Sometimes little gestures send big signals. That was certainly the case when, during their annual convention in Boston recently, the Massachusetts Teachers Association voted down a motion to congratulate Sydney Chaffee, who had recently been chosen as National Teacher of the Year.
Why would a group of Massachusetts pedagogues slight a fellow teacher, the first Massachusetts teacher to be so honored? Well, Chaffee teaches at a Commonwealth charter school, the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester — and under the combative presidency of Barbara Madeloni, charter schools are absolutely anathema to the MTA.
The MTA is free to congratulate or slight whomever it chooses, but the incident does say something about the union’s increasingly hostile posture toward charters. Fortunately, the MTA’s national parent, the National Education Association, is not so small-minded. The NEA has invited Chaffee to speak at its annual meeting, which will be held in Boston from June 30 to July 5.
Still, there’s another problematic anti-charter development in the offing, this one involving the MTA and the Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School, in Haverhill. Back in 2006, in its pre-charter existence, the K-5 school was underperforming and facing a possible state takeover. The approach to fixing those problems was to transform the school into an automatically unionized Horace Mann charter, thereby giving it more latitude to set its own course. By 2013, Silver Hill had made enough progress to win Level 1 status. That is, a spot in the state’s top school tier.
But charters must be renewed every five years; with Horace Mann charters, that renewal application needs approval from the local union. In two past instances when the school has applied for a renewal or amendment to its charter, once the school’s (union) teachers signed off, the Haverhill Education Association president at the time said yes. That’s the way other Horace Mann renewals have generally proceeded.
This time, however, current HEA President Lisa Begley says she wants all members of the MTA-affiliated HEA to vote on the charter renewal, a decision Begley says she arrived at after consulting with the MTA’s legal staff. “The law gives me the right to let every teacher vote, and I am following the letter of the law,” she said in an interview.
Based on the tone of several recent letters Begley has sent Silver Hill, including a public records request, school parents worry the union leadership is ill-disposed toward Silver Hill.
“It feels very hostile,” says Devan Ferreira, who has two children at Silver Hill and serves on a foundation that supports the school. The union vote is scheduled for June 15. If HEA members nix the successful charter, it will be a sad and telling development, one that would likely signal bad news for the eight other Horace Mann charter schools in the state.
On Beacon Hill, meanwhile, the MTA and its allies, led by state Senator Mike Rush and state Representative Marjorie Decker, are pushing legislation to eliminate the MCAS graduation exam, a key feature of the Commonwealth’s successful education reform efforts, and forbid the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from requiring districts to use student growth or progress on standardized tests as even a small part of teacher evaluation. A version of the latter measure passed as an amendment to the Senate budget.
All this is a significant departure from the role the MTA played under previous president Paul Toner; back then, the union was seen as a strong voice for teachers, but with a pragmatic focus on forging productive legislative agreements on Beacon Hill.
With its aggressive effort to roll back the accountability aspects of education reform and retrench, the MTA is quickly sacrificing any lingering reputation for seriousness of legislative purpose. Political hopefuls need to keep that in mind. It’s likely the MTA will be pushing candidates seeking its endorsement in next year’s elections to pledge their support for that same range of issues. Candidates should be careful about plighting their political troth to an increasingly combative union whose agenda would undermine important pillars of this state’s educational improvement effort.