholders, including smaller class sizes, expanding restorative practices, adding more support staff for students in special education programs, and increasing support for English Language Learners. SPFT also asked the district to collaborate on a joint effort to lobby for changes in state tax policy, negotiate with corporations and other entities on larger voluntary payments to schools, and partner on a property tax referendum for the November 2018 ballot.

The union’s decision to merge broader funding and equity issues with more bread-and-butter concerns in the negotiating process was seen as a bold and groundbreaking move. Educators however were refusing to be limited – “pidgeonholed” says Faber – to negotiating over wages and benefits.

Rejecting Business as Usual

With the district sticking to its austerity script, tense and combative contract negotiations led to a standstill by late January. On January 31, SPFT voted to strike for the first time in St. Paul since 1989 if an agreement was not met in a week. After eight straight days of mediated talks, a settlement was reached and the strike was called off.

St. Paul educators came away with clear wins, securing additional staff and other supports for ELL and special education students, new class size measures, and expansion of the restorative practices program.

District officials also promised to explore “joint agreements” with large corporations and wealthy medical and higher education non-profits, lobby for education funding together on a state and federal level, and examine the possibility of the referendum.

corporate tax avoidance

Source: ‘Sacked: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack’ (St. Paul Federation of Teachers, 2017)

While the district didn’t commit to any one specific new funding proposal, SPFT success at elevating the issue –  along with protecting language around class size and restorative justice –  marked a victory for “bargaining for the common good,” a thriving, if not altogether new, approach to bargaining and organizing that expands the playing field of  to focus on equity, social justice and other community-wide concerns.

Using collective bargaining to build a larger movement has been at the forefront of SPFT’s organizing for years and the recent contract campaign only solidified its position as a national leader in this brand of unionism.

Rejecting “business as usual” and calling attention to the scarcity myth around school funding was the lynchpin in the union’s strategy as it geared up for contract negotiations in 2017.

A Case Against Working People
A handful of greedy CEOs and special interests don’t want educators to have a seat at the table to advocate for better schools and the resources their students need. Learn about Janus v AFSCME, a case that looks to divide and limit unions members’ collective bargaining power.

“If we really want to insure that we have equitable schools in St. Paul,  we have to bring more money into the district,” said Jenna Styles Spooner, a kindergarten teacher at Riverview Elementary. “Corporations paying their fair share is one way this could be achieved”

Over the five years she has been in the classroom, Styles Spooner has witnessed firsthand how budget cuts have affected her teaching and her students. In her first year, she and her colleagues benefitted from support provided coaches in the district Office of Early Learning (OEL) to help implement a new kindergarten curriculum.

By her second year, budget cuts had weakened the program, triggering an exodus of coaches – positions that haven’t been refilled. “The impact on the early learners in our district has been great,” said Styles Spooner.

“What it boils down to is us being less able to meet our students’ needs, especially those most vulnerable or already underserved in our community,” she added. “The needs of our students are only increasing while our funds are decreasing.”

‘The Message is Resonating’

Minnesota is a rich state and its largest corporations pay lower rates for state income and state property taxes than they did in the previous decade. Corporations also pad their pockets through off shore accounts and other loopholes in the tax code.

The egregious catering to business interests at the expense of local communities is a nationwide and longstanding problem. State and local governments give away at least $70 billion a year to business subsidies, most of it in foregone tax revenue.

St. Paul is also host to an abundance of major non-profits and private colleges who are also shielded from property tax laws. Almost one-third of the property in the city is tax exempt due because it is owned by non-profits or government entities.

Local property taxes are the most significant tax most corporations pay and are the backbone of local school finance, supplying almost a third of the budgets for K-12 education.

If we really want to insure that we have equitable schools in St. Paul,  we have to bring more money into the district. Corporations paying their fair share is one way this could be achieved” – Jenna Styles Spooner, teacher

In December, SPFT released a report calling attention to these tax avoidance practices to coincide with the hype surrounding the 2018 Super Bowl, hosted next door in Minneapolis. “Sacked: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack” is a primer on the various schemes – aided and abetted by local and state law – Big Business deploys to reap huge financial gains while contributing less and less to the community.

From the beginning of the contract campaign, St. Paul educators forged strong partnerships with parents and community members – a pillar of a “common good” campaign – so that their input was used to formulate the bargaining demands. The bargaining sessions were open to the public.

SPFT also assembled a group of parents, educators, and community members in a group called the TIGER Team (Teaching and Inquiring about Greed, Equity, and Racism) that is tasked with investigating how money has been taken away from public schools to support private interests and what can be done to reverse the trend. TIGER team members have given presentations to different community groups, school site councils and parent organizations, and groups of educators.

SPFT representatives also met with Ecolab, U.S. Bank and other beneficiaries of property-tax breaks to discuss possible common ground. Unsurprisingly, the union’s requests were met with polite indifference.

Still, bargaining for the common good is a long-term strategy and SPFT have built alliances that will only strengthen as educators and district officials set out to explore generating more revenue for their schools.

“The message is resonating,” said Faber. “We have enough money in our state to fully fund public schools. We just have to have the courage and the will to bring it back to our students. “

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Standing Up for the Rights and Freedoms of Working People to Organize

Photo: Jay Mallin

Union and non-union workers from across the nation stood together and raised a strong collective voice Monday morning outside the U. S. Supreme Court in their fight for working people’s right to join unions.

At issue in the Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) case being argued inside the courtroom is the question of whether government employees who are covered by and benefit from a union contract, though not members of the union, should have to contribute to the union’s costs for contract negotiations.

Outside of the courtroom, one speaker after another commented on the impact Janus could have on public employee unions and the need to beat back wealthy special interests and their attack on workers and communities.

“The Janus case is extremely harmful to labor,” said Terrence Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, Mo., and labor leader with Fight for $15, an organization advocating to raise the national minimum wage. “In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘All that harms labor is treason to America.’”

When the Rev. Michael Seavey from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Ore., took the podium, he quoted Pope Francis: “There is no good society without a good union.”

“A true community transforms society,” the reverend said. “Go back home and form those true communities.”

The Rev. Seavey and Wise were among a dozen speakers representing a wide range of social justice, civil rights and labor organizations. Another speaker, kindergarten teacher Kember Kane from Silver Spring, Md., said it is through negotiating collectively that educators can advocate for the conditions that support student learning such as safe schools, small class sizes, and for resources that help educators do their jobs.

“The Janus case is a threat not just to working people but to children themselves,” said Kane, a member of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA). “The National Education Association (NEA) is built on unity. NEA advocates for all of our needs and for all of us.”

Make no mistake about it, we are living in a system that is rigged to benefit special interests and billionaires at the expense of American working people.” – NEA President Lily Eskelsen García

A media conference was also held on the court’s plaza following the conclusion of oral arguments. Featured were attorneys arguing on behalf of AFSCME and working Americans, as well as for plaintiff Mark Janus, primarily supported by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation. Janus is an Illinois state employee who is suing AFSCME while asking the court to reconsider long-standing rules that have made it possible for people to stand together with one voice at work and in their communities.

Illinois is one of 23 states that allow unions to charge “fair share fees.” At job sites, workers vote on whether or not to form a union in the workplace. Even if a majority votes for a union, workers who don’t want to join don’t have to, they just pay a reduced “fair share fee” or “agency fee” to cover the cost of bargaining and representation that the union is legally required to provide for all workers. Such fees are reduced amounts charged to workers who opt out of union membership yet continue to receive the union representation and bargaining services that unions provide for the benefit of all employees. These fees are not charged for any political purposes.

Janus argues that these fees violate his First Amendment rights on the theory that collective bargaining is inherently political and therefore requiring him to pay the fee is no different than forcing him to pay for political activity he disagrees with. But the Court has never found collective bargaining to be equivalent to straight up political activity. And Janus arguments on that score seem to be a stalking horse for attacking strong unions and the benefits they provide workers.

A Rigged System

In the nation’s 27 right-to-work states, where employees are not obligated to join a union as a condition of employment, union density is significantly lower and, as a result, educators have less negotiating power to advocate for student learning conditions. According to several speakers, as nurses, educators, firefighters, sanitation workers, and other public employees enjoy the benefits, job security, and other protections the union negotiates, it is only fair that all employees contribute to the cost of securing those benefits and protections.

“Today, thousands of working people rallied outside the U.S. Supreme Court and around the country to send a message that, whatever the decision in this case, these oligarchs won’t stop working families from realizing our American dream,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “Make no mistake about it, we are living in a system that is rigged to benefit special interests and billionaires at the expense of American working people.”

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said at the post-hearing conference that the case was not about impinging anyone’s First Amendment rights.

janus supreme court

Photo: Jay Mallin

“This is a case where there are a group of very well-funded right-wing extremists that want to eliminate unions throughout this country,” Madigan said. “If that happens we are going to see an even steeper decline in the middle class and we’re going to see an even greater economic inequality than we already have.”

The corporate special interests behind this case are, according to Eskelsen Garcia, “dead set on eliminating the rights and freedoms of working people to organize, to negotiate collectively and to have any voice in working to better their lives. It is no shock to most that is has become harder and harder for working people to get ahead and provide stability for their families.”

In 2016, a similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, asked the court to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education — the 1977 case in which the court unanimously upheld fair share fees that support collective bargaining. Each state was left to decide for itself whether to permit such fees.

A decision in the Janus case is expected in June, before the court adjourns. The deciding vote might be the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch. The other justices split 4 to 4 in the Friedrichs case, which was decided after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

If the court bans fair share, it will mean that some workers will have to pay for the benefits enjoyed by all workers. Also, such a decision will make it harder for teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public service workers to negotiate for decent wages and benefits. Every public employee who benefits from a negotiated contract should contribute to the costs of securing that contract.

Lee Saunders, president of the AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employee union and the defendant in the Janus case, said the intention behind the legal action was to gut the power of progressive forces.

“The billionaires and corporate special interests behind this case don’t believe we should have a seat at the table,” Saunders said.

Conservative organizations, think tanks, and other right-wing activists backed by corporate donors including the Koch brothers, the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the Bradley Foundation, have long been preparing for a case like Janus as part of a larger campaign to break unions. Secretary DeVos, a staunch proponent of reducing the power of teachers’ unions attended courtroom proceedings.

Despite the potential for setbacks from Janus and other attacks, NEA and its affiliates will remain the leading voices of the education professions and will continue to work on behalf of students and public education.

