Teachers’ Victory in Baltimore, Sort of

A momentary victory for real teachers. As we have been pilloried by all aspects of media, government, and think tanks, once in a while we can take a surprisingly deep breath of fresh air. On Friday, October 15, Baltimore City teachers rejected a Baltimore Teachers Union contract which, to many, looked almost as if it could have been written by former DC superintendent Rhee and her cronies across the country. 58% of the teachers rejected the contract.

Both sides of the contract negotiations were of the same coin of the Obama/Duncan business model for education. They are focusing on the October 28 re-vote by clarifying the contract, not radically changing it. Both sides still support the Race to the Top philosophy of pitting state education departments against each other and teacher against teacher for limited salary increases. Remaining in the likely future contract, and a point of major contention, is the method of evaluating the staff. In spite of the potential of huge salary increases for ‘model’ and ‘lead’ teachers, (even in a state that is financially hurting as much as everywhere else) up to 50% of students’ test scores will be the evaluative criteria for what makes a ‘successful’ teacher.

As Tom Proveaux, a 33 year veteran said, “Our kids come to school hungry, they come to school broken in many ways, and when we’re dealing with that it is not reflected in a test score. If we have to go back to ratification with the same thing, we’ll just vote it down again.”

There is a major disconnect between teachers’ union officials who have been out of the classroom for years, even decades, and rank and file teachers. Race to the Top, merit pay, tying salaries to student achievement and other initiatives only hurt the trade union movement and education. They so often go along with the powers of the school administration and think just being at the table means they have a serious role in determining what’s best for their members.

One of the more odious aspects of the rejected contract is the right of a majority of a school to redefine the contract for that particular school. It sounds like autonomy but in reality it plays very much into the hands of the school administration. It is the principal that usually determines the faculty make-up and has the power to hire and transfer teachers that do not fit their perceived model of what makes a school successful. It is not hard then to imagine a principal creating a school of mostly energetic, young, poorly paid new teachers giving them a false sense of ownership of a school and manipulating them to go against the better judgment and experience of more veteran teachers.

There is a group think among principals who buy the data driven, business model of education that unfortunately the union leadership either also shares, or is too impotent to really challenge. In the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association (PGCEA) you have the President serving on a merit pay committee which has been optioned to 2 schools that in the past have either rejected it or not even have had a vote on it.

The victory this past Friday was stunning for its rarity and its unusual show of force. Whether it be contracts or elections, the history of voting in the BTU is usually one of poor turn-out where only the leadership supporters make it to the polls. Unless the contract is rejected again and the real interests of rank and file teachers are brought to the table, Friday’s victory will be short lived.

Myles Hoenig is a veteran of the Prince George's County Public School system in Maryland, USA. He's a long time activist for social justice. He lives in Baltimore. Read other articles by Myles.

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  1. Arshad M Khan said on October 19th, 2010 at 7:48am #

    What a difference between the way teachers are treated here and in Finland. Over there teachers are well-paid professionals respected by society as much as other professionals like doctors and lawyers, and guess what … Finland routinely heads Europe in the school and education league tables.