Weaker unions won't help schools

Spring training is over, the baseball season is underway and the real games have begun. That is true at the Connecticut legislature as well.

School reform legislation, Substitute SB 24, is entering the late innings of the legislative session - except a critical part of the education reform team is being told not to take the field.

Teachers and their unions find themselves being told to take a seat on the bench by wealthy and powerful interests, from CEOs to charter management companies to out-of-state, ultraconservative, anti-union organizations. Make no mistake; they look to privatize education and run roughshod over teachers' rights in the closing weeks of what was supposed to be the collaborative Year of Education at the legislature.

Teachers wouldn't have much of a political voice without their union to give them a collective voice. So, if you wanted to weaken teachers' voices, you'd have to weaken their union by creating a false narrative. That narrative contends that the union is the protector of the status quo that's weakening our economy.

Why are teachers and their union the focus of such falsehoods? Teachers didn't wreck the economy. Wall Street investors and shortsighted bankers did. Why do teachers continue to be bashed with the false dichotomy that we cannot be for both positive change for students and for collective bargaining? It's because we've stood tall as a counterweight to the wealthy and powerful interests who want to relegate us to the sidelines in the most important education debate in a generation.

To the benefit of students and public education, teachers' voices were heard by members of the Education Committee last month as they adopted Substitute SB 24 in a 28-to-5 vote. The lawmakers' vote indicates they recognize that collective bargaining helps establish mutual respect between teachers and management, essential to accelerating student improvement. It also anchors the change process in good faith, written agreements, and a formal dispute resolution process, making everyone accountable by clearly setting expectations.

Substitute SB 24 recognizes that teacher contracts improve student learning and help attract high-quality teachers to low-performing schools. States and nations that have some of the best schools have unions that are afforded a well-deserved voice. Think Massachusetts. Think Germany and Finland.

The importance of the teachers' voice was not lost on the Malloy administration when officials invited teachers to discuss the governor's proposals last month. In the spirit of inclusivity, we encouraged that these discussions be broadened to legislative leadership. Also, it was our understanding that parallel discussions were taking place with other organizational stakeholders in school reform.

While discussions have stalled, critical reforms are contained in Substitute SB 24 and teachers stand ready to help get reform done right. Unlike the corporate privateers and union foes, who rarely set foot in a classroom, we know what is needed to prepare students for the economic challenges ahead.

We have not hesitated at the state level to take a leadership role in promoting educational improvement. We called for higher standards and better teacher evaluation when school accountability legislation was adopted by the legislature in 2010. And we've been out front for years fighting for everything from smaller class sizes to overhauling the flawed No Child Left Behind Act.

The fact remains: You can't field a baseball team with only a pitcher and catcher. And you can't achieve true improvement in our schools without teachers. We need to make sure they're in the lineup as education reform rounds third and heads for home.

Phil Apruzzese is president Mary Loftus Levine executive director of the Connecticut Education Assocition teacher union.

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