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Politicians Create Havoc With Class Size Law, Hit Wall of Opposition

Educators across the country have been advocating for smaller class sizes for more than a decade because, as research has continually shown, class size is a key determinant of student outcomes. So when a state legislature actually passes a bill mandating smaller class sizes in every K-3 classroom in every district, that might be welcome news.

But if that requirement doesn’t attach the necessary funding and imposes an inflexible timeline, the result – as educators in North Carolina can tell you – is nothing but chaos.

In spring 2016, the GOP-led General Assembly slipped a provision into a state budget bill that lowered maximum K-3 class sizes from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on the grade level. So far so good. But the new policy was slated to go into effect in the 2017-18 school year, giving districts precious little time to implement the mandate.

And the necessary funding to hire new staff and build new classrooms? That was nowhere to be found.

According to an analysis by the North Carolina Justice Center, fully-funding the necessary increase in staff (4,375 new teachers) would cost $304 million statewide – not to mention the additional tens of millions of dollars for new classroom construction.

Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state. This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents” – Todd Warren, Guilford County Association of Educators

It was an unfunded mandate, said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), and compliance would force districts to make deep cuts to programs and staff. “That’s what we call a false choice,” said Jewell.

Lobbying from NCAE was instrumental in persuading the General Assembly to delay the mandate until 2018-19, but once again no additional funding was allocated. With the deadline looming, districts spent the better part of the school year scrambling to come up with plans to defray the costs and comply with the mandate.

To help pay for new teachers, districts were faced with placing so-called “enhancement” positions – arts, music, physical education, and technology teachers – on the chopping block. Without the money or time for new classroom construction, schools would have to resort to trailers or other temporary classrooms, including locker rooms or cafeterias to house students. Another option was packing more students into grade 4-8 classrooms to free up more teachers for K-3.

“The plan really threw us into budgetary and logistical chaos at the local level,” says Todd Warren, a Spanish teacher in Guilford County, the third-largest district in North Carolina.

Just a case of lawmakers oblivious to the consequences of unleashing an unfunded mandate on a school system already wreaked by budget cuts? Not likely, says Warren, who is also president of the Guilford County Association of Educators.

“Why would they do this? It makes sense when you couple this move with the push to privatize public education in the state,” explains Warren. “This is about creating chaos and disruption in our public schools, to make them look less desirable to parents who may be looking at that charter school down the street as an alternative.”

Setting Public Schools On Fire

The past seven years in North Carolina, says Kris Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center, have seen the steady deterioration of the state’s reputation for academic excellence.

“It’s been dominated by a series of not just bad policies, but bad policies that are incredibly poorly crafted,” explains Nordstrom. “Nearly all initiatives were moved through the legislature in a way to avoid debate and outside input from education stakeholders. The result has been stagnant student performance and increased achievement gaps.”

According to the 2018 Quality Counts Report Card released in January by Education Week, the state has dropped to 40th in the nation. As recently as 2011, North Carolina ranked 19th, the same year Republicans took control of the state legislature and proceeded to slash education spending (per-pupil funding has plummeted to 43rd, $3,000 below the national average), promoted unaccountable charter schools and school voucher programs, and eliminated due-process rights for teachers.

In 2017, the General Assembly passed another around of tax cuts, reducing the corporate income tax rate from 3 percent to 2.5 percent –  $100 million in revenue that could have been allocated to help schools adjust to smaller class sizes.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe lawmakers were merely blindsided by the “unintended circumstances” of an unfunded mandate.

“They’re just being more stealth in the way they create dissatisfaction with our public schools,” says Michelle Burton, a library media specialist in Durham County. “Who doesn’t want smaller class sizes, right? But they’re just using a common sense position to cloud what was an unfunded mandate that was going to cause disruption and result in a lot of teachers losing their jobs.”

Burton is particularly outraged at the term “enhancement positions” to describe arts, music, and physical education teachers.

Since the passage of the unfunded class size mandate in 2016, educators and parents in North Carolina have kept up the pressure on lawmakers to reverse course.

“Calling those key positions ‘enhancements’ makes them easier to cut. They’re trying to make them somehow dispensable. But we know how important they are to a well-rounded education,” Burton says.

On a brutally cold Saturday afternoon in January, Burton joined roughly 300 educators and parents at a rally in Raleigh, organized by NCAE and parent advocacy groups, to pressure the General Assembly to act. Public school advocates across the state joined the mobilization against the mandate, signing petitions, talking to lawmakers, and taking to social media to #StopClassSizeChaos.

Educators had an ally in Gov. Roy Cooper, who called the mandate “artificial class size change—one that shrinks classes on paper but in reality hurts students and teachers.”

“The pushback from NCAE and parent groups has been effective,” says Warren. ” I think some of the legislators began getting nervous about their prospects in the 2018 election if they didn’t address the concerns.”

Amid the mounting outrage, lawmakers, who had hoped to delay action until May, called a special session in early February to try to undo the mess they created.

“This body set fire to our public schools and now we are the firefighters,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, who opposed the mandate.

Breathing Room –  For Now

On February 8, lawmakers announced a proposal to phase-in smaller class sizes over the next four years instead of lowering them at once in 2018-19. During that time, $61 million a year will be included to help school districts pay for art, music, and physical education teachers.

NCAE President Mark Jewell called the revision a step in the right direction that would, at least for the time being, allow schools to breathe a little easier.

“The phased-in plan has always been the more reasonable approach for local school districts, but whether the resources are adequate is still a question mark,” Jewell cautioned. “This doesn’t address the other class size challenges in higher grades, and it doesn’t provide funding for much-needed school construction, which many local districts will find a significant challenge.”

Jewell says any plan to reduce class size needs to be strategic, fully-funded, and involve educators at every step of the process. The issue is too important to be done haphazardly. “Class size affects all levels of the public education spectrum,” he said.

Although North Carolina’s public schools are still facing a largely unfunded mandate, Todd Warren believes the mobilization by educators and parents was critical in staving off the chaos that was on the verge of engulfing the entire system.

“Parents, teachers, NCAE, PTAs, and advocacy groups forced the General Assembly to take action that they otherwise would not have. Our organizing relationships and infrastructure are responding and growing more effective,” says Warren. “We’ll keep working and  redoubling our efforts.”

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How the ‘Janus’ Case Threatens Working People

It is no accident that more and more Americans are struggling to get ahead and provide economic stability for their families. For too long, corporate special interests and politicians who do their bidding have rigged the economy against working people – educators, nurses, firefighters, sanitation workers and other public service employees – to favor the wealthy and powerful.

Now those same special interests have brought a court case to divide and limit unions members’ collective bargaining power. Janus v. AFSCME, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, threatens working people’s rights and freedom to join together in strong unions. It is part of a multi-year, multi-million effort to rig the economy in their benefit—at the expense of the middle class and our communities.

When unions are strong, our communities are strong. They provide a path to the middle class and economic security, especially for women and people of color. Unions have helped build great public schools for students. Collective bargaining ensures educators can advocate for small class sizes, guaranteed recess, modern textbooks, and the technology that students need to succeed.

What is this case really about?
Janus v. AFSCME aims to take away the freedom of – and opportunity for – working people to join together in strong unions to speak up for themselves, their families and their communities. When educators, nurses, police officers, firefighters and other public service workers are free to come together in strong unions, they win benefits like collective bargaining, better working conditions, better wages, health care, clean and safe environments and retirement security. But the CEOs and corporate special interests behind this case simply do not believe that working people should have the same freedoms and opportunities as they do: to negotiate a fair return on our work so that we can provide for ourselves and our families. They are funding this case through the so-called National Right to Work Foundation because they view strong unions as a threat to their power and greed.

What is the real impact of this case?
When working people have the freedom and opportunity to speak up together through unions, we make progress together that benefits everyone. If the billionaires and corporate CEOs behind this case get their way, however, they will take away the freedom of working people to come together and build power to fight for the things our communities need: everything from affordable health care and retirement security to quicker medical emergency response times and smaller class sizes in our schools. The CEOs and billionaires want to use the highest court in the land to take away our freedom to create the power in numbers to win better lives for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country.

What have people in unions won for all of us?
People in unions continue to win rights, benefits and protections not only for union members, but for all working people and their communities in and outside of the workplace. When nurses, firefighters, 911 dispatchers, and EMS workers belong to strong unions, they fight for staffing levels, equipment and training that save lives. When educators come together in strong unions, they can ensure small class sizes, guaranteed recess, modern textbooks and the technology that students need to succeed.

When union membership is high, entire communities enjoy wages that represent a fair return on their work and greater social and economic mobility. Without the freedom to come together, working people would not have the power in numbers they need to make our communities safer, stronger and more prosperous.

Who is behind this case?
The National Right to Work Foundation is part of a network funded by corporate billionaires to use the courts to rig the rules against everyday working people. For decades, the corporate CEOs and billionaires funding this case have used their massive fortunes to pay politicians and corporate lobbyists to chip away at the freedoms people in unions have won for every single one of us. Now they want the highest court in the land to take away our freedom to come together to protect things our families need: a living wage, retirement security, health benefits, the ability to care for loved ones and more.

Where did this case come from?
This case originated from a political scheme by billionaire Bruce Rauner, Governor of Illinois, to take away freedom and opportunity from working people to join together in strong unions so that he could advance an agenda benefiting corporations and the wealthy. Rauner launched a political attack on public service workers immediately after taking office, filing a lawsuit on his own behalf to bar the collection of fair share fees by public service unions. A federal judge ruled that Rauner could not bring this action because he was not himself an employee paying fair share fees. But the legal arms of the National Right to Work Committee and the Liberty Justice Center were able to carry the case forward by planting plaintiffs as stand-ins for Rauner in the federal lawsuit. The district court dismissed the case, based on long-standing precedent. The plaintiffs asked the lower court to fast-track their appeal and rule against them in order to more quickly get the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

How is this case different from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association?
Both cases deal with the same issues. Because Friedrichs was decided by a 4-4 decision after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the lower court’s decision went into effect and fair share fees were upheld. Having failed, the National Right to Work Coalition then backed the Janus case to try and limit working Americans’ freedom to join a strong union.

What are fair share fees and why are they important?
Unions work because we all pay our fair share and we all benefit from what we negotiate together. That’s how we have the power in numbers to make progress that benefits everyone. Corporate CEOs don’t want working people to have that power; that’s what this case is all about.

