For Schoolteachers, Collective Bargaining Protects Free Speech

by Christopher Paslay


Quinnipiac University recently polled 1,800 registered voters and found that 63 percent believed that public-sector workers should pay more for their health benefits and contribute more to their retirement programs.  The same poll also revealed that 42 percent felt that public-sector workers are paid “too much,” as opposed to 35 percent who said they are paid “about right.”


Interestingly, when it came to the issue of collective bargaining, Americans were split: forty-five percent said they supported limits on employees’ negotiating rights while 42 percent said they were against bargaining restrictions.     


On Friday, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Christine M. Flowers (who is for the record one of my favorite local writers) weighed-in on the issue of unions by commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 immigrant seamstresses.  Flowers went on to write that these women died because they had no bargaining power or workplace protections.  In essence, there was no one to tell their bosses that it was illegal to lock the exit doors during the work day.


Of course, Flowers went on to write that although unions started out as a shield, they ultimately turned into a sword:     


“. . . While unions did good things for their members and improved working conditions in blue-collar industries (the ones that built, fed and clothed the nation), the tactics used to obtain fair deals for the seamstresses and steel workers have now been manipulated by others with a more partisan agenda.


In many cases, those ‘others’ work in the public sector, and their ‘collective bargaining’ has been turned into a form of public bribery. By taking their members’ dues and contributing big sums to the political campaigns of officials who – when elected – can sweeten their contracts, public-sector unions have gone from puppet to puppet master.


‘A decent living’ became a euphemism for bloated salaries and way-better-than-average perks at taxpayer expense. And tenure all of sorts has turned into immunity for the mediocre. . . .”


Flowers’ quip about tenure is clearly a jab at schoolteachers, but I won’t hold this against her.  Her views are normally right on point, and I have the utmost respect for her as a writer and thinker.   


But regardless of Flowers’ sweeping generalization about schoolteachers, there is another issue at the root of unions and collective bargaining that is rarely analyzed or discussed.  Buried beneath health benefits, pensions and salary is the issue of free speech, a right that has been denied schoolteachers by the courts in recent years.          


Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history at New York University, wrote about the importance of collective bargaining in terms of its impact on the free speech of teachers in a March 1st article in the Philadelphia Inquirer headlined, “In fight for workers, free speech is at stake.” (To read the article in its entirety, which I strongly suggest, click here.)


Zimmerman opened his article by stating the following:    


“In 2001, high school English teacher Shirley Evans-Marshall gave her class a copy of the American Library Association’s ‘100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.’ She asked her students to choose a book on the list and explain why it was controversial.


But the assignment itself was too controversial for Evans-Marshall’s Ohio school district, which declined to renew her contract.


Evans-Marshall sued, claiming a violation of her First Amendment rights. And last year, a federal appeals court ruled that she didn’t have any – at least not in her own classroom.


‘The right to free speech … does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools,’ the court declared.


That’s why teachers still need collective bargaining, which lies at the heart of this winter’s bitter battles over public-employee unions. . . .


. . . Historically, these agreements have protected teachers’ salaries, benefits, and pensions. Now that the courts have gutted teachers’ academic freedom, however, the only way they can retain it will be via collective bargaining. . . .”


Zimmerman’s point is well taken.  For those who think teachers’ unions and their collective bargaining power is simply a tool to win underserved benefits and cushy pensions, think again. 


Collective bargaining is at the heart of a teacher’s right to shape curriculum—or put another way, their right to use their expertise as an educator to determine how they will deliver instruction.  It is also at the heart of their right to make their voices and opinions heard, as was the case (at least in part) with Philadelphia School District teacher Hope Moffett; without the collective power of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Hope would have been terminated for protesting the reconstitution of Audenried High School where she currently teaches English. 


As a public servant and a dues-paying member of a union, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for workers to contribute more for their health insurance and pensions in light of the current economy.  However, America’s recession and the financial woes of many states should not be used as an excuse to cripple unions and take away the First Amendment rights of public workers.      


