Expanding the Fight for Education

Jessica Wender-Shubow

The movement to reclaim classrooms from corporate education reformers is spreading beyond cities and into the suburbs.

Ginny / Flickr

Interview by
Michael Fiorentino

Except for some pockets of suburban activism around standardized testing, education policy debate in recent years has centered on cities. In places like Chicago and Boston, grassroots coalitions of teachers’ unions and community organizations are struggling to wrest control of their public schools back from the privatization program backed by hedge-funder owners and their lackeys.

Suburbs have distanced themselves from those debates. Even in the recent successful campaign against charter school expansion in Massachusetts, the suburban districts often limited their arguments to protecting their funding.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, however, the discussion around schools has been changing. A campaign for fair contracts has drawn attention to how corporate education reform is seeping into the day-to-day operations of affluent schools.

Brookline educators have turned the contract negotiation process into an argument against the increasing disempowerment and abuse educators experience. Michael Fiorentino, a Brookline Educators Union member and socialist, spoke with Jessica Wender-Shubow, the president of the Brookline Educators Union, about this campaign.

Michael Fiorentino

How has this contract fight shaped the political terrain in Brookline?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

The contract campaign, which started in 2014, has shaken up the town’s liberal consensus. This isn’t the first time this has happened in Brookline — in 1990, we had a major battle over replacing the “great white male” canon with a more inclusive one.

But recently, residents became concerned that Brookline educators were struggling for too long for a fair contract. So a progressive labor-community coalition of unusual size and breadth began to come together.

Michael Fiorentino

In a recent interview with Dissent, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni described how the union has attempted to change its organizing model and empower the rank and file. How has this approach played out in Brookline, and what issues have rank-and-file educators highlighted as priorities?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

The town of Brookline has always prided itself on the quality of its teaching staff, and, in turn, Brookline teachers have expressed their loyalty to the school system. Yet, when union activists asked the 1,100 members what should be taken to the bargaining table, it became clear that Brookline was also experiencing the national problem of diminishing teacher morale.

Teachers said they wanted to be paid fairly, but that wasn’t all. As one teacher told me, “There is no amount of money that could make okay what is being done to my job.” She wanted “relief from paperwork and top-down mandates.”

Teachers and case-load specialists, librarians and nurses, middle-level administrators, and classroom aides were all saying that educators were losing control over their teaching in the name of “data-driven” programming and the new buzzword, collaboration.

Despite all the meetings they had to attend with other teachers, educators rarely found themselves doing what they found valuable. Called on to spend time on committees charged with refining new “standards-based” initiatives, teachers felt their time with students was being disrupted, that they could not prepare for their classes, and that they had less and less time to devote to their families, their union, their community, and to true creativity in teaching.

Quantified “benchmarks” were taking up more and more of the day, crowding out teachers’ professional and personal autonomy. Thus, when a negotiating team put together its package of proposals, it aimed to secure more employee control over work time.

Michael Fiorentino

The School Committee in Brookline, the elected body in charge of the budget and policies for the district, markets itself as progressive. How do you account for their staunch opposition to the kind of autonomy in the classroom that the union is advocating for?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

The increased autonomy the union is fighting for does not mesh with the sort of autonomy that corporate education reformers prefer. “Autonomy” is often defined in purely individualistic terms these days, and that poses no threat to control from above.

Consider the current neoliberal interest in rebranding workers as “human capital.” This language helps employees see themselves as innovators who are at once as free — but also as insecure in their jobs — as any start-up entrepreneur would be. In public education, they find themselves increasingly beholden to the philanthropy-industrial complex. Capital celebrates “innovation” and the related “creative disruption” of more stable institutional arrangements in all quarters now.

Here in liberal Massachusetts, the governor appointed venture capitalists to his top education positions. He encourages management to exercise “creative non-compliance with collective bargaining agreements.” More striking has been Brookline’s growing awareness of the composition of its school committee, which is dominated by employees of Bain Capital’s pro-charter, pro-privatization venture philanthropy arm, Bridgespan.

Bridgespan’s flagship “Billionaire Dollar Bets” eschew local democratic oversight of family intervention and community development, preferring to enlist billionaires to address poverty directly. Meanwhile, wholesale economic and political dispossession of marginalized communities continues.

This kind of leadership displaces communitarian values, including respect for collective bargaining, and encourages competitive individualism. This attitude is seeping into Brookline’s public schools. New, higher-status positions are being invented with names such as “teacher-leader” and “literacy coach.” While specialists and teachers have traditionally acted as equals, these positions are designed to promote someone’s idea of “best practice” in what are increasingly hierarchical work relationships.

General education teachers are also encouraged to participate in a range of committees that address agendas set by administrators or policymakers. Their work resembles being on a consumer focus group. Their token presence is then cited as evidence that teachers have a voice, and that “the teachers” have sanctioned the product. But what about the rest of faculty?

In this kind of environment, being a wonderful teacher is no longer enough, and the legacy of different, but still worthwhile, approaches to pedagogy is forgotten. Add to this the use of standardized metrics as a primary, if not exclusive, measure of whether an educator is “adding value,” and it becomes easy to see how schools can begin to look like markets where educators and students engage in transactions rather than in the creative processes of teaching and learning.

Michael Fiorentino

What strategies has the union used to build momentum around the campaign?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

As part of the contract campaign, educators were encouraged to speak about what was happening in their classrooms to parents, the school committee, and town meeting members. Two hundred union members lined both sides of the hallway to of the auditorium where town meeting, the town’s legislative body, was being held.