Is anyone ever forced to join a union or pay for politics?
No. The simple truth is that no one is forced to join a union and no one is forced to pay any fees that go to politics or political candidates. That is already the law of the land. Nothing in this case will change that. This case is about taking away the freedom of working people to come together, speak up for each other and build a better life for themselves and their families.

What is the Working People’s Day of Action?
Thousands of union members and supporters will gather on Saturday, February 24 in cities across the country to demand an end to the rigged system and those who seek to divide and silence us. We will stand shoulder to shoulder uniting for freedom — for men and women, for immigrants and native-born Americans, for people of every race, religion and sexual orientation.

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Educators Shine at the 2018 NEA Foundation Gala

The 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala, held on February 9th in Washington, D.C., was a celebration of the power of innovation, artistry, and teacher leadership.

The event, often called the Academy Awards for Educators, was hosted by Debbie Allen, acclaimed actress, dancer, director, choreographer, and executive producer and was held at the city’s National Building Museum.

“The National Building Museum is a spectacular place that matches the greatness of our educators and teachers,” said Harriet Sanford, NEA Foundation President & CEO. “We think they’re exceptional and are glad to honor them in the right place.”

Bobbie Cavnar received the evening’s top honor, the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence with an award of $25,000. Cavnar, a 12th grade language arts educator at South Point High School in Belmont, NC, whose classroom is designed like a Victorian library where students feel warm and inviting. “It pulls them in and right away they know that this is a place to think.”

Cavnar prides himself on the fact that he not only teaches by the book but also teaches students to have empathy with each other. “By teaching empathy in a world of numbers and data, metal and machines, we can make schools a garden of kindness, humanity, and hope,” said Cavnar.

Student, Robert Mageau explains that “Learning is very fun in Mr. Cavnar’s class and it’s never a dull moment when he’s around.” Robert Mageau.

Video: Bobbie Cavnar, 2018 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence Recipient

During his acceptance speech, Cavnar told the audience that “I’m certainly not the best teacher in this room but I want to tell you how thankful I am to get to be the one who is raised up to represent what’s best about teaching. The strength of public schools has always been and will continue to be that they are public. Now more than ever we need empathy. We’re at a turning point and we must decide what ‘we’ means. Who we are as Americans and who we are as public schools.”

”You must be carefully taught to hate.” Cavnar continued. “Children don’t hate. But once you are taught to hate there’s only one way to learn to love and that is to be carefully taught to love. The way we do that is through public education freely given and offered to all equally.”

Tia Mills, a teacher at Eden Park Academy of Ethics and Excellence in Baton Rouge, LA, was recognized for her community service.

“Tia is the consummate teacher, the consummate leader, and community activist.” Debbie Meaux, President of the Louisiana Assoc. for Educators.

Revathi Balakrishan, an educator at Patsy Sommer Elementary school in Austin, TX, challenges her students to learn at their highest ability while giving them the confidence to take on the challenges.

“I think a teacher is the single most important factor in learning. A good teacher helps you develop that curiosity, and helps you appreciate learning,” Balakrishan said.

Afreen Gootee is a middle school math and social studies educator at the Georgetown School in Mechanicsville, VA. who was recognized for her work with special needs students.

“She was very motivational,” said former student Skylar Brown. “When I was upset she would always talk to me and that really helped me with my middle school years. That’s also why I still to this day enjoy talking to her.”

Crystal May, a fourth grade educator at Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize, KS, was also honored. May experiments with classroom design to engage her students. She offers a variety of seating options for her students to choose from and she focuses on small group teaching. “When you’re sitting at your table and asking a question she looks at you and pays full attention,” said student Brendan Uttinger.

The NEA Foundation also recognized the American Indian College Fund for their work to support Native American students on the path to college graduation, changing outcomes not only for individuals but also for communities. The American Indian College Fund received the First National Bank of Omaha Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education.

Check out videos from the event at the NEA Foundation website.

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The Peacemaker

Paraeducator Marcell Branch is frank about the tribulations of his past. Working with students who have emotional behavioral disorders (EBD), who are at risk of dropping out of school, or otherwise have a chip on their shoulder, Branch often draws on his own history of unsavory experiences to connect with them.

“I hold them accountable when I need to but also take the time to celebrate their accomplishments,” says Branch, a behavior specialist who has spent 14 years working with at-risk youth, the last five at West Education Center in Minnetonka, Minn., an alternative school for ninth through twelfth graders who focus on vocational as well as academic studies. Most of West Ed’s 200 students are categorized by the state as having EBD.

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing these kids succeed,” he says.

Walkie-talkie in hand at all times, Branch visits classrooms, monitors the cafeteria during lunchtime, and roams the hallways from daybreak to well past last bell. Usually, he engages students on a friendly basis. However, when a fight breaks out, a student loses their temper and starts throwing things, or begins cursing at a teacher, Branch is summoned.

“I break up fights then try to talk with the students to get to the root of what’s bothering them,” he says. “Violent or unruly behavior is a sign of a deeper conflict.”

Branch points out that students may be lashing out as the result of everything ranging from trying to cope with a learning disability and failing a class to experiencing family issues at home, being cut from the football team, or being cyberbullied.

“To be effective with this particular group of students, adults you need to listen and ask a lot of questions,” says Branch, Education Minnesota’s 2016 Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year. “They have to know that when they walk into your office, you will respect them.”

The goal, says Branch, “is to give them a strategy and the confidence to cope with their anger … to keep their rage under control.”

Watching a young man get killed. That was my turning point to leave the gang life. I now work every day to not let anything like that happen to any of my students or children.”

Branch has been a case manager for homeless youth, program manager promoting life skills, and employment counselor at various youth-based organizations. He is a certified gang specialist known throughout the community for his candid speeches and training sessions on gang prevention.

In these presentations, he is brutally honest with audiences about keeping his own demons at bay while coping with a dark past: growing up poor in public housing, being homeless, the arrests, the hard drinking and daily drug use, and even the night in 1992 when he held a 9mm handgun to a seven-year-old’s head in order to get the child’s father to sit down and shut up so Branch and his crew could rob their house. He was 19. Fortunately, the father backed off.

“People always ask me if I would have shot that child,” says Branch, who has four children of his own ranging in age from 5 to 25. “My response is, ‘I have no idea.’”

As dysfunctional as some of his experiences were in his youth and early adult years, the 45-year-old Branch says they laid a unique foundation for his hard-earned counseling and peacemaking skills.

“I am no one to sit back and judge these kids,” he says. “I know the gang life from the inside and that helps me connect with students who are gang members or wannabe gangbangers.”

Branch was born in Memphis, Tenn., but lived in almost 30 different states before age 17.

“My mother liked to move a lot,” he says, which meant hitting the road about twice a year. “I don’t have any childhood friends, favorite teachers, counselors or anybody I can remember because I didn’t want to get close to anyone. I never knew when we were going to move again.”

This lack of stability was compounded by his stepfather’s physical abuse. Branch recalls one particular beating with a belt when he was in fifth grade that started after dinner and went long into the night.

“It was a 12-hour beating that put me in the hospital,” he says. “He told me if I told anyone what he did that he would do it again.”

That morning, Branch collapsed in his bus seat on the way to school. The bus driver carried him to the nurse’s office. She noticed lacerations on his face and drove him to the hospital for an examination. Eventually, he returned home.

“A lot of my anger … being homeless, joining a gang, drinking and using drugs … stems from that incident,” he says. “But the up side is that my own experiences with this type of behavior has helped me not only to understand but also sympathize with these kids. In my own way, I am one of them.”

Looking ahead, Branch is trying to complete the final credit hours he needs to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Kaplan University. A building representative and member of Education Minnesota Local 2209, he is considering running for a seat on the executive council.

“We have 800 members but only 200 seem to turn out to vote on issues,” he says. “Only a small percentage of active members are people of color. I want to change this.”

Branch says that much of his life has been about transition, progress, and reinvention. As in 2000, when he witnessed a fellow gang member get shot twice in the chest and once in head for betraying a gang leader.

“Watching a young man get killed,” he says. “That was my turning point to leave the gang life. I now work every day to not let anything like that happen to any of my students or children.”

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Three Educators and an Idea

In June, three diverse educators from Hastings College in Nebraska hit the ground running with an idea that was planted during the 2017 NEA student leadership conference in Boston that coincided with NEA’s Representative Assembly and Annual Meeting.

Casey Molifua, a first-year instructor of physical education at Hastings, along with Steven Dunham, a second-year student earning a master’s degree for K–12 physical education and health, and Tahj Willingham, a senior majoring in K–12 physical education and elementary education, were asked to start an initiative that advocates for the teaching profession and helps to recruit ethnic and minority educators.

According to a 2017 Johns Hopkins report, when low-income black students, in grades 3–5, have at least one black teacher in elementary school the likelihood that these students will dropout declines by 29 percent, and the likelihood that they will graduate high school and consider attending college goes up.

Armed with statistics like these, the trio took the task to heart and created an initiative called Ethnic and Minority Educators for a Legacy (EME4L), which sets out to educate others about the need for diversity in the teaching profession, and encourages young people— particularly people of color—to join the profession.

“Teachers who look like us are not going and staying in the field of education,” says Molifua. “We’re three ethnic educators who are a voice to let students [of color] know that education is a field they can pursue.”

No Stone Unturned

The group connects with students from elementary school to college.

At Hastings’s Lincoln Elementary school, for example, Molifua, Dunham, and Willingham show off their skills and passion for education through a social justice book club they created. The book club features culturally appropriate books that represent diverse (race, class, gender, abilities, and learning disadvantages) student populations.

Working with young students give the educators the opportunity to highlight their profession and show young kids that education is a profession to consider. “We started in our local community because we want to advocate and expose kids who have similar backgrounds as us and show them that education is a field they can pursue,” says Tahj Willingham.

The group also works with high school and college students. This spring, they’ll visit with a handful of colleges in a career-fair setting and share their story as to how they became involved in education, and encourage others to do the same.

This work goes beyond just recruitment, too. Steven Dunham says, “Not only do we want to recruit more ethnic and male teachers into education, but we want to be a support system for them so that they remain in the profession, which adds value to our students’ educational experience.”

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NEA and Girl Scouts Launch New Partnership

Most people would agree that knowing the history, principles, and foundations of American democracy, and the ability to participate in civic and democratic processes, are vital to our citizenry. NEA and the Girls Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) think so, which is why the organizations have recently signed an agreement to work together to promote civics education—using the GSUSA’s Civic Engagement Curriculum.

