Today the RI AFT President Marcia Reback announced that she and the majority of AFT locals will be endorsing RIDE’s RTTT round two application. This is a huge political victory for Commissioner Gist and places RI in a better position to win the $75 million in federal RTTT grant money that it’s applying for in round two. So, why do I remain skeptical?
The connection between the AFT’s change in position and the recent settlement of the teacher union-district dispute in Central Falls is obvious. In fact, no one is hiding this. What are we to think when, in the beginning we were led to believe that the decision to fire all the teachers at Central Falls High School was in the best interests of the students (a decision I disagreed with in the first place), and now it seems that saving the jobs of the 90 or so teachers is suddenly in the best interests of the students? Is this only because there’s a pot of federal gold at stake? Could it be that the outside promise of federal dollars is confounding our ability to make decisions with students and families at the center?
Commissioner Gist was careful to state to news outlets that she would never approve the new arrangement in CF that preserves teachers’ jobs if it weren’t in the best interests of students. I believe her sentiments are genuine, but only two days later it seems clear that the work to renegotiate in CF was also calculated to secure the AFT buy-in for RTTT. To my knowledge, nothing of substance with which teacher unions took issue in the RTTT application has changed (in fact, these were portions of the application on which RI scored highly, so changing them wouldn’t make much sense in terms of winning the award), and so I’m confused as to why the union would suddenly agree except for that it’s a simple quid pro quo: we don’t fire you, you “support” our reforms.
Furthermore, the new settlement in CF essentially contains the same new conditions of work that Superintendent Gallo offered in her transformation plan in the very first place. A major difference this time around (aside from the obvious drama and controversy that has surrounded this whole debacle) is that the CF teachers union actually put the approval of the transformation conditions to a vote from its membership. I suspect that if the union leadership had truly asked the membership in the first place, it would have voted “overwhelmingly” to support these changes when it was clear that the alternative would be the mess that ensued.
In any case, the federal money grab and application circus that the Obama administration has created through RTTT has held hostage debates about educational policy and reform for months now. The narrow RTTT reform agenda that further entrenches our culture of over-testing young people, demystifies teaching by deskilling it, and encourages the opening up of public education coffers to private interests, won’t do much to improve the educational lot of those most disadvantaged and underserved by our racist and classist educational institutions.
What it has done, however, is put education in the news, and at least in RI more and more people are talking about these headlines. This is a good thing. What I hope we can do moving forward as these reforms begin to take shape and we begin to sense that the change they promise may, in fact, not be on its way, is to at least use this new, more widespread engagement about education reform to build our ideas for what education should look like from the bottom up. To do this we will need information outlets that do not merely serve as mouthpieces for RIDE and local district officials, union leaders, politicians, and the self-important psuedo-reformers who have entered the education arena because it’s the new sexy thing. I hope that the dialogue that we see these folks having can be challenged by those who are actually most affected by all of this: students, parents, and grounded community members.
In a lot of ways I don’t really care what Deborah Gist, Fran Gallo, Marcia Reback, Steve Costantino, or Angus Davis is saying (or paying someone else to tell them what to say), or even how they think we need to change our education system. They don’t matter, or at least they wouldn’t matter as much if we, as students, parents, and community members, started informing, mobilizing, and organizing ourselves to demand the changes we want to see.