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A Tale of Two Cities: Fear and Hope in Education Policy and Unions

owens-thumb.jpgSteve Owens is a National Board Certified Teacher from Vermont and a 2010-2011 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the US Department of Education. He is a member of the Vermont National Education Association (VT-NEA) Board of Directors and a music teacher in two elementary schools.

The views Mr. Owens expresses in this guest blog post are solely his own.

Last February, two very different narratives played out in Denver and Madison.

In Madison, political vandals tried to take out one of the state's great civic institutions: public sector unions. Unions were radically reduced in their capacity to bring the wisdom of the practitioner voice to policy. They were loaded down with legal requirements designed to hobble them with an obsession with mere survival. They lost legal rights to speak for workers in any meaningful way. We know the story: it was big news.

In Denver, overshadowed by events in Madison, the US Department of Education convened a Labor-Management Collaboration Conference. Here, a very different narrative played out. Unions were treated not as enemies to be destroyed, but as valued partners in the policy process. Twelve districts that had collaboratively integrated their union voice, and twelve locals who had responded with care and creativity were highlighted as models. Over 150 districts sent teams of administrators, political leaders, and union leaders to learn from these twelve districts.

The intent and effect was to build the capacity of unions, administrators and boards to work as partners for the goal of great student learning. On display was a uniquely American version of what has long been achieved in Europe: integration of labor as a valued voice in making better policy, and not as a political enemy to be neutralized or destroyed.

The conference, which the Department regarded as a first step, was superbly documented on ED's website. I was part of a team of researchers from the department's Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Initiative studying the twelve featured districts with an eye to uncovering skills, knowledge, language and dispositions that could port collaborative success to other districts.

I am also a union activist, president of my local, and a board director for my state affiliate. I look at these events from this dual perspective.

I cannot grace the political vandals of Wisconsin with the name "Republican." These people are not the Republicans I know, the ones I grew up with in upstate New York. Real Republicans care about government, public policy, and the quality of civic discourse.

The Wisconsin events reduced our collective ability for civic discourse.

Three times in the last week I have sat in union meetings listening for hours to the litany of evils emanating from Wisconsin. The actions coming out of these meetings are entirely built around fear - fear of more Wisconsins. It reinforces a circle-the-wagons mentality. Fear sucks all the oxygen out of a room and suffocates hope. It stifles agents of change, drowning their voices in the soft corruption of business as usual.

Any good union negotiator will tell you that you have to control the table. By reacting, by pouring all resources into this particular fight, we have lost control of the table. Control of the table means control of the narrative. By accepting this narrative, unions fight on enemy turf, battling for public support in a conceptual framework not of their own making.

My frustration as a union leader is the extreme difficulty of promoting a progressive unionism in the context of institutions obsessively focused on self-preservation.

What is lost in the confusion is the positive story, the winning narrative. Not winning because unions win and others lose, but because everybody wins. The story of Denver is one of mature, responsible adults joining together in constructive civic dialogue with one common purpose: great student learning. This is a goal that stakeholders can unite around. Serving this goal means that participants make tough decisions to trade power over people for positive influence over mutually valued ends.

Unions need to organize around education quality. In the long run, addressing the deeply felt service motivation and professionalism of teachers will promote their legitimate economic and political interests.

Organizing around quality speaks to the better angels of our nature and provides a compelling point of contact with other stakeholders.

Organizing around hope rather than fear will bring more engagement from rank and file and ultimately make the union more effective in bringing a measure of control to the lives of education workers.

Students must remain our focus. Our policies and our collective bargaining agreements should be educational improvement plans that can fit through that gateway which protects the well being of children. They should not be a means to manipulate the public to pay extra for more of the same, nor be mechanisms to shift the costs of the public goods onto the backs of education workers. That is the path to perdition. The theme of the Denver LMC was communities uniting to put the best interests of children first, deploying enormous creativity and democratic engagement of stakeholders to find fair and equitable technical means to this end.

So here is a tale of two very different cities, Madison, city of fear, and Denver, city of hope. I am torn between Madison and Denver. As a good union activist, I join with my sister and brother education workers to heal the awful wound which was inflicted in Madison. But as an educator, my heart, my soul, and my mind are in Denver.

-Steve Owens

What do you think? Has the current polarization in the education policy debate resulted in such a level of aggression, fear, and self-preservation that meaningful dialogue about what is necessary for sustainable education improvement is no longer possible? What can be done to reshape this debate?

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