In today’s climate, informed voting and voter rights are as important as ever, but civics engagement goes beyond casting a ballot. It requires developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of NEA and former Girl Scout shared in a video announcing the partnership, “I decided that I wanted to be an activist and an advocate, and it all started with the Girl Scouts.”

NEA believes this education begins in the classroom, helping to cultivate well informed and educated students who are confident and ready when it is their turn to take their place in the voting community. The Girl Scouts are teaching the same lessons in troop meetings around the country.

In support of this new partnership, NEA is asking its members to volunteer with their local troops and to use the Girl Scouts’ Civic Engagement Curriculum to instruct students on the struggles that have led to our current rights and how they can get involved in their communities.

Civics Education

Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to “core subjects” under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.

Contrary to popular belief, the problem isn’t that students receive no civics education. All 50 states require some form of instruction in civics and/or government, and nearly 90 percent of students take at least one civics class. But too often, factual book learning is not reinforced with experience-based learning opportunities like community service, guided debates, critical discussion of current events, and simulations of democratic processes.

Even states that require civics education rarely take best practices into account. Since 2015, several states have required students to pass the U.S. citizenship exam before graduating high school. But putting so much attention on rote memorization actually diminishes the likelihood that students will develop more meaningful civic skills.

The Curriculum

The Girl Scouts curriculum is designed for every grade level and is broken down in three sections: K-5, middle school, and high school. Elementary school students, for example, can learn how people have made a difference in their community while middle school students learn problem-solving skills by studying how people with different opinions can work together to create positive change. High school students get more hands-on experience by finding out how to be an actively engaged citizen who works to affect change.

Several troops nationwide have already shared how they’ve used the Girl Scouts’ Civic Engagement Curriculum. Here are some examples:

  • Lead positive change in your community.
    Cassandra, a 17-year-old Ambassador, has been fighting to end child marriage in New Hampshire.
  • Stand up against everyday injustices.
    A troop of Muslim Girl Scouts in California educates the community by holding an annual Open Mosque Day to combat Islamophobia.
  • Create and support petitions.
    Troop 30245’s petition helped pass a law banning tobacco use in its town parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields.
  • Participate in parades and marches.
    Girl Scouts placed flags at more than 5,000 grave sites at the East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery prior to marching in their local Memorial Day parade.

Other Opportunities to Partner

The partnership between NEA and GSUSA also encourages “every single one of our NEA members to do what you can to volunteer with your local troop,” says García. One Illinois local is already working with its local troop.

Thanks to a grant from the Illinois Education Association (IEA), special education van driver Tasha McQuay and her education support professional (ESP) colleague Karen Jackson were awarded $1,000 to benefit students and members of Junior Girl Scouts Troop 235. The 30-35 special education student-passengers on the district’s five vans each received a backpack filled with education-related items that encourage reading, writing, and arithmetic. Some of the drawing boards, puzzles, and other items were created from scratch by several Junior members, ages 9 -11. The participating scouts will earn Bronze awards for their effort.

“For the longest runs, this gives the kids something to do,” says McQuay, a member of the Southwestern ESP Association. “The focus is on the ride, so we can use that time to benefit the students and help further their education … and the life skills they are getting at school.”

“We know that when given the opportunity, girls change the world,” says García.

The Southwestern ESP Association’s Story

To learn how to volunteer with your local troop, visit

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6 Programs New Educators Will Want to Know About

Where do you go for help with classroom management? What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504? Who can you connect with at your school when you’re feeling frustrated or isolated? These are some of the questions you may find yourself asking as a new—or soon to be new—teacher. Once you graduate from your education program and leave your NEA student chapter behind, the door to support and camaraderie doesn’t close. Across the country, state associations are escalating support to early career educators (those within their first 10 years of teaching). These early career educators are then reaching out to support new educators, who are one to five years into their teaching career. Some programs have been around for a few years. Others are in the beginning stages and need more educators to get involved. Here’s a snapshot of what some NEA affiliates offer:

Arizona: The Arizona Education Association’s e-SWAG (Educators Soaring with Aspiring Goals) is a group of nearly 30 early career educators, who connect and collaborate with new educators to build personal and professional relationships through community outreach, networking, and political action. e-SWAG is in its fifth year and has provided new educators with the space to share their voices and opportunities for leadership positions. One of many successful efforts e-SWAG organizes is an educator bazaar. New educators receive free classroom supplies and materials donated by local retired educators.

This school year, e-SWAG members helped the Sunnyside Education Association to organize and run their own bazaar. “We had a lot of new teachers in Sunnyside who were interested in organizing the bazaar,” says Tori Schroeder, an English teacher at Sunnyside Unified School District and an e-SWAG advisory board member. “This helped with their leadership and organizing skills, and their confidence in being able to approach district officials in advocating and bringing opportunities to new teachers.” For more information, go to

Alaska: To support new and early career educators—and help them stay and thrive in the profession—NEA Alaska launched NEST (New Educator Support Team), an initiative created to improve an educator’s practice through professional development opportunities, mentoring, and easy ways to get involved in issues that are important to students, teachers, and schools. NEST strives to bring educators together via fun social events, too.

The program launched in September and NEST members are looking for more early career and new educators to participate—like Devin Tatro, a first-year U.S. history and world studies teacher in Nome, Alaska.

“I was eager to get involved in advocating for the profession and what I hope to do [by being a part of NEST and the union] is add perspective, and communicate with NEA about the resources and tools new educators want, especially in Alaska,” Tatro says.

Remote villages throughout the state pose specific challenges. One of NEST’s goals is to create professional development and other growth opportunities that are specific to Alaskan educators. For more information, go to

Georgia: The Georgia Association of Millennial Educators (GAME)—an arm of the Georgia Association of Educators—is an organization for early career educators focused on social events for peer support; professional development, online communities, mentoring programs, community service programs; NEA’s Degrees Not Debt campaign; and advocating for the education profession and a quality public education for all Georgia students.

GAME member Krystal Roberts, a technology support specialist at Burke County High School, says, “The group helps a lot of us who are younger get together and learn how things work in the education system.” Edward Mobley, an upper elementary, behavioral specialist and special education teacher, adds, “I’m involved because it’s a way to communicate with other young educators and millennials and also [a way] to give back to the teachers just coming into the profession.

Roberts and Mobley agree that one of the organization’s main selling points is the opportunity to hear from other educators across the state about what they’re doing in their local districts. For more information, go to

Illinois: The Illinois Education Association (IEA)’s Early Career Teachers (ECT) committee is a statewide group created five years ago to support members in their first 10 years of teaching. One of the committee’s main charges is to educate and engage new members. It does this via professional development opportunities, such as a recent Facebook livestream on “Nailing your First Parent Teacher Conference.”

The group also connects new educators to funding sources through IEA SCORE grants. Grants are offered to early career educators and have funded initiatives such as student-led school newspapers. The ECT committee is working toward putting systems in place that would spread best practices statewide. One local area, for example, made a new-hire handbook, which talks about the association structure, from building representatives and the local, state, and national associations to member benefits.

“We want to offer choices to our regions and locals,” says Traci Dean, a third grade teacher in Elmwood Park and a member of the ECT committee. “This way, they can decide what they need.” For more information, go to

Missouri: Now in its fourth year, eMERGE is a statewide group of early career educators who are building personal and professional connections through community outreach, local organizing, developmental strategies, and political action. Members of eMERGE recently started a new educator program dubbed Reach-Out, a campaign that engages new educators within their first five years of teaching.

The goal, in part, is to boost morale, educator retention, and introduce them to the local association. “The reason I love being a part of the Reach-Out program for new teachers is that it provides an extra person who can serve as a resource and support for those who are just beginning their careers in education,” Andrew Hammond, a social studies and football coach, told the Something Better, the state association’s publication. “Even if they don’t sign up with NEA right away, we are still there to aid them and be a reliable resource.”

With the number of teachers leaving the profession on the rise, Reach-Out helps to keep new educators engaged throughout their teaching careers. “I know what it felt like when I first started,” says science teacher Carrie Mettendorf, chair of Reach-Out. “It’s overwhelming and intimidating. I didn’t understand half the lingo when I first started. I don’t want others to feel that way. I want to keep new educators in the profession, and I want to keep them excited about learning and keep their passion alive.” For more information, go to

Ohio: In 2016, the Ohio Education Association formed Ohio’s New Educators (ONE), a community of professionals who focus on the support of early career educators. The group engages and empowers educators to become relevant, active, and visible leaders in the profession through collective action. ONE members were highly visible during efforts to end Ohio’s Resident Educator Summative Assessment (RESA), a punitive assessment that determined whether a teacher could continue to teach in his or her third year of teaching.

After much organizing, advocacy, and testifying by early career educators, those who lost their license were readmitted into their classrooms. The group also influenced policymakers to improve RESA. The new version reduced the number of tests from four to one, and there is now one video, not two.

Feedback, which was missing in the previous version, is now provided. “Sometimes real change doesn’t happen at the statehouse, but rather in conference rooms with the people who make decisions, and early career educators deserve a seat at the table. We are the ones impacted by these policies and we should be able to speak out against them and guide policy that supports the best teachers,” says ONE chair Isabel Bozada, a second-grade teacher for Reynoldsburg City Schools. For more information, go to

NEA’s New Educator Campaign is a commitment to connect with every incoming educator to collect personal contact information and learn more about new educators’ interests. This gathering of information enables affiliates and locals to develop professional support programs for new educators. It also helps to identify members who want to be involved in specific kind of union activities. So far, in 2017:

    • 123,000 New Members Recruited
    • 2,629 Engaged Locals
    • #1 Top Surveyed Interest(s): Professional Development (Teacher) & Student Behavior (ESP)

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Preparing the Next Generation of Educators for Leadership — NEA Today

Crosby Bromley, a physical education teacher in Salem-Keizer, Oregon, never really considered herself a “political” person. To her, the term generally conjured up conflict and power struggles.

“I’m a confident person, but I usually prefer to mediate and help people compromise and reach a solution,” she explains. “But even doing that on a larger scale had always intimidated me.”  Therefore, as an early career educator, the idea of getting actively involved in her local union, the Salem Keizer Education Association (SKEA), wasn’t a top priority.

The perception – common among many younger educators – that the union or was focused primarily on struggles and brinkmanship, Bromley says, clouded her perception.

“Honestly, I really didn’t understand all that unions do,” she says.

Addressing these assumptions and misperceptions is a persistent challenge, says SKEA president Mindy Merritt. “Most people don’t like being in that position of struggle. They tend to cringe. So as an association, we have to learn to understand the needs of early career educators, but also that we help them understand the power of collective voice.”