Pushing School Reforms That Have Failed Us Before

“Youth United for Change, an organization of young adults advocating for better public education in Philadelphia, recently released a report titled “Pushed Out: Youth Voices on the Dropout Crisis in Philadelphia.” It argued that many city students don’t voluntarily quit school, but rather are forced out by boring teachers, an irrelevant curriculum, and a prison-like school environment.

To keep kids on the path to graduation, the group argues, education must be made more interesting, engaging, fun, and hands-on. Group collaboration, project-based learning, problem-solving, and creativity should be favored over traditional lectures and teacher-led instruction. Students should play a bigger role in choosing their courses and shaping the curriculum, with electives that address topics relevant to the lives of young people.

While some of the ideas in the report have merit, school leaders should not fall into the trap of emphasizing entertainment over instruction. Progressive education reformers have made that mistake before.”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Pushing school reforms that have failed us before”.  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Public Servants Are Scapegoats for Private Sector’s Greed

by Christopher Paslay


“The economic and political landscape for public education, and for the people who work in our public schools, is as dangerous as I have ever seen.  In the guise of ‘reform,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘shared sacrifice,’ and ‘belt tightening,’ efforts are under way in a number of states to gut collective bargaining, weaken public employees’ pensions, and offload public schools and services to the private sector.  It could take years—if not generations—to recover from the deep and continuing cuts to public education.  And many so-called reforms gaining traction will eliminate teacher voice and move us away from the goal of ensuring that all children have access to the excellent education they need to succeed in life.”


These are the words of Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, in her recent article “Your voice is essential to combat this crisis,” published in this month’s issue of American Teacher.  Weingarten goes on to call on AFT members and their allies at the national, state, and local levels to combat these threats through political action and promoting ideas for constructive change.


Weingarten’s focus on the threats against public employees is not new.  All across America, the fight to defend public services is being waged on many different fronts.  Interestingly, though, not much is being said about what actually caused the collapse of the nation’s economy and set in motion the circumstances that are wrongfully being pinned on schoolteachers, police, fire fighters, and public servants in general.   


National polls show the majority of Americans think public employees make too much money.  These polls also reveal that many Americans think public workers are greedy—that they are unfairly enjoying health benefits and pensions at the expense of overextended taxpayers.  Although there is no denying that many states are facing legitimate budget deficits, the notion that schoolteachers are greedy and overpaid—and a root cause of our nation’s financial woes—is absurd to say the least.


Public workers and their unions are not responsible for our country’s current economic recession.  To the contrary, it is the private sector that is largely to blame.  Accountants on Wall Street did their fair share to “cook the books” and disrupt the American stock exchange something awful.  Overinflated assets and underreported liabilities—not union greed—set the stage for the collapse of public pensions, hedge funds that had been stable for decades because millions of hard working public employees had been paying into them their whole careers.    


In addition to corrupt Wall Street accountants, both the real estate market and mortgage industry gamed the system and literally brought the American banking system to the brink of total collapse.  Phil Gramm, the ex-Texas senator and economic advisory to John McCain, was a major architect of the legislation that was a true catalyst to our country’s financial meltdown. 


In July of 2008, right before John McCain fired Gramm as his economic advisor for calling Americans “whiners” and denying the existence of an American recession, I wrote about Gramm’s sordid economic past and the need for McCain to cut ties with Gramm in a Philadelphia Daily News commentary:


“The collapse of the real-estate bubble, also known as the ‘sub-prime mortgage meltdown,’ has clear ties to Gramm. In December 2000, at the urging of lobbyists from Enron, Gramm pushed through Congress the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.


Known as the ‘Enron loophole,’ this law protected financial institutions from overregulation by the government. In essence, it opened the door for something called ‘credit default swaps,’ and allowed many Americans with bad credit and no money to get mortgages they had no right receiving. Of course, when these same Americans defaulted on their mortgages, the result was billions of dollars in foreclosures.


