States Opinion

Teacher Protests: “Unethical” and Union-led--or Evidence of Professional Courage?

By Nancy Flanagan — January 14, 2016 5 min read
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Reaction to the Detroit Public Schools teacher sick-outs earlier this week has been swift and heated, falling into two distinctly different camps:

#1. These teachers are hurting children! They’re unethical! They must be punished, severely. The union is behind this--as usual. It was a tactical error--the governor and legislature already see Detroit Public Schools as a drag on the state’s economic plans, and now they will never bail DPS out.


#2. Detroit teachers are at their wits’ end, for dozens of reasons--from building safety to bulging classrooms to incoherent curriculum, predatory testing--and lack of leadership or a democratically elected board. Not to mention loaned money that the DISTRICT OWES teachers. They have zero job security. Neither the Emergency Manager of the district (appointed by the governor of Michigan) nor their union (more on that later) has moved to action. Their dental insurance carrier--Delta--has even advised local dentists not to treat DPS teachers, since Delta’s not receiving payments from DPS.

Doing nothing hurts Detroit children more than whatever consequences roll down from a job action, however randomly organized. If the Emergency Manager (whose track record on protecting children is abysmal) refuses to meet personally with teachers--his human capital--and the district is sold off to the highest charter bidders, teachers end up unemployed anyway--and their school communities will be destroyed. So what good is their silence and complicity now?

Frankly, this is hard for teachers and policymakers in other states to understand. Why isn’t their union (the Detroit Federation of Teachers) serving as spear point for these egregious grievances? What is an Emergency Manager? Why wouldn’t a large urban district have an elected Board? How deep do the roots of this crisis go? Whose voices can be trusted?

It would take several blogs to explain just how fractured and screwed up (no other descriptor works) the Detroit teachers union has become. I say this with all due respect for the current official leaders, who have sought help from the AFT, and tried--swimming against a hurricane--to unify teachers.

The media, of course, looks reflexively to the teachers’ union to explain why teachers are calling in sick, rather than asking individual teachers. In Detroit, asking “the union” to explain teachers’ anger is a crapshoot.

From a DPS teacher: The sickout actions are not being organized by the union itself but rather by individual groups of teachers. If they are able to pull off what they say for tomorrow it speaks volumes about the frustration level over the current situation in DPS and in the DFT, our union.

DPS teacher: A group, headed by Steve Conn, ousted DFT president, and BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) continue to co-opt any grass roots movement as their own and use it to promote his quest to be reinstated. Mr. Conn held a meeting this afternoon, touting it as teachers taking a strike vote and then as an endorsement of the current sick outs. Many members are under the perception that the union is not doing enough, fast enough and dramatic enough to make a difference. I agree. However, at every meeting nothing can get accomplished because you have the Conn faction disrupting the proceedings and keeping everyone from having an opportunity to speak or make decisions. It is total chaos.

DPS teacher: After asking for help from the AFT since last January the DFT is finally getting that help. This last week 20 AFT reps from around the country arrived in town with the goal of speaking individually to every member of the DFT. I feel like we should give this a chance. There is no strategic plan for what teachers want and what will happen on Tuesday or any other day it they are not met. The list of demands is so long and detailed that they may not be taken seriously.

And what is it that teachers want? Media sources say: “organized sickouts are happening as teachers express frustration with cuts in health care, compensation and Gov. Rick Snyder’s plans to reform the debt-saddled school district.”

Teachers, on the other hand, are posting pictures of their moldy and dangerous buildings. Talking about buying snowpants for students so they can play in fresh air. Sharing stories about wave after wave of wrong-headed, top-down classroom “reforms” that ignore teachers’ own place-based expertise. It’s clear to DPS teachers that the blame for educational failures in Detroit has nothing to do with pique over salary reductions or cuts in benefits.

So how did things get so incredibly bad in Detroit? Ironically, DPS has been on a downslide since 1999, when then-Governor John Engler unilaterally vacated the elected Board of Education’s financial charge over its own district. This infographic explains the progression of power grabs, what has happened in Detroit as elitist paternalistic oversight replaces democracy. Read it carefully. It gets more and more unbelievable and outrageous as you go along.

DPS teacher: What about suspended democracy and the fact that control of the schools has been taken away from the citizens of the city for far too long? The state has not been able to “fix” the system in over a decade and may in fact have run it into the ground. Whatever the faults of the elected school board--and there were many--at least I was able to teach students rather than just manage the ever increasing list of tasks and demands that suck the life right out of the classroom.

What’s in Governor Rick Snyder’s latest plan to save Detroit schools (which his Republican legislature evidently plans to ignore)?

DPS teacher: The rumor and fear is that Governor Snyder’s new plan will give the schools over to what essentially amounts to charter operators making us at-will employees and taking us out of the pension system. Another scenario has DPS filing for bankruptcy and us each losing the $8500 in TIP money we lent the district several years ago under Robert Bobb [another Emergency Manager]. We have nothing except the ill-will of the current legislature on which to base our fears.

It’s wrong to characterize this string of protests as selfish actions taken by a minority of teachers--or a union-driven overreaction to a belt-tightening. There’s a lot at stake here, beginning with the survival of a major public school system. Think this could never happen in your state or district? Go back to that infographic and take note of the template for disenfranchising, then seizing a public good. It’s all there.

There doesn’t seem to be much to prevent collapse of public education in Detroit, except for the professional courage of its teachers.

DPS teacher: We have given and given and continue to give. But without a promised future, what more can we give, really? We are not, nor have we ever been the problem in Detroit and we have NEVER been included in the so-called solutions that have been heaped upon us.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.