It’s a voice that, while often used to impact elections and legislation, also elevates classroom practice and social action activism.

Salem Keizer is Oregon’s second largest school district and, like communities across the country, is seeing its teaching force transformed as retirements increase. SKEA has roughly 2300 members, and many are early career educators. Empowering these younger members and tapping into their leadership potential is a top priority for the association.

In North Carolina, where public education has been attacked on practically every front over the past decade, association leaders are determined to keep educators from exiting the profession.

“They’re not sticking around like they used to,” says Ronda Mays, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators.  “Being able to attract and retain educators in our district is critical. How do we help our newer members succeed so they will want to stay?”

Mays and Merritt are part of a small but growing group of association leaders who have brought early career educators in their districts into a leadership training program created by the National Education Association (NEA) and the Consortium for Educational Change (CEC).

Merritt first heard about the Early Career Leadership Fellows (ECLF) program in 2015 at a meeting of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a network of more than 200 NEA and American Federation of Teachers union locals. At the conference, the first group, or co-hort, of fellows spoke about how the training the members received was already making a significant impact on their fledging careers.

“We listened to these young educators and were so impressed,” recalls Merritt. “I just thought, ‘Ok, we want in on this!’”

A group of early career educators from Salem Keizer participated in the 2016 ECLF program. After seeing the results from that year’s program, Merritt didn’t hesitate to invite another cohort to the 2017 training, which kicked off in October.

“We’ve seen an increase in activism and involvement in the local,” Merritt says. “Our younger members are bringing fresh ideas to the table and are running for positions in the association at the local and state level. It really has been remarkable.”

The ECLF program is tailor-made for a newer educator like Crosby Bromley, who was selected to participate in the 2017 co-hort from Salem Keizer. She’s confident, passionate about education and her students and is ready and willing to, as she puts it, “step outside her comfort zone.”

“I’m now really thinking about leadership,” Bromley says. “I’m discovering what unions can do for us and vice versa. We can help change and move forward together.”

teacher shortage crisis

A New Generation of Leaders

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.56 million teachers, whether through retirement or attrition, will leave the profession over the next six years. Newer teachers are leaving the profession at higher rates than ever before. One in ten early career educators leave after the first year.

“The data consistently show us that a big issue is how much voice, how much say, do teachers have collectively in the school-wide decisions that affect their jobs? Are teachers treated as professionals? That’s a huge issue,” says Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. Ingersoll says better recruitment strategies are important don’t address the urgency of keeping young teachers in the classroom.

The National Education Association is committed to engaging and supporting educators as early as possible to stem the tide of departures and create a strong and sustainable teaching force. Long-term solutions are needed to keep educators in the profession by improving working conditions, increasing preparation and mentoring, and providing adequate resources that will enable them to do their jobs.

Achieving these goals depends on having strong educator leaders who will advocate for their profession and their students.

They’re not sticking around like they used to. Being able to attract and retain educators in our district is critical. How do we help our newer members succeed so they will want to stay?” – Ronda Mays, president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators.

According to a 2014 report by the NEA, the Center for Teaching Quality and the National Board for Professional Teaching, “Teacher leadership is no longer optional. It’s importance in student learning, teacher retention, school culture, school improvement, the creating od sound education policy, and productive and innovative teacher associations has been demonstrated by both research and practice.”

Cultivating a new generation of leaders is the impetus behind the ECLF program, which has so far worked with approximately 200 early career educators, representing NEA local affiliates across twelve states. In addition NEA state affiliates in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan have received a Great Public Schools Grant  to start their own state ECLF programs.

“NEA continues to create programs to support members all along the continuum – beginning with emerging teachers, who evolve into accomplished teachers, and ultimately become teacher leaders” said Andrea Prejean, Director of NEA Teacher Quality. “Emerging teachers participate in NEA’s Early Career Learning Labs. Working through problems of practice, new teachers are supported by accomplished teachers who act as mentors and coaches. NEA is especially excited to offer access to more than 100 micro-credentials to our members, in areas such as bullying, classroom management, supporting English Language Learners, and Creating Safe School Spaces for LGBTQ Students.”

Each year, the ECLF cohorts gather for a kick-off training, an intensive two-session that unwraps what it means to be in a union or association and what that represents to members, but also the students and communities they serve.

“The purpose [of ECLF training] is to help these new educators transition from fellows to true leadership,” says Mary McDonald, a senior director at CEC, who conducts the training sessions with CEC consultant and educator Ann Cummins-Bogan.

Central to the program are the “coaches,” experienced educators who serve as a resource for the cohorts, guiding them through potential issues within the district and putting together a plan to address them as they emerge.

As an educator in the latter part of his career, Kurt Kneirem jumped at the chance to serve as a coach to the ECLF fellows from the Poudre school district in Colorado.

“Facilitating the training of the next generation of teacher leaders was a way I saw that I could give back in a substantial way,” says Kneirem, a social studies teacher at Rocky Mountain High School.  “It also means giving me the chance to get to know some amazing young educators.”

Learning About the Three Frames of Unionism

A focus of the ECLF training is an understanding of the three central tenants of “unionism”: industrial unionism (bread and butter collective bargaining, labor/management issues), professional unionism (the collective voice to improve the practice of classroom teachers and other education professionals) and social justice unionism (advocacy for equity to help all children succeed).

In addition to tapping into any resource or mechanism that will help them succeed at their profession, younger educators gravitate heavily toward social justice. That traditional, industrial union model, on the other hand, doesn’t resonate as strongly – at least initially.

Before becoming involved in ECLF and her local, Crosby Bromley wasn’t aware of all the professional development opportunities in her district made possible by SKEA.

“The deeper I get, the more I’m learning about unionism beyond that industrial model. My number one priority is the students and that is the work of the union,” explains Bromley.

“Of the three frames of unionism, that one didn’t interest me as much,” adds Alejandra Guererro Morales, a 2017 fellow from Salem Keizer. “But the training helped me and others understand the connections between the three. They’re co-dependent.”

ECLF fellows from San Antonio during a two-day training session in October 2017.


Taking it District-Wide

Ronda Mays, president of the Forsyth Education Association, who attended the 2017 training with nine fellows from her district, says its unnecessary and counterproductive to confine “politics” to the shadows when communicating with early career educators.

“Politics is a part of education. There’s no separating it,” Mays says. “But we have to stress to early career educators that it’s more about issues. We can fight, lobby, advocate to improve public schools, but we have to it together.”

It’s an understanding that the co-horts will take with them as they elevate their voice in the district – and help their colleagues do the same.

After the initial training, each fellow is charged with reaching out to five other early career colleagues to have a series of one-on-one conversations with them about the realities of their work. The insights and ideas generated by these conversations are shared with the other 2017 cohorts at follow-up meetings.

“These new educators have tremendous insight,” says Merritt. ‘The ECLF program gives them that venue to share their voice. It provides a real sense of purpose because everybody at the table is important.”

The fellows emerge from the two-day training armed with a lot of information. Some may feel a little overwhelmed but that’s ok, says Kurt Kneirem.

“They were very excited to be part of the group. On the other hand, they left with lots of questions about the specifics of the program.  Both of these take-aways were positive, because it’s then up to me and the other coaches to channel that excitement and help the group clarify their direction,” he explains.

Alejandra Guererro  Morales is ready to take the next step in the journey.

“I’m really excited about reaching out to colleagues, taking this district-wide. The training was valuable but I think we’re all ready to put it to work.”

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American Education Week 2017 Focuses on Public Schools for All

Communities across the nation will join the National Education Association Nov. 13-17, 2017, to celebrate the 96th annual American Education Week. This year’s campaign emphasizes that our nation’s public schools are here for each and every student —no matter the circumstance, everyone is welcome and all deserve the support, tools, and time to learn.

To join the campaign “Public Schools For All,” NEA is asking people to snap a photo that represents their pride in public schools and post it to their social channels using #PublicSchoolsForAll.

“Public schools are the cornerstone of our communities. We welcome students of all backgrounds, abilities and incomes, and each of us plays a role in ensuring our schools are open to all,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.  “During American Education Week, it’s time for us to show our public school pride to the world.”

American Education Week honors students’ determination to learn; recognizes the professionalism and dedication of teachers, support staff, and other educators; thanks parents and members of the community who help students succeed; and rededicates the community at large to quality public education for every student.

“Together, we’ll show what makes our public schools some of the best in the world: all of us, each of us,” adds Eskelsen García.

Monday, Nov. 13
American Education Week Kickoff Day will present all Americans with a wonderful opportunity to celebrate public education and honor individuals who are making a difference in ensuring that every child receives a quality education.

Tuesday, Nov. 4
On Parents Day, schools invite parents into the classroom for a hands-on experience of what the day is like for their child.

Wednesday, Nov. 15
Wednesday is a national day of recognition of education support professionals who are integral members of the education team. Education Support Professionals (ESP) Day focuses on the importance of these school employees, who make up 40 percent of the school staff and take care of students every day, making sure they have the tools they need to succeed in school.

NEA Secretary Treasurer Princess Moss, along with ESP of the Year Saul Ramos, will thank ESP in Phoenix Union High School District in Phoenix, Arizona.

Thursday, Nov. 16
On AEW’s Educator for a Day, leaders across the country will be invited to serve as educators in their local public school districts to get a glimpse of a day in the life of a school employee.

Friday, Nov. 17
Substitute Educators Day honors the educators who are called upon to stand in for regularly employed teachers.

“American Education Week serves as a tribute to the team of people who work with our students–everyone from the classroom teacher and the bus driver to the cafeteria worker and the administration staff—plus countless others,” says Eskelsen García. “We honor and thank them for the work they do every day to make sure that our students are safe and ready and able to learn.”

Celebrated the week prior to Thanksgiving, American Education Week was first celebrated in 1921 with NEA and the American Legion as co-sponsors. The week-long celebration grew out of national concern about illiteracy. The original goal of American Education Week—to generate public awareness and support for education—continues today.

To find out more about American Education Week, visit or contact your local public school.

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Filling Leadership Gap, Educators Sound the Alarm on Mold in Schools

 Parents dropping off their children at Williamstown Middle School in Monroe Township, New Jersey, a few weeks ago were greeted with a jarring sight: maintenance crews carrying out ceiling tiles stained with mold.

