BEING AN EDUCATOR these days can feel like being in the middle of a tempest. School budgets have been squeezed, class sizes have risen in many places, and school employees frequently are required to do much more with much less. Our students too often bear the scars of America’s shamefully high poverty rate, while some people suggest that educators can single-handedly resolve all of society’s crises. School and college professionals often are required to implement top-down policies made without their input, and then they are blamed when the strategies fail.
It’s enough to demoralize even the most devoted educators and, indeed, attrition among public school employees in the United States is alarmingly high. But individual AFT members, state and local affiliates, and the national union are addressing this new reality with a new approach to unionism—what I call “solution-driven unionism.”
Solution-driven unionism is rooted in solving problems, not winning arguments. Instead of finger-pointing about how student achievement is not increasing at the pace anyone wants, the local union and its partners identify solutions and use collective bargaining as a way to aggressively and collaboratively move systemic reforms.
This concept is our compass at the national union as well. We know that this tough climate is no excuse for not having a proactive education agenda. To the contrary—it demands it. In my keynote address to delegates at the AFT national convention this summer, I highlighted examples of solution-driven unionism that don’t simply call out what doesn’t work, they point to a better way. Here is a sampling.
In Charlotte County, Fla., paraprofessionals and school-related personnel have worked with the district to create the Charlotte Academy for Support Employees, a professional development center where PSRPs choose their own coursework in languages, computer science and classroom management, earning credit toward permanent annual bonuses of up to $1,400.
Through close labor-management collaboration, AFT members in Charlotte County also have put in place a healthcare clinic where members and their families receive routine doctor visits and free prescriptions for $25 per employee per month.
The AFT also is challenging the current fixation on high-stakes testing. A new AFT resolution calls for tests to inform, not impede, teaching and learning. And we have created an online petition demanding an end to the misuse of high-stakes testing that has been signed by almost 23,000 parents, educators and students in the first month alone.
In an era when many of our members feel that school governance is more about “gotcha” than professional growth and improving student achievement, PSRPs in Connecticut have helped expand early childhood programs, create a literacy pilot program and open 20 school health clinics. And in Anchorage, Alaska, PSRP members won an AFT Innovation Fund grant for cultivating high school graduation coaches, which has helped save the program from cuts and is increasing graduation rates.
In Cincinnati, our local affiliate and its partners have created schools that put in place the conditions students need for success, particularly at-risk and low-income students. Every public school in Cincinnati offers students and their families access to wraparound services, including health and mental health services, tutoring, counseling and after-school programs. Student mobility, which can be so disruptive to a child’s education, is down. Discipline referrals have dropped sharply—keeping students in school, learning. And Cincinnati is the only urban district in Ohio to receive an “effective” rating—ranking 13th out of 609 districts on a state academic index.
At its core, solution-driven unionism unites educators with their students and communities and, in so doing, ensures that we don’t merely survive, but succeed.
Our success also rests upon electing leaders who support this concept, which is based on collaboration as opposed to conflict, and on problem-solving as opposed to finger-pointing. The tempest has not subsided, and the November elections can shape whether it continues to rage or gives way to a climate of seeking solutions for the common good.
PSRP Reporter, September/October 2012