I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ronnie Greco of Jersey City: A Real Union Leader

Teachers union leaders across America, pay heed to Ronnie Greco, President of the Jersey City Education Association. This is what a real fighter for students, parents, and teachers looks like:
Dear colleagues,
I need to bring you up to date on a recent development. Several weeks ago, the administration contacted the JCEA and asked us to review an application that the district was planning to submit for a grant under the Race to the Top program. As you may know, the Race to the Top grant program is an initiative of the federal government that seeks to stimulate reform in public education. You may remember that under the first Race to the Top grant competition it 
was states that were competing for funding. You may further recall that the Commissioner of Education (and former Jersey City Mayor) Bret Schundler lost his job because he came to an agreement with the NJEA regarding the specifics of the grant application, which infuriated Governor Chris Christie.
In the current round of the Race to the Top program, it is school districts that can apply for funding. The Jersey City Public Schools administration’s application seeks $40 million in funding over a three year period. The administration wanted the JCEA to support the application and sign off on it. By supporting the application and signing off on it, the JCEA could significantly increase the odds of the grant winning the competition.
When we reviewed the document, we found a number of provisions that were impossible for us to agree to. We pointed these items out to the administration. They gave us a “revised” version of the grant on Wednesday, November 7, 2012. That was the final day that the grant could be submitted to the Department of Education in Trenton. The “revised” version changed none of the objectionable components of the grant. I could not agree to support the application, and I did not sign it. [emphasis mine]
Now, you might think this is simply a union shooting itself in the foot; by not going along, they are turning down $13 million a year over three years. Some of that had to be going to the teachers, right?

The budget in the grant has the $40 million itemized to the penny. Not one cent is dedicated to the negotiation of a new contract. Not one single cent. The grant would be our new contract. It has spelled out the extended day, extended week and extended year. These are negotiable items. It includes provisions for the removal of “ineffective” teachers. 
This is very, very important for any teacher who cares about the future of his or her career to understand: this grant would have enshrined a series of practices that would have destroyed teacher protections, compensation, and work conditions - and have never been proven to increase student achievement.

Reading through Greco's entire post, you can see the list of unproven practices that are detrimental to teachers:

  • Merit pay. Has never worked. Why people like the incoherent SecEd, Arne Duncan, insist on implementing it, I have no idea.
  • Longer school day/year. May work only if the time is spent meaningfully; the union would have to give up its right, however, to negotiate that. And who knows if the teachers would get paid for that extra time?
  • Block scheduling. May work, may not. Who knows? Why would teachers ever give up the right to negotiate it and have a say in its implementation?
  • Lead Teachers. Might be a good idea; I've always thought schools had management structures that were too horizontal. But without a clear path to becoming a Lead Teacher, like National Board Certification, the concept runs the risk of simply becoming a font of nepotism. Again, why would teachers ever acquiesce to giving up the right to working this out through collective bargaining?
It seems that the issues here are largely the same as the ones that came up during the Chicago strike: teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. If you can't show that any of these practices are going to help students learn - and, let's be clear, as Greco outlines them, you can't - then no teachers union should agree to them.

I also find it telling that the administration's budget for the grant includes funding administrative salaries. The Supervisor of Special Education's salary should not be contingent on a grant; if it's important (and it is), it should be part of the regular budget. Grants like this should not be given so districts can fund their normal operations.

Jersey City has been under some level of state control for 23 years. The teachers there have suffered under bad, top-down, state-appointed management for too long (I sincerely hope Marcia Lyles is the end of that). The community has been disenfranchised from having a say in how its schools are run. NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf pushed the ethics envelope in attending secret meetings over the appointment of the new superintendent. Charter schools connected to politically powerful people like former JC Mayor Bret Schundler are springing up. These charters often exacerbate the segregation that already plagues New Jersey's schools.

Against this tide of reforminess in Jersey City have stood two barriers: community activists and the JCEA. Congratulations to this local for not letting themselves get pushed into a deal that's bad for students, bad for the community, and bad for teachers. And congratulations to Ronnie Greco for showing us what a true social justice union leader looks like.

More like this!

ADDING: One of the other practices the JC administration apparently tried to add to the application was "looping": this is where a teacher follows the same class of students each year for several years.

Here's the thing: while looping may have some merit, a quick glance at the research shows its effect on student achievement is decidedly mixed. Putting it into a grant application makes it seem like a fad.

This is exactly the sort of practice you don't want to rush in to without some serious preparation, study, and experimentation. It's exactly the sort of thing you want to approach with great caution, and only with buy-in from all of the stakeholders.

This is what Obama/Duncan's Race To The Top has wrought: we're just throwing any old thing out there and hoping something sticks. Meanwhile, we pat ourselves on the back and revel in our "innovations."

Sorry, but this is no way to conduct policy. You don't just upend the entire system because it sounds like it might be worth trying. We need a more deliberative, research-based approach to reform; the type of reform that is actually discouraged by RTTT.


Unknown said...

You DO NOT want RttT money. Not a dime in TN has been spent in classrooms except to do endless teacher evaluations and drill for tests.

Memphis City Schools is becoming New Orleans, north. Hundreds of teachers have been fired and TfA temps are replacing them. Achievement Charter chain just informed families it taking control of 10 schools and parent protests have been ignored.

giuseppe said...

Kudos to Ronnie Greco. A union leader who is not a sell-out, doormat or Quisling, we need more leaders like this.
PS Boo hoo, Marie Corfield lost; I'm proud to say that I voted for her, twice, during the primary and the general election.

jim29er said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Teacher Mom said...


This is what is happening in FL where they did win RTT money. Don't even get me started about their evaluations. My best friend lives heir and is struggling through this right now while she reevaluates her career options. I know many of us were trepidacious when Ron took over the office, but after seeing him in action last year at a board meeting, following the fiasco with the grant at Lincoln, I knew he was the right man for the job.

plumwalk2 said...

Thank you.