“It caused a little bit of a panic,” recalls John Staab of the New Jersey Education Association. “Parents have little or no faith in the health or safety of the school buildings.”

For good reason it turns out. Holly Glenn Elementary School – one of six schools in the district – had already been closed due to an extensive mold infestation, and its 500 students were being temporarily relocated to available classrooms in other schools, including Williamstown Middle. So to those parents watching those confiscated ceiling tiles being hauled out, it became abundantly clear that Holly Glenn wasn’t the only school contaminated with mold.

Soon every school in Monroe Township – affecting 6,000 students in all – was suddenly closed down as a “precautionary measure.”  In early October, emergency inspections went into overdrive and furious parents demanded answers. The district scrambled to get a handle on a tense and volatile situation.

Six closed schools and a potentially serious health crisis – just one of those unforeseen emergencies that can and do materialize during a school year? Not really. The Monroe Township Education Association and the Monroe Township Association of Education Secretaries had been sounding the alarm on mold in schools for a few years, carefully documenting the issue with photos, emails, and repeated maintenance requests for the district to pay greater attention and move beyond temporary band-aid solutions.

When the air quality in the schools became a full-blown crisis, the administration’s approach was no longer tenable, forcing it to correct a long-standing problem in just five months.

Educators in Monroe Township weren’t interested in a game of one-upsmanship with the district, but it was obvious that it had a credibility problem.

“We could have prevented this crisis had they listened to us years ago,” says Staab. “Now they’re taking it seriously.”

No national standards exist to govern how public schools should monitor, detect, and address air-quality problems and states have none of their own. This often leads to Inaction or, at best, half-measures on the part of individual districts, forcing educators and their unions to fill the leadership and trust vacuums that inevitably open up.

The mold infestation at Holly Glenn Elementary has closed the school for at least three months. Inspections revealed mold on doors (pictured here), bookcases, tables, toys, lockers, ceilings and in bathrooms. (Photo: TTI Environmental, Inc.)

Risks to Students and Staff

The massive rains that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma bought to Texas and Louisiana left behind an array of public health threats stemming from bacteria, pollutants, and mold. Even as flooding recedes, the lingering excessive moisture in buildings and houses make infestations almost inevitable. The basic structural soundness of a school building doesn’t negate the very real possibility that students and staff could soon be breathing in mold eight hours a day, five days a week.

But it doesn’t take Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to generate the conditions that lead to mold infestations. Students across the country are learning in old and decaying buildings that are in dire need of repair. Portable classrooms, in particular, are notorious breeding grounds for mold and mildew.

In addition to the absence of national and state standards for mold testing and remediation, the chronic underfunding of public education has exacerbated policymakers’ and school officials’ neglect of school upkeep and maintenance.

When technicians conducted tests at Holly Glenn Elementary, they found visible mold everywhere – on ceilings, floors, walls, lockers, desks, and toys. While most schools in Monroe District reopened after one week, Holly Glenn will stay closed at least through the end of the year because its HVAC system – probably not updated since the 1960s – has to be dismantled and replaced.

“It’s going to take a while to fix this,” says Staab. “No parent is going to let their kids anywhere near that building until It’s done.”

Parents know that exposure to molds can cause symptoms such as nasal stuffiness, eye irritation, wheezing, or skin irritation. According to the Centers for Disease Control, otherwise healthy children can become sick if exposed to mold indoors. Studies have warned that children who are exposed to mold can develop asthma, which now affects 1 in 10 children.

“Schools are more densely occupied than office buildings, and children aren’t little adults. They’re uniquely vulnerable,” explains Claire Barnett, director of the Healthy Schools Network.

School staff are also at risk.

“When everyone is away for the summer and they feel fine, and then they come back to school and start feeling sick, you know something is wrong,” says Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union (BTU) in Broward County, Florida.

“This School Is a Health Hazard”

Broward County is not only one of the largest school districts in the country, it’s also one of the most humid. Mold has been an unwelcome presence in the district’s schools for years.

In 2010, a grand jury ordered the state of Florida to get a handle on a widespread mold problem that was plaguing its schools. But most of the panel’s more sweeping recommendations were ignored in Broward County and subsequent legislation to address the issue always ran aground over concerns over the cost of the needed repairs and a barrage of lawsuits.

Union leaders raised the issue again in 2015, demanding the district take the necessary measures to address the toxic air quality in the schools. “This has been going on for too long,” Fusco says. “We were getting emails, photos of spores and mushrooms growing on doors, student desks, lockers. Mold was everywhere.”

“When everyone is away for the summer and they feel fine, and then they come back to school and start feeling sick, you know something is wrong,”  – Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union

“We knew the union had to take action and push the issue so that the people who can make something happen will finally listen. We’re talking about our students’ health and everyone who works in the building,” she adds.

In 2016, BTU conducted a survey of its members to determine what, if any, experiences they had with mold in their schools. The response was overwhelming and, in light of the inaction of the district, damning.

“There is mold present with the naked eye on doors on the second floor in classrooms and you can smell it in classrooms on the second floor just across from the library,” one educator responded.  “The first floor library stinks of mold upon entering the room. There are also visible water stains on ceiling tiles in rooms on the first and second floors.”

“Mold issues have been prevalent at this school for years and years,” wrote another. “Many teachers and students have gotten sick as a result. If a person is sensitive to mold, this school is a health hazard.”

Another respondent said the health affects on the students were unmistakable: “My students have suffered this year with what seems to be an unusually high amount of colds and daily allergy issues. One child has congestion and even bloody nostrils, but does not show these symptoms at home (as per parent).”

The results of the survey were made public and local news outlets reported on the rash of illness in many of the contaminated schools. Broward Teachers Union also announced it would bring in their own experts to conduct inspections. In September, Fusco and some colleagues showed up at one school to demand (successfully) that a teacher, sick from the mold-infested classroom she was assigned to, be moved.

The pressure and publicity appeared to work. Soon, the district announced it was going to deploy assessment teams at some of the infested schools. After years of intransience, the district is beginning to move in the right direction, says Fusco.

“We’ll have to see where it goes, but they’re sitting down with us and we’re talking about solutions. That’s the biggest step we’ve taken in years.”

“Parents Trust Us”

Like the Broward Teachers Union, the Monroe Township Education Association and Monroe Township Association of Education Secretaries collected extensive information from its members about mold contamination in their schools. They are also paying for independent tests for mold to verify the results from the district’s own contractors. The New Jersey Education Association also partners with the Work Environment Council (WEC) to advocate for healthy schools.

At an emergency Board of Education meeting on Oct. 9, parents in Monroe Township demanded answers about the mold infestation that had temporarily closed every school in the district.

The community’s frayed trust in the administration was on full display at an emergency meeting of the board of education right after the schools were closed. Twelve hundred parents packed the auditorium at Williamstown High School to express their dismay at what they saw as a mishandling of the situation and lack of transparency on the part of district officials.

“It just got to the point where I think the district lost credibility with the parents,” Staab explains. “So the local associations stepped in and told the administration, ‘We can help with this and get it fixed.’”

The union leadership formed the Indoor Air Quality Communications Task Force to assemble and disseminate accurate information about the monitoring and cleanup of the mold contamination. The group includes teachers, school secretaries, support staff, parents, and a liaison from the administration. Not a decision-making body, the task force will make sure all stakeholders are getting the right information about the schools’ air quality and in a timely manner.

“Parents in the district have developed a connection with us on this issue,” Staab says. “They trust us.”

District officials have promised to be more proactive and do what is necessary to clean up the schools, Holly Glenn Elementary in particular. While educators are supporting these efforts, they will continue to monitor the situation for any lingering signs that corners could again be cut as public attention around the mold contamination begins to fade.

“This isn’t about creating controversy,” says Staab. “Our goal is and always been to get our schools clean and safe and back open for our students.”

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Ready For Some Good News? Educators Share What’s Happening in Their Classrooms

We asked educators on NEA Today Facebook about the best thing that happened in their classrooms and schools last week. Some raised money with their students for disaster relief, others attended fun school-community events, and a whole lot had break-through moments with their students that sometimes brought tears to their eyes. We can all use a little positivity, so here’s a roundup of the good news they shared:

A discouraged dyslexic third grader has realized he can read the books I have set in a bin for him… and asked for permission to take some of the books to his after school program! This is the boy who normally says thing are too hard and puts his head down! Theresa Early, Fairfax, Virginia

Through the generous donations of my friends, I took my low-income, urban, Boston-area students on a field trip to New York City – the Empire State Building, Times Square, Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Liberty Cruise, Pizza Suprema – because they got the highest growth percentile on our state exam, because they worked their butts off every day in class, reading six more books than were in the curriculum, and because they are AWESOME. Nancy Petriello Barile, Boston, Massachusetts

My two newcomers with very little English yet, and who are both still pretty reluctant to attempt to speak in front of the whole class, enthusiastically volunteered to share their mathematical thinking and strategies during a math session this week. They were beaming from ear to ear with pride… Not only proud of them for putting themselves out there, but also for how supportive and encouraging the rest of the class always is of them. Made my week! Jennifer Gage Moke, Portland, Oregon

My seniors and AP juniors hosted a college and career fair for younger students (5th-10th graders). Each of my students became an “expert” on a college, military branch, or career field he or she hopes to pursue, created a table display and one-page informational handout, then they shared their research knowledge with their visitors. Barb Brown Andres, New Lothrop, Michigan

My first grade students performed All You Need is Love at our monthly assembly. We had picked the song long ago but it was so timely. Children remind all of us how beautiful the world is. They inspire me and drive me to be the best I can be every single day. Marianne Vasquez, Bakersfield, California

We presented a check for $5,100 to fund childhood cancer research at a local charity, the N8 Foundation. I work at the same school as Marianne Vasquez. Our school had a good week. Karen Nguyen, Bakersfield, California

I was subbing this week and when I introduced myself to the teacher she screamed and started crying because I had been her 2nd grade teacher!! I was so touched but felt old! Linda Morgan, Highland, California

During a math review quiz, one group worked together and only missed one question. But better than that was the collaboration. I heard things like, “We both got the same answer, do you agree with us” and “yes, I agree because…”. I was so happy I could cry!  Megan Rene, McMinn, Lewiston, Idaho

We had a kindergarten potluck at a local park. It was so fun for the kids, parents and grandparents to have a chance to meet each other. I loved spending time with my students’ families and meeting families from the other K classrooms with my K team. Carol Harris, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

I have a student that is passing a high school math class for the first time… the joy on the student’s face makes all the daily struggles so worth it!  Nell Dearing, Carlsbad, New Mexico