The Commodity Futures Modernization Act is also associated with rising gas prices. Critics argue that this legislation is responsible for driving up the price of oil because it exempts energy speculators, who make trades electronically, from the regulation of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In other words, big banks are free to manipulate the price of oil by buying huge blocks of energy futures and driving up demand.


Not to mention that the ‘Enron loophole’ was a major factor in the Enron scandal, which wrecked the California electricity market and cost consumers billions. . . .”


Of course, Americans have short-term memories.  Amazingly, in the span of several years, we’ve forgotten all about Enron, Phil Gramm, credit default swaps, and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.  Somehow, in our out-of-sight-out-of-mind society, we’ve been duped into believing that public employees—schoolteachers, police, fire fighters and their greedy unions—are primarily to blame for the continuing mess that is known as today’s economy. 


Through clever politics, the corruptions of the private sector have been transformed into the sins of public servants. 


As Randi Weingarten suggests, these kinds of accusations are indeed dangerous.  Although public servants must make some sacrifices and do their part to help revive the economy, schoolteachers should not be attacked and manipulated by government officials in an effort to forward political agendas.         


And as the title of Weingarten’s article states, the voices of public servants are essential to combat this crisis.   


Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of “The Village Proposal,” to be published this fall.


Equality in Education Starts with Ending Academic Elitism

by Christopher Paslay


On Friday, March 11, the Philadelphia Bar Association gave U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor their Diversity Award for her lifelong commitment to diversity and social justice.  The ceremony was held at the Hyatt at The Bellevue on Broad and Walnut streets.


Sotomayor said inequality in education was the most pressing issue facing diversity today.  


“Until we solve the structural problems that make an equal education available in public and private institutions, we will not be able to reach diversity in society,” she told the audience. 


Sotomayor makes a good point.  Education is indeed a big factor in bringing about a democratic society representative of all races and social classes.  A good way to bring about such diversity would be to start with addressing the structural problems that exist within the institutions that serve as the gatekeepers to a large majority of America’s wealth and power—the nation’s elite colleges and universities. 


In 21st century America, a degree from an Ivy League college or other such prestigious university not only levels the playing field but provides valuable opportunities not available to the average American; Sotomayor, who attended Princeton, Yale Law School, and went on to teach at Columbia Law School, is a prime example.   


Yet gaining admittance into these schools and becoming a part of this elite power structure is nearly impossible for the vast majority of Americans, especially minorities and the socioeconomic disadvantaged. 


To truly open the doors to our nation’s wealth and power, those in academia truly interested in diversity and social justice should heed Sotomayor’s advice and fight to enact the following measures:


Overhaul Admission Standards.  The nation’s best universities shouldn’t be limited to those students born with elite linguistic and mathematical intelligences.  Discriminating against children born with average math and verbal skills is no way to bring about social justice.      


Cap Tuition.  Not every socioeconomic disadvantaged child will receive a scholarship to go to school.  Likewise, not all disadvantaged children will be able to find a co-signer for a student loan worth a quarter of a million dollars.        


Stop Price Gouging with Textbooks.  Paying upwards of $250 for a single trade-paperback textbook is not an option for a disadvantaged student. 


Require University Presses and Academic Journals to Publish Diverse Writers.  There are many talented writers in America today.  Limiting the nation’s elite academic journals and university presses to those with Ivy League credentials is no way to respect the voice of the disenfranchised. 


Respect and Acknowledge Work From Diverse Researchers.  Reports complied by researchers not affiliated with America’s elite colleges and universities should no longer be ignored or marginalized.    


Exploring these measures might go a very long way in bringing about true diversity and social justice in 21st century America.  Of course, the question remains if America’s academic elite truly want to share the wealth and power, or simply talk about social equality.    


Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher.  His new book, The Village Proposal: Education as Shared Responsibility, will be published in the fall of 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield. 


