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At Convention, Lawmakers Talk Peace, and War, With Unions

By Sean Cavanagh — September 04, 2012 2 min read
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Charlotte, N.C.

They offered inspirational stories and instructional stories. And more than a few war stories.

One of the myriad events held on the sidelines of the opening day of the Democratic National Convention brought together a handful of state lawmakers who spoke about their efforts to press for policies—including charter schools, and performance-based teacher pay and evaluation—that were once anathema to their party, and still are in some quarters.

The event was hosted Tuesday in an auditorium a couple blocks from the main site of the convention by Democrats for Education Reform, an organization that supports those policies and has acted aggressively to protect like-minded legislators from attack from opponents, including teachers’ unions.

Some legislators on the panel described deal-making with teachers’ unions. In other cases, negotiations devolved into feuding. The panelists’ experiences, and thus the lessons they tried to offer the audience, were very different.

The Influential Author: State Sen. Michael Johnston of Colorado was the sponsor of a 2010 law that set tougher standards for tenure and performance evaluation and was widely regarded as a model for similar legislation in other states.

Johnston got partial buy-in from teachers’ unions in the state, and a measure of cooperation continued throughout the process of writing regulations to enforce the law, he said.

Colorado’s law now offers effective teachers job protections, and leaves them with a message: If you have that status, “you should walk around with your head held high, because you earned it,” Johnston told the audience.

The Collaborator: New Jersey State Sen. Teresa Ruiz talked about efforts to shepherd legislation through the statehouse that set higher standards for obtaining tenure and set tougher standards for teacher evaluation.

Ruiz negotiated with members of both parties, the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie (who signed the law) and with the state’s teachers’ unions. With nobody wanting to back down, the lawmaker and union representatives came to describe their negotiations in cautious language. “We shifted from calling it compromise to calling it collaboration,” recalled Ruiz.

The Lonely Legislator: State Rep. Marcus Brandon of North Carolina supported lifting the cap on charter schools in his state, one of the only members of his party to do so at the time. Brandon said the challenge in building support for charters wasn’t only a political one, but a parental one. Many parents, he said, even those whose children attend struggling schools, don’t understand why the nearby charter might offer a better option.

Former-Friend-Made-Villain: And then there was Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who sided with unions in strongly opposing a change to state law that reduced teachers’ collective-bargaining powers (which was later overturned by Ohio voters)—and then angered some in organized labor by backing Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s plan to overhaul the city’s schools.

Turner described the fight over the plan for the Cleveland schools as the “rumble in the jungle"—a reference boxing fans will appreciate. “The journey was tumultuous,” said Turner, who described the urgency of improving the city schools in stark terms.

“If you hair is on fire, you should act like your hair is on fire,” Turner said. The question for the Cleveland, she said, was “did we want to be a city, or a cemetery?”

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