Thursday I returned as a volunteer at our highest poverty school to help some of the most dedicated teachers and work with kiddos that fill my heart! Phyllis Schneider Winkley, Vernon, Connecticut

New student came into our classroom and did not have a “rest buddy” of his own for rest time. The next day, a concerned child brought a gently used and carefully chosen stuffed animal of his own for his new friend. Heartwarming! Shelly Hess, Vincent, Ohio

Our association members attended events in the 3 communities that make up our district, raffling off 12 baskets of books, three Kindle fires and three family memberships to the Philadelphia zoo. Raffle tickets were free as prizes were donated by the teachers. Nicole May Armbruster, Aston, Pennsylvania

I got to see a second-grader who is struggling with behavior be a great role model to a first-grader who is struggling with behavior. ^_^Seeing them interact in such a sweet, friendly manner made my heart happy! Sarah Wood, Keizer, Oregon

An email from a parent informed me that her child loves my class and is excited about learning to love reading and writing, a subject she’s struggled with in the past. 
Joel Elrod Melsha, Orlando, Florida

A student who had done poorly in his first test put forth great effort at home studying, coming for extra help and really focusing during the test. ( that is hard for him). He finished early so I graded his test and it was a perfect test –100%. It was his birthday too. Right from the classroom, we called mom in front of the whole class and celebrate him. His mom was happy and the class applauded him. His smile lit up the whole room. Debra Calle, Bergenfield, New Jersey

A student who is homeless was going to have to transfer schools and be uprooted from all that is stable in his life. Our transportation department figured it out and will be busing him! Autumn Schultz, Toledo, Washington

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With ‘Janus,’ Corporate Interests Launch Another Attack on Workers

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Twice in the last three years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked – and declined – to answer the fundamental question of whether the fair share fees that support strong public sector collective bargaining are constitutional. In the 2014 Harris v. Quinn case, the Court sidestepped the question and in last year’s Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA) case, the then eight Justice court deadlocked on the question leaving it unanswered.

Today, the Supreme Court took the Janus v. AFSCME case to answer the question once and for all. Specifically, the Court will decide this term if Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 1977 case that established the foundational precedent for fair share fees, should be overruled.

The petitioner in Janus, like his predecessors in Harris and Friedrichs,  argues that the First Amendment prohibits fair share fees. In fact, the supporters of these challenges are not concerned with the finer points of First Amendment law, but with taking out the strong voice for working people and economic opportunity for all that public sector unions provide.

“Stripping public employees of their voices in the workplace is not what our country needs,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García – especially at a time at a time when big corporations and the wealthiest individuals in the nation are rigging the economic rules in their favor, knocking American families and the entire U.S. economy off-balance.

The Janus case challenges a public sector union’s ability to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees from employees – reduced amounts charged to workers who opt out of union membership, yet continue to receive the union representation and bargaining services that benefit all employees and which unions are required to provide.

A ruling by the Court to strike down fair share fees would strip bargaining power from workers across the country, crippling the ability of people to come together in strong unions to win better wages, benefits, protections and standards for working families. In effect, “right-to-work” would be imposed on the entire public sector.

“This case is yet another example of corporate interests using their power and influence to launch a political attack on working people and rig the rules of the economy in their own favor,” said Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME. “When working people are able to join strong unions, they have the strength in numbers they need to fight for the freedoms they deserve.”

Janus is funded by the National Right to Work Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center, the litigation wing of the Illinois Policy Institute. Both groups are part of a network funded by billionaires and corporate CEOs who do not believe that working people deserve the same freedoms they have: to negotiate a fair return on their work.

“For decades billionaires have fought to enrich themselves at the expense of the rights and pocket books of working people,” said Eskelsen García. “As the nation’s largest union, this fight not only hurts our members, but also the families of the children we educate.”

In 2018, the Supreme Court will decide if ‘Abood v. Detroit Board of Education,’ the 1977 case that established the foundational precedent for fair share fees, should be overruled.

The blatant political agenda behind these legal challenges was recently scrutinized by The Guardian in an article that highlighted how a right-wing campaign was executing a plan to strike a “mortal blow” and “defund and defang” the nations’ unions:

“The new assault is being spearheaded by the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 state-based think tanks, or “ideas factories” as it calls them, with a combined annual budget of $80m. As suggested by its slogan – “State solutions. National impact” – the group outlines an aim to construct a rightwing hegemony throughout the US, working from the bottom up. …To do that, it first has to sweep aside public sector unions.”

Critical to these groups’ efforts is concealing their anti-worker agenda with euphemisms like “rights” and “freedom,” says Jim Miller, a professor of labor studies at San Diego City College. “When you hear talk about from them about the ‘rights of the individual,’ think about the enshrinement of the 1% to a position of unparalleled political power into the unforeseen future,” Miller recently wrote.

This assault comes at a time when unions are more important than ever. Unions provide a path to the middle class for working people. When membership is high, entire communities enjoy wages that represent a fair return on their work and greater social and economic mobility.

And Americans know it. New Gallup research shows that more than 3 in 5 Americans have a favorable view of unions – the highest level in nearly 15 years. Support is even stronger among young people.

“More and more, the economy is working against working people, including the families whose children I teach”, says Sonya Shpilyuk, a high school English teacher in Montgomery County, MD.  “My union gives me a voice and a seat at the table to advocate for my students, my colleagues, and my community.”

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in Janus v. AFSCME in January 2018 and decision will be issued in May or June.

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After Strike, Vermont Educators Win More Time for Planning

Emily Ide recalls a student in her third grade class at Edmunds Elementary in Burlington, Vermont, who dreaded lunch time. A sensitive, quiet girl, she found the cafeteria too loud and she had trouble finding someone to sit with.

“I would have loved the opportunity to invite her to have lunch in the classroom so she could escape the fray of the cafeteria, but when she had lunch, I had lunch duty,” Ide says. “There are so many students like this who would benefit from a little TLC from their teachers, but we’re stretched too thin.”

More Time for Planning, Student Meetings

Throughout Burlington, elementary teachers are expected to cover “supervisory duties” like lunch and recess monitoring, morning door duty, dismissal duty, and breakfast duty – often more than one a day – despite a lack of planning time or time to meet with students.  The duties could range anywhere from fifteen to nearly forty minutes, making a teacher’s ability to plan and prepare for student contact impossible.

That’s a primary reason why Ide, a member of the Burlington Education Association (BEA) and a negotiator on the bargaining team, joined her colleagues in a four-day strike earlier this month when the team couldn’t reach an agreement with the school board on terms for a new contract.

“The board continues to claim that it wants to work collaboratively with us to address the achievement gap, but their actions say otherwise,” Fran Brock, a Burlington High School History teacher who serves as president of the 400-member union, said the day before the strike. “They had an opportunity to work with us to address the achievement gap in our elementary schools. They did not take that opportunity. They had an opportunity to work with us to stem the exodus of teachers by reaching a deal that attracts and retains the best for our city’s students. They failed to do so. And they continued their years-long quest to institute top-down approaches that do nothing for our students.”

Board Wouldn’t Budge

Brock said the union compromised on health insurance and salary, going along with the recommendations of a neutral fact-finder, but the union couldn’t get the Burlington School Board to understand that elementary teachers are having too much of their time drawn away from one-on-one interaction with students. For more than three years, she said, they wouldn’t budge.

“As would be expected, salary and health insurance were issues, particularly since Vermont is undergoing state-wide changes to the healthcare program for teachers,” says Brock. “But more importantly, the teachers needed the contract to protect planning and collaboration time for teachers, particularly elementary school teachers.

Teachers, who increasingly need to plan and provide for one-on-one teaching of each student, need time to plan and collaborate with a team of teachers/specialists and non-teaching duties like recess and lunch needs to be the responsibility of trained para-educators or someone other than a teacher.”

At Ide’s school, the students arrive at 8:10, and go home at 2:50, and if educators can’t get a meeting in with them during that time, it’s not likely to happen.  A rare few have families that can facilitate staying after school for help, but most of the time, the kids who need the most help are the ones whose families can’t arrange that time. Teachers are left scrambling to find time to provide that one-on-one, often sacrificing critical planning time.

Kids Deserve Quality Instruction

“Having more planning time allows teachers to improve the quality of their instruction, plain and simple,” Ide says. “Teachers who spend more time planning are able to teach with more intention and clarity. That’s what kids deserve. Much of what we use now for curriculum requires a lot of planning and preparing. When teachers do this work in a vacuum it’s not valuable.  As a fairly new teacher (less than 5 years)  it’s invaluable for me, and others like me, to be able to work with my colleagues who have 10,15, even 25 years of experience. They provide insight when I struggle.”

Finally, after four days, the strike ended. Ide worked with her colleagues on the contract language and they were able to include some changes to scheduling for elementary school teachers that will go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.

“And all we could get right now was the promise that no teacher will be assigned more than three non-teaching duties per week, and that at least one time block would be available for team work,” says BEA president Brock. “It’s a start.”

Radical Actions Move Us Forward

In a statement she provided the day the strike ended, Brock thanked the citizens of Burlington.

“I know the teachers’ strike was stressful and all were anxious. But sometimes it takes a radical action to move us all forward.”

She also thanked the hundreds of people who helped, “the folks who made sure there was water and lots and lots of apples for the teachers; the students who offered babysitting to parents who needed child care; the neighbors who let teachers use their bathrooms; and the army of community members who made sure their voices were heard by both school board members and the teachers.”

Ide says she was very proud of her fellow BEA members for banding together and showing strength through unity.

“People worked very hard to keep the mood positive and optimistic in a situation where it would have been very easy to have things become toxic,” she says.

Collective Bargaining Works

This year’s strike was only the second to occur in Burlington in forty years. The system works, but according to Brock, the crucial aspect of collective bargaining is having two sides that respect one another.

“Our board, and some of the administration, clearly made it known that they did not respect the union, thought little of teachers and really had no interest in understanding how schools need to function in today’s world. Going up against that sort of arrogance and obstructionism will be problematic regardless of the system used,” she says. “But to borrow from Winston Churchill, ‘collective bargaining is messy but it is better than any other alternative.’”

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In Fight Against Outsourcing, Flipping a School Board Makes All the Difference

The brash board member seemed pleased with himself after announcing at a Pennsbury School District board meeting in Pennsylvania that he intended to “outsource all bus driver jobs and break PESPA at any cost,” recalls Donna Abrescia, a Pennsbury school bus driver and member of the Pennsbury Education Support Professionals Association (PESPA).

