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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, December 26, 2005

Winning Back the Public Mind

It is well known that the MTEA (Milwaukee Teacher's Education Association) suffered a big blow this fall when an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of the School Board's contract proposal. Teachers now are required to pay part of their health insurance premium, and were saddled with a plan that the Union believes (and quite possibly rightfully so) will only solve short-term financial problems within the District, without addressing more pressing long-term questions regarding health-care as a whole.

Personally, I think that the Union not only lost out on the health-care issue, but lost an opportunity to make gains in other areas, because of their inability to take their eyes off the big prize and fight for things that the public as a whole would have been more likely to support. Unfortunately for the Union, their "Attract and Retain" campaign had good intentions behind it (provide a better eduation for children by keeping quality educators in the city), but was perceived by the public at large as a selfish, me first type campaign (We deserve better health insurance than most people because our jobs are hard). As a result of this perception, the Union lost vital support from the public at large in their battle to maintain a compensation package capable of keeping educators from fleeing to easier jobs in the suburbs.

So what now? With another negotiation pending, what can the MTEA do to make some gains for its members. How can teachers change the public's perception back to thinking they are noble civil servants and not a bunch of lazy whiners. I think I have a few ideas. These are ideas that if used by the MTEA, may help change some public perception about teachers and at the same time put money back in teacher's pockets.

Merit for Math: One problem the District is facing is a huge shortage of qualified math and science teachers. While the Union may not be able to convince the public that across the board salary increases for all of its members are in order, I am of the opinion that a more targeted approach might be met with less resistance. In particualar, if a merit component is included.

Fortunately, math is one subject that is not nearly as affected by test bias in the standardized arena. Due to this fact, this is one subject where standarized testing may have some merit. If the Union wishes to help some of its members, this is one area they could target. Why not fight to increase the salary of the District's math teachers, by incorportating a merit component that could add to the salary of those teachers deemed most effective by using a formula that includes standardized test results, evaluations, and also incorportates certain demographic data? This truly would be a campaign to attract qualified educators in an area of desparate need, and would be met with more enthusiasm by the public, since it would be tying pay into performance. The salary increase needn't be punative for those math teachers that are on the lower end of the curve, it would simply serve as incentive for math teachers to stay in the District, and for those already in the District to work harder.

Education for Educators:

Every teacher complains that the classes they need to take for recertification are expensive. This is a legitimate gripe. However, keeping up with current research and trends in education is a vital component to having a vibrant, innovative classroom. Teachers that take challanging classess that force them to collaborate and be inventive in the classroom arena, do become more effective. Why not use this as an area of focus in contract negotiations? The general public may not see teachers having benefits superior to their own as a necessity, but they may be sympathetic to some sort of tuition reimbursement for teachers, partly because it is mandated that teachers take these classes, and also because they really do benefit the kids. Fighting for tuition reimbursement does not appear nearly as self centered as fighting for better salary or medical benefits. But it ultimately it does the same thing. If a teacher were to receive a $1000 credit toward recertification expenses every five years, that's $1000 going directly in their pocket. However, if you fight for this under the guise that it's to improve the teacher's ability to educate children, this goes over a lot better with the public than fighting for things that appear only to benefit the teacher's at an individual level.

Equity in Funding:

Though this component is more of a lobbying effort not directly tied to contract negotiations, it is something that the MTEA should be spending their dollars to fight for. Anyone who has compared North Division to say..Wauwatosa West, can easily determine that Milwaukee's schools are not funded nearly as well. The stark contrast between the many dilapidated schools in Milwaukee compared to their suburban counterparts is stunning.

If there is anything the MTEA could fight for that they might actually be able to get the public to rally behind them on, it's achieving equity in funding between suburban and urban schools. The fact is that the system of property tax funding for schools in inherently unfair. The demographics behind urban schools (generally families with more kids, and households with less money) results in either having urban schools spending way less per pupil than the suburbs, or burdening its tax base with unrealistic expectations. Whether they like it or not, suburban residents do have an interest in whether the children in cities are educated, and if they wish to selfishly keep the keep their taxes within their own small domains, it is only because they can't see the bigger picture (That being vibrant urban areas with well-educated residents that can provide an economic base which allows suburbs to flourish). If the MTEA is smart, it will devote a large amount of it's time and energy to promoting this cause, and if they were successful, they'd find an interesting financial benefit for its members, more money in their pockets, because they'd no longer be forced to spend so much of their own money to create a decent classroom.

It will be interesting to see if the MTEA continues its present strategy of stark, bold, defiance toward everything the Board proposes, or if it gets smart and grabs onto issues that the public would see as having value. The Union has the opportunity to be creative in creating a better working environment for its constituents. Do you agree, disagree, have other ideas? I'd love to see them in the comments section.

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