Newark Teacher Union Prez: "We Are in a War"

“My fellow [Newark Teachers Union] members: we are in a war; we are a labor union. We will act like a labor union at war; and since we did not start this war, we will not apologize to anyone for our actions.”
That’s NTU President John Abeigon, front and center on the union’s website, proclaiming NTU's pugilistic position as the city school system continues to roil over long-sought transformation efforts. The impact of NTU's militancy on district improvement plans is the one piece that is missing from  Joe Nocera’s otherwise fine review of  Dale Russakoff’s book,“The Prize,” in today's New York Times.

In recounting Newark schools’ woes, particularly education reform leaders’ missteps in implementing an improvement plan funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Nocera gives a judicious account of reform strategies, which he calls “the usual things” -- teacher accountability, expansion of charter schools, “new agreements with the teachers’ union that would allow for the best teachers to be rewarded and the worst to be fired.” He accurately notes that blunders included  “a top-down approach that infuriated the people of Newark, who felt they were being dictated to by wealthy outsiders.”

That’s all fair. But at the end of the column  Nocera’s even-handed analysis of Newark’s school system fades into naivete when he suggests that Newark’s educational unrest, which turned a mayoral race into a referendum on Cami Anderson, can be quelled by coming to terms with the Newark Teachers Union. He writes,
There is another way to approach reform, a way that includes collaboration with the teachers, instead of bullying them or insulting them. A way that involves the community rather than imposing top-down decisions. A way that allows for cross-pollination between charters and traditional public schools so that the best teaching practices become commonplace in both kinds of schools.
Okay. With the exception of Christie, no one wants to bully or insult teachers. But it’s a long way from declarations of war to “cross-pollination” and “collaboration."

RealClearEducation’s Richard Whitmire addresses this chasm in his interview today with Russakoff. As we jump in mid-way (read the whole thing), Whitmire and Russakoff have been discussing Avon Elementary School, one of Newark’s traditional district schools. Avon has a cost per pupil of $22,000  per year but only $8,000 gets to the kids because “the rest was controlled by the central bureaucracy.” (Think Russakoff’s now famous example of how the district spends $1.200 per child on custodians and KIPP charter schools, unshackled from bureaucracy, spend $400.) Whitmire asks Russakoff how school and community leaders could persuade residents that “trade-offs” must be made within the traditional school system in order to get more money to the kids.

Whitmire: You point out that janitorial services at Avon [a district school] cost $1,200 per student. Why would those janitors agree to give up those contracts? Civil service laws and seniority rules left the central office awash in clerks that weren’t needed. All this in Newark, where private sector jobs are scarce. Why would they give up those jobs? 
Russakoff: I think parents want to have schools that are equipped to do for their kids what SPARK [a KIPP school] is doing. Everyone will say, oh my God that would involve going after the unions. That would involve going at civil service. Of course it would. But until that happens nothing is going to really change. 
Whitmire: I apologize for my skepticism, but I don’t see teachers or janitors or the central office easily giving up any benefits and jobs.
I  also apologize for my skepticism. With  Dick Cheney currently occupying the iron throne and declaring war, I'm not sure how things change either, especially as parents of Newark children increasingly choose charter schools over traditional district schools. Meanwhile, NTU flails about and angrily nurses its own dimunition.

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