“When he said, ‘at any cost’ … that got me,” says Abrescia, who has worked for the district for 26 years. “It didn’t matter if our drivers were more efficient than those from a private company or if having in-house drivers was more cost effective for the district … no, he wanted to take our jobs and break our union.”

The grandiose pronouncement was made by avowed anti-union trustee Simon Campbell in late 2012. At the time, he and four other conservative trustees ruled the nine-member board with an iron fist. Together, they had proposed selling the district’s school bus fleet and outsourcing transportation services as well as other education support professional (ESP) jobs.

“Back then, we had a school board that was not educator friendly,” says PESPA President Marla Lipkin, an administrative assistant.

As in Pennsbury, school boards across the nation sometimes turn to outsourcing as an ill-considered effort to raise quick cash, shore up budget gaps, or streamline operations. Whether they call it privatization, contracting out, subcontracting or outsourcing — transferring the work of public school employees to the private sector leads to inferior services and fewer connections to students and their education.

In Pennsbury, however, some board members took the pernicious threat of outsourcing even further. For them, privatization was less a fiduciary strategy and more a means to weaken PESPA.

Battling the Board on Two Fronts

By 2013, the board moved fast and loose distributing Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to subcontractors and accepting bids for transportation and custodial services, information technology specialists, instructional and non-instructional paraprofessionals. Employees from each of these groups were among PESPA’s 625 members, including 175 bus drivers.

“The board made it clear they wanted to bust the union,” Lipkin says. “No budgetary or financial constraints, poor performances or community complaints were cited.”

The board had a history of being hostile to unions. Previously, their union-busting agenda included the teacher-led Pennsbury Education Association (PEA).

“Since teachers couldn’t be threatened with outsourcing, ESPs became the target,” Lipkin says.

Along with the battle against outsourcing on the administrative front, PESPA negotiators were simultaneously bargaining a new contract with district officials. PESPA had been working under the terms of an expired contract since June 2011. Under these circumstances, members found themselves at risk of losing or compromising not only future jobs but their present positions.

“The board was throwing out RFPs for everything to see what might stick,” Lipkin says. “Even though no analytical evidence was being provided to support their argument for any RFPs.”

Finding New Players

By this time, PESPA members had begun to organize internally, form committees, and develop a strategy to fight the privatization threat. At the top of their to-do list: Identify and support community-minded, educator-friendly board members for the upcoming November 2013 board elections.

With months to go before the election, PESPA members worked evenings and weekends canvassing neighborhoods with flyers about the detriments of outsourcing school jobs. They created radio commercials that played during high school football games and on social media, sponsored information tables at school events, and purchased yellow yard signs with a website address and capitalized black letters that read: STOP PENNSBURY FROM OUTSOURCING.

“We did whatever we felt was necessary to show our community what a mistake it would be to let strangers transport our students,” Lipkin says.

Garnering Community Support

One concerned citizen who empathized with their plight was the inimitable Frank Arcoleo.

“I’m driving along and I see this yellow sign in someone’s yard about outsourcing,” says Arcoleo, a self-employed certified public accountant. “It got my attention, so I contacted the group.”

Marla Lipkin

Marla Lipkin

The encounter with the sign took place in November 2012. Before long, Arcoleo was testifying against privatization at board meetings, hosting weekly PESPA organizing meetings at his house, and crunching numbers which blew holes in district reports regarding reduced costs through outsourcing. He and other citizens also established a nonprofit advocacy group, United Pennsbury. Among other activities, the group presented the board with a petition with about 1,250 signatures from Republicans and Democrats alike who opposed privatizing school services.

“I don’t like to pay more money than I should for government services,” says Arcoleo, whose daughter, Emily, attends public schools. “But paying taxes for legitimate well-performed services is not only necessary, it’s patriotic.”

Of all his activities, Arcoleo might be best remembered for numerous appearances at board meetings where he would dispute perceived “phantom savings,” as he called them.

For example, school board solicitor Jeff Sultanik estimated that the sale of the bus fleet, equipment listing and inventory listing would be $3,987,285, or $797,457 per year covering transportation cost for five years.

“But what about year six and every year after that,” Arcoleo says. At a February board meeting, with one of his meticulous spreadsheets in hand, Arcoleo articulated the illusion behind the selling of school buses by using an analogy of a family selling their house and using the proceeds to pay rent.

“After a time, you’ve spent everything you received for the house, but you still need to pay rent – forever,” he told the board. “It’s clearly an accounting mistake to act as if the proceeds of an asset sale can legitimately be counted to offset increased operating costs.”

In addition, he told the board, outsourcing district jobs to out-of-town companies “would ruin the lives of our neighbors who would lose their jobs or, at best, have jobs with lower salaries, no health care, no retirement savings. I told the board they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Outsourcing Threat Lurks Over 2013 Contract

In August 2013, the board voted 6-2 (1 abstaining) to approve a new contract which had been already been approved by PESPA members in mid-August. The agreement was valid through June of this year.

Under the contract, PESPA compromised on several points, including higher health care co-payments and dependents being dropped from PESPA member plans. The contract did not include language restricting the district from using subcontractors. This would change with PESPA’s 2017 contract.

“With the two major outsourcing threats looming over us at the time, we knew we had to give up benefits to keep all of our classifications employed, so we did for the time being,” Lipkin says. “Everybody told me that once you give something up, you never get it back … well, we got things back (in the 2017 contract).”

In the months that followed the contract signing, momentum had shifted in favor of PESPA and against the conservative members of the board, which is comprised of three members from three regions. In Region 1, two of the three members were up for re-election, including Campbell. Region 2 included three educator-friendly members, all returning. In Region 3, two members were running for re-election. In Pennsbury, where trustees serve four-year terms, elections involving board seats are staggered.

At the polls that November, PESPA needed at least two of the four candidates they endorsed to win their races in order to achieve a majority.

“We ended up winning all four available seats, which together with our other allies on the board (not up for re-election) gave us the majority,” Arcoleo says. “Community advocacy won the day.”

2017 Contract Addresses Outsourcing

In June, the board approved a five-year contract stating that the district will “not engage in any further subcontracting of Bargaining Unit work, unless there are no reasonably available qualified individuals to fill the position” and other similar provisions.

The contract also includes a yearly 1 percent pay increase and column and longevity movement. Members can also apply for a new health care plan starting in October. At first, the plan has higher co-pays for specialists and higher out of pocket maximums, but over five years members will pay the same family health care contribution rate as teachers — 14 percent.

“During the last contract, we lost good support staff employees because they could not afford to work and pay for their health care benefits,” Lipkin says.

The new contract also restores coverage for dependents, includes bereavement language, increases sick leave days for part-time employees, and contains a differential rate for paraeducators working with emotional-support students.

“We worked for five years to regain respect and benefits that we, as essential school employees, deserve,” Lipkin says.

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Public Schools Offer Shelter from the Storm

Lamar Butler, left, and his wife Rosa settle in with their children at the Twin Lakes Elementary School’s storm shelter in preparation for Hurricane Irma, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

As Hurricane Harvey charged into Port Arthur, Texas, 90 miles east of Houston, Wren Lloyd was one of the brave volunteers driving school buses to take hundreds of people to safety in emergency shelters.

Lloyd, a bus route supervisor and driver for Port Arthur Independent School District, admits that hauling busloads of people through driving rain and strong winds was scary.

“We didn’t show it, but we were very apprehensive,” she said.

She was right to be afraid. Driving evacuees to safety is dangerous work and storm waters are unpredictable.

A Boat Rescue

After delivering a busload of people to the Bob Bowers Civic Center, brown, murky water began to seep in. Before long she and several other district bus drivers were marooned with their passengers by rising floodwaters. Eventually, on Wednesday they were rescued by boat.

People in the Bob Bowers Civic Center, meant to be a shelter in Port Arthur, Texas, were surrounded by floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey, in this photo provided by Beulah Johnson.

Exhausted and shaken by the experience, Lloyd could have taken a much-needed rest. Instead, she got back on another bus and and shuttled hundreds more evacuees to safety until the wee hours Thursday morning.

Lloyd has spent most of her life in Port Arthur. It’s her home and community, and when it was in crisis she was determined to find a way to help. After all, those were her students and their families in the path of the storm.

Public Schools Center of Community, Especially in a Storm

Public schools and public school staff are the hub of a community, and in hurricane-prone parts of the country, they can be relied upon to open and staff shelters and transport evacuees during the storm.

They did it in Texas, and a few weeks later, they did it in Florida, too.

On the heels of Harvey came Hurricane Irma, a monster storm that prompted the evacuation of 6 million people. Again, public schools and public school staff stepped up to respond.

“Our state’s public schools serve a vital role in our communities as shelters for displaced residents and staging areas for hurricane recovery efforts,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott.

Florida’s Educators Offer Shelter and Comfort

Across Florida, counties have agreements with their school districts to use their school buildings as evacuation shelters during hurricanes. The reasons are clear – public schools are in every community; they are safe, public spaces that are solidly built, and officials know how many people they can hold. What’s more, school staff are always at the ready to help their students, families and community members. It’s at the heart of what they do every day.

As Hurricane Irma approached, Miami-Dade County opened 42 schools to shelter more than 20,000 evacuees, some of them with their pets. Palm Beach County schools sheltered 17,000 evacuees at the peak of the storm, according to Superintendent Robert Avossa. Throughout the state, schools opened shelters for their communities – some at the last minute as the track shifted west.

There were public schools that became shelters for the elderly and for disabled people. Johns Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg was full service (video) – its library housed the elderly and disabled with hospital beds, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks; its locker room became a pet motel with animal crates lining the floor.

Custodians helped set up cots, cafeteria workers cooked and served hot meals, librarians read to children, nurses offered first aid – whatever was needed, educators delivered.

Now Schools Need Community Help

In Texas last Monday, about 80 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s 287 schools opened after a two-week delay. The rest won’t open until late September or even October. Flooding destroyed infrastructure and many schools will be uninhabitable for weeks.

About 270 Houston area teachers have been unable to go to work because of damage to their own homes or other disruptions after the storm, school officials said. In Port Arthur, where schools will open this Monday, Wren Lloyd estimates more than 200 district employees have damage to their homes.

She continues to pitch in, making calls and seeking donations for her friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

“It’s all about trying to help somebody,” she says.

Find out how what you can do. Visit to help and for additional information.

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