A New Era of Teacher Voices?

by Christopher Paslay

 February was quite a month for America’s public schoolteachers.  Within the span of 10 days, Central Bucks East teacher Natalie Munroe was terminated for blogging about the poor attitude and work ethic of her 11th grade students.  In Philadelphia, Audenried teacher Hope Moffett was sent to “teacher jail” for apparently voicing opposition to the district’s Renaissance School Initiative, a reform policy that implements the wholesale firing of teachers as a means of turning around failing schools.  That same week TAG Philly—the Teacher Action Group—held a rally against intimidation by the Philadelphia School District at 440 North Broad Street which drew over 600 teachers, students, parents and community members.    

And in Madison, Wisconsin, thousands of public schoolteachers called out of work and descended on the state capitol in response to Governor Scott Walker’s bill which put an end to collective bargaining. 

As a teacher and blogger who frequently questions the workings of public education, I find these recent events quite curious.  There appears to be a new boldness forming in America’s educators to make their opinions heard, a boldness not often seen in an era where teachers are paid to perform, not talk.

If I didn’t know better I’d think teachers were tired.  Tired of being relegated to the bottom of the educational pecking order, tired of being blamed for all of the problems involving the economy and public education.   

The most frustrating part is that the very teachers who get criticized for such short-comings are rarely given a say in shaping the policy that attempts to bring about solutions.  Interestingly, everyone involved in public education is an expert but the teachers.  As a rule, school reform is done to teachers, not with them.                                  

Teachers are indeed the most valuable part of America’s public schools.  Good ones must be respected and rewarded, the struggling ones should receive proper support, and those not cut out for the challenge should find a new profession. 

With that said, however, the attacks on schoolteachers can at times be unwarranted.  The fact that the Providence public school system in Rhode Island recently fired all of its schoolteachers—nearly 2,000 of them—is a case in point.  The move was made by mayor Angel Taveras not because of performance issues but to give the district more flexibility to recall teachers the following school year based on student need.  However, critics of the decision say it was clearly a union-busting tactic. 

Not that teachers’ unions will get any sympathy from the American public.  In the slick, carefully packaged documentary “Waiting for Superman,” director Davis Guggenheim did an outstanding job of disparaging teachers and their villainous unions while advancing his own reputation and film career in the process.  Not surprisingly, Guggenheim told only one side of a very complex story. 

Newsweek has also forgotten its manners when it comes to our nation’s educators.  In 2010, the magazine launched a full-scale attack on teachers, dedicating their March 15 issue to the campaign for their termination.  One story in that issue was headlined “Why We Can’t Get Rid of Failing Teachers” and blamed America’s troubled school system solely on teachers, noting that “teaching in public schools has not always attracted the best and the brightest.” 

Educating young people is a complex task.  There are many factors involved with failure and success.  Engaging lessons are difficult to write.  It takes stand-up comedians months and sometimes even years to develop a successful 45 minute act, one that engages the audience and keeps their attention.  Teachers must do this four or five times a day, every day, for an entire year.  Jerry Seinfeld isn’t that good.

 The time-honored practice of making teachers scapegoats for all the problems of society and public education appears to finally be meeting some much needed opposition.  As Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote on March 4th in her article, “Punished teacher part of larger stage”:

 “After talking to Hope Moffett—the Audenried High English teacher banished to ‘teacher jail’ since Feb. 17 for daring to publicly question a School District decision—it struck me that I was witnessing a pivotal moment in time.  You know, a flashpoint. At a time when politicians are bullying teachers as sport, and the execution of educators’ rights comes disguised in the form of state budget cuts all across the nation, Moffett has emerged as a local symbol of courage and a unifying force—for public education, for teachers, for unions, and against acts of intimidation.”

To the folks like Hope Moffett I tip my hat, and hope more of America’s educators have the courage to stand up for their convictions and make their voices heard.    

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher.  His new book, The Village Proposal: Education as Shared Responsibility, will be published in the fall of 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield.