First Person

Everything That is Right With Public Education

Monday night, I tweeted:

SLazarOtC: The last time I cried was 9/11. Ending a day of teaching by coming to #educationnation panel on Good Apples brought me close. What a waste.

On Tuesday night, the tears did come, but they were tears of joy, triumph, and pride.  I could not have hoped for a better catharsis following my experience at NBC’s Education Nation.

That night, my school held an event that I’ve never heard of happening anywhere else: a graduation ceremony for the 10 students who did not graduate on time with their classmates in June, but finished up over the summer. It was obviously an emotional night for the students and their families, but it also served a direct rebuttal against nearly every critique I heard of unionized urban public education at Education Nation over the previous few days.

A small group of us who had been teachers and advisers to the Class of 2010 organized the event on our own independent of the administration. We were supported by other staff at the school. We reserved a small room, made numerous calls to the students and their families, and reached out to some of our June graduates who are in local colleges to help fill out the audience. The school provided food for dinner.

Having been the teacher to work with all of the students who needed credits over the summer, as well as preparing them for the U.S., Global, and English Regents exams in August, I was filled with pride the moment I saw my students in their caps and gowns. I was most proud of my two advisees, both students that many schools would have given up on long ago.

I emceed a small ceremony for the students, filled with pomp and circumstance, but highlighted by the speech of one of my colleagues, Michael Waelter. Michael was the person most responsible for making sure this event happened, and it hit a lot of emotional notes for him. Each of the three classes my school has graduated had a teacher who most cared and advocated for that class. This class has belonged to Michael since he taught them global history in ninth grade. His speech — centered around the refrain “You are better than me” — talked about his own experience not graduating high school on time 30 years ago, and how he was too proud to take the opportunity to finish that following summer. He talked about how much more impressive it is for students who have failed, but continue to strive towards their goals regardless.

After the speech, we each presented our advisees the diplomas we had worked over four years to help them earn. We then opened the microphone for anyone to speak. Students thanked us for never giving up on them despite their faults and mistakes. Family members thanked us for all the phone calls and support. And we teachers thanked the students for inspiring us.

As I got up to close the ceremony and move us towards dinner, all the emotion of the past few days and months hit me head on. Before I even started talking, tears were streaming down my face (meeting with gasps from my colleagues and students who have never seen me loose my temper, let alone cry), and then I spoke to the room:

I have spent the past few days down at NBC for their Education Nation summit listening to so-called education “experts” talking about everything that is wrong with public education in this country. I wish they could all be here with us tonight, because everything that is right with public education is in this room right now. It starts with the parents and families who bring their children into the world and support them in the best way they know how. None of this happens without you, and it is ridiculous that NBC did not include parent voices in the summit. Then you pass your children onto us, their teachers. I couldn’t be more proud to be standing up here with these fellow teachers, who give everything they have to make sure our students learn, mature, and succeed. We have all worked so hard for you [students] the past four years, and are so proud to see you graduate today.

But most important, what is right about public education is the ten of you graduating today. Your path wasn’t easy, but you never gave up. We are so proud to see you here today. You are the reason we work so hard, why we do what we do, and why we put up with the crap our profession has heaped on us. We love you, and can’t wait to see what you do next. Congratulations.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.