Small meetings were arranged all over the district where parents and educators talked. The union made fliers that compared educators’ vision in contrast to the school committee’s.

For months, union educators hammered away at the committee’s refusal to agree to a work oversight committee that “had teeth.” Educators debated what it would mean to have a true voice in education policy. They told parents how disrespectful the district was in their refusal to respect teachers’ insights. They talked about the top-down and patronizing character of “collaboration” that actually refuses to commit to giving teachers a voice.

Parents have responded well to the campaign. They were shocked to learn about the time teachers were being made to waste on paperwork and data. They had not understood how programming was being imposed from above.

The parents began to speak out at a series of school committee meetings with teachers and paraprofessionals. Pairs of schools teamed up to organize turnout for a given meeting. Dozens of supporters turned out for meeting after meeting. Parents were appalled by how unresponsive the school committee was to them, too.

It was becoming clear to more and more people that the school committee had no idea how to engage in true dialogue with members of the school community and the town. A new organization of parents formed that was not beholden to the conventional channels like the PTO or school site councils.

The union has productive relationships with the PTOs in Brookline. But the parent support for educators in their contract fight led to a new, independent body, the Brookline Parents Organization (BPO). The BEU of course values its relationships with the PTOs, but an independent organization, lacking any institutional obligations to the school committee, has more of a free hand to build community support for the union. Those parents joined teachers in a continued dialogue with individual PTO activists.

The parents worked with teachers to place 750 lawn signs that said “We Trust and Support our Teachers” and hundreds more bumper stickers that read “Fair contracts for Brookline Educators Now.” A support petition with over eight hundred names became an active information-sharing device. A discussion began about the need for a new school committee.

The union also models its vision in its bargaining practice. One bargaining team represents all job categories, and all members of each bargaining unit advocate for one another. Because the team knows that they are beholden to the union’s membership, which will vote on whether or not to ratify the contract, all constituent parts are kept in mind.

Out of this process, battle lines have emerged not only over wages but also over who will control schooling. We’ve rejected the idea of secret bargaining in favor of an open discussion with parents. The educators have built a mutually respectful relationship between the union and community organizations based on trust. The struggle is pointing to the possibility of a full-scale political realignment in Brookline along a gender- and race-inflected fault line of class.

Michael Fiorentino

What do you mean by that?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

In testimony before the school committee, at breakfasts before school organized by teachers and their room parents, and on informational picket lines, parents and union educators have connected. Through those connections, they’ve developed a new, common understanding of what education can and should be. They are pointing to the damage caused by management that uses data to devalue care-work that is gendered feminine and therefore treated as less legitimate. This justifies top-down control.

The leaders of Brookline’s campaign have been the teachers and paraprofessionals who work with the youngest children. They are especially sensitive to the importance of relationships in social and emotional learning, and they understand that rigid benchmarking can do a disservice to children who learn at different rates and in different ways. For example, classroom aides have criticized minute-to-minute data collection because it makes it impossible to support children in creative play.

There are problems across the grades and across disciplines. Physical education teachers have reported that they have to carry tablets into the gym where they direct each child to jump so they can check off how high. “Tiered intervention” systems require extensive data collection before a child can receive individualized services.

Thus a child who needs constant eye contact from a Speech and Language Pathologist does not receive one-to-one treatment. That child returns to the classroom frustrated and apt to disrupt the class.

Such stories have raised questions about what philosophy of education should drive funding priorities and guide how educators use their time. Teachers are protesting because they want to teach the whole child, and the community is responding with support.

Michael Fiorentino

How does this preoccupation with standardized data reinforce racial imbalances in the district?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

A reliance on standardized data helps create a disempowered and compliant multiracial workforce. But if you asked the Brookline school leadership if this is their goal, they would surely be offended.

Racial equity and removing barriers are their priority, they say. But theirs is an approach is designed to pull select individuals from dispossessed communities. High performers can then climb out of those communities and up the social and economic ladder.

Union educators, by contrast, want to use the bargaining process to push for working conditions and compensation that can give students more agency, for better support for educators of color and for more time to do racial justice work and build community.

To oppose reductive quantification and other forms of standardization, the union worked to include all members, who were encouraged to speak from their own experience. All educators were given ways to express themselves in their own voice together. This diversity, inclusion, and freedom to speak the truth became a hallmark of the contract campaign.

Michael Fiorentino

What are the next steps for the struggle?

Jessica Wender-Shubow

Thanks to community support and member solidarity the Brookline Educators Union has already won language that gives educators more say in how their time is spent. On March 15, they reached an agreement on the final contract for paraprofessionals. The tentative agreement for teachers requires the administration to show that programming does not violate contractually protected planning time. The union also filed a grievance that says that management must give teachers time to plan the social and emotional learning and diversity training the district says it values.

The majority of paraprofessionals have won the single greatest wage increase in one Brookline contract, but it is not enough. The raise depended on creating an arbitrary two-tiered wage schedule that introduces hierarchy and destructive competition into the corps.

The tentative agreement does have a provision requiring the district to discuss fair scheduling and job security, and this is a foundation for organizing for the next round of bargaining. Brookline’s celebration of diversity, including on its school committee and in its hiring, has done little to end poverty wages for the jobs where educators of color are concentrated at all levels of staff hiring. Also on March 15, Brookline’s progressive community and the union held a public forum on the schools our communities deserve.

More and more people are seeing that corporate education reform is damaging education and democratic communities in poor and affluent communities alike. Educators and parents know that this movement to reclaim community-driven schooling and to make the collective bargaining contracts more fair is a long-term project. In Brookline, we’ve realized that collective bargaining agreements can be an important defense of public education.