Rebutting the anti-union assault: A conversation with Oregon’s teachers union

OEA executive director Richard Sanders and president Gail Rasmussen. Photo by Adam Bacher, courtesy OEA.

Teachers unions are under attack across the nation, facing proposals to diminish their collective bargaining rights, lower teacher licensing requirements, eliminate seniority rights, and replace step pay scales with “merit pay” set-ups based on student test scores. The Labor Press spoke with Richard Sanders and Gail Rasmussen of the Oregon Education Association about the fight. Sanders became OEA’s executive director in January — after decades in Massachusetts as a union organizer and trainer. Gail Rasmussen, a longtime support worker in Oregon’s Eagle Point School District, is in her second and final two-year term as OEA president. The interview took place Aug. 24 and has been edited for brevity.

Will anything be different this school year for teachers or students as a result of battles that were fought this year in the Oregon Legislature?
Sanders: People who work in education show up at school every day determined to do wonderful things for students. But when this school year opens, it will be another in a succession of years where the state has continued its disinvestment in education. There will be at least 10 percent fewer people working in the schools than there were just a couple of years ago. The state will be spending nearly $3 billion less than the funding goal for education that was set a decade ago. Class sizes will be much greater in most school districts, and supplies will be more dated or lacking altogether. Yet people will go into the classroom and do their best.

What would K-12 education look like if OEA really were the most powerful political force in Oregon, as some people assert?
Rasmussen: For one, we would have a sustainable revenue source.
Sanders: The people who do the work in schools would sit at the decision making tables as equal partners. Students would be known by educators because they’re not overwhelmed by the number of students. There’d be investment in people. Buildings would be clean and modern and safe, technology appropriately used, textbooks up-to-date. There’d be art, music, sports in the schools. It’s not that complicated to reform education if you’re willing to invest money in frameworks that work. What we know doesn’t work is an increased reliance on a test regime to determine whether children are making progress. This test-driven model, built on punitive structures for teachers, is not what the rest of the world is doing, and it’s not what the affluent in this country support for their own children.

Yet standardized testing is central to the idea that teacher pay should be linked to test score improvements — instead of experience on the job.
Sanders: There’s a corporate agenda here. It’s part of the assault on the public sector in general, and part of an assault on public employees. It’s easy to blame teachers when you want to get away from the focus on the disinvestment in education and the public sector and in our communities. They also argue that experience doesn’t matter. That’s completely contrary to evidence. If you just look at test results, teachers in their first three to five years have far less success. And 50 percent of educators leave within in the first five years.

In teachers union contracts, a step pay schedule rewards employees for sticking around, and seniority is a factor in transfer and layoff. Seniority is a historic union principle, but teachers unions in particular are being criticized for it. Why is it worth defending?
Sanders: It’s really interesting that education is virtually the only profession where experience is now being devalued and actively attacked. There may be geniuses, like a rookie of the year, but exceptions aside, in every other profession, there’s great value attached to experience. The senior partner in a law firm gets more money than the junior — there’s a recognition that years of experience contributes to wisdom and technical expertise that’s of higher value. In the medical profession, do you want the intern to be doing the heart surgery, or the experienced doctor?
Rasmussen: Do you take a brand new MBA and expect them to run a bank?
Sanders: This kind of education reform is driven by outsiders, rarely by people who have experience as educators. Educators are dismissed as having a vested interest in defending the status quo. But let’s  understand the status quo. Go out and observe what’s working before you dismiss seniority. Go in a classroom with a 20-year veteran.

The same reformers who argue that teacher experience doesn’t matter then argue that training doesn’t matter either – for example, proposing that charter schools should be able to hire teachers who don’t have teaching licenses.
Sanders: It’s patently absurd. You’ve nailed the contradiction. They tried to drive that in Oregon this year. We value young energetic people coming into the schools, but the idea that you could walk into a classroom and be an immediate success is completely defied by the data.

There’s also a push to separate teachers and their union. Reformers will say they love teachers but not the teachers union.
Rasmussen: The union is a group of individuals together in a common cause. Educators want to have a voice in the things that matter when it comes to educating students. But around the country our voices our being minimized. People don’t understand how we work, that we are a democratic organization.
Sanders: The polling is pretty consistent: Positives for educators are in the mid to upper 70s. After years of constant attacks on the quality of education, it’s pretty remarkable. And in this climate, it’s remarkable that over 50 percent have a favorable view of teachers unions. That said, we have not made teaching and learning the centerpiece of our work. Like a lot of unions, we’ve focused on wages and benefits and job security and members’ rights.  I don’t think there’s any question that the vast majority of union members — no matter what they do — are like our members: They take pride in the work, they acquire skills over time, and in most cases could do the work without all that much supervision and do a good job. Yet unions continue to focus on wages, benefits, and member rights. Those things are immensely important. But we’ve conceded too much of the control of the work we do.

We haven’t talked about what many reformers regard as a magic bullet – charter schools. What’s your position on charter schools?
Rasmussen: I think it’s incredible that we siphon funds out of the public schools to fund charter schools, when we don’t seem to find funds to adequately fund and support schools for all kids.
Sanders: The evidence is in, and it shows that the vast majority of charter schools perform no better and in many cases do worse than traditional public schools. Research also demonstrates that when charter schools are successful it’s because they winnow out students who are problematic. The thing that’s really heartbreaking about this is that the charter school movement was begun 20-some years ago by public school educators as a space to try out all kinds of innovations. But by the mid ‘90s when the voucher movement had failed, charter schools became the pet of the corporate sector that’s trying to drive education reform in a particular direction, to undermine public education and weaken all unions. Charter schools were originally intended to be laboratories for innovation that would be brought into the public schools. Now they’re an opportunity for entrepreneurship in education, which is a dangerous path to be going on. There are big investors in it because there’s a lot of money to be made. We saw the next step in that evolution here in Oregon this year with the online charter school bill, which funds for-profit online charter schools. That’s the next step in the evolution of this movement — an opportunity for people to make money off education.

Pretty soon we can just employ instructors in India to teach our kids via Skype.
Sanders: [Laughs] That’s where we’re going.

Should all union members, all working people, be concerned about attacks on the teachers union?
Rasmussen: Yes.
Sanders: Think about it. At this point, public sector unions are the largest unions left in the state. We’ve seen it in other states, the assault on public sector unions. But our members are middle class workers. Ours is a struggle not just to defend our union, but all unions; not just to defend public education, but to defend public services; not just our members, but working people and the labor movement. We have a good relationship with other unions in the state, and we’re all coming together around ballot measures. I think we’re getting ready to go on the offense and not be on the defense any more.

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