Seattle teachers ratify agreement

September 29, 2010

Dan Trocolli explains what’s in a new contract for Seattle public school teachers.

THE SEATTLE Education Association (SEA) ratified a three-year contract with Seattle Public Schools (SPS) on September 2 that included raises of just 1 percent in the second and third years.

But after a last-minute mobilization of union members, SEA negotiators were able to beat back SPS's proposal for a punitive new evaluation system, SERVE (Support, Empower, Recognize and Value Educators).

In early August, SPS, under the direction of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, broke the mutually agreed silence on negotiations to release its proposal for SERVE. The proposal, much like that of Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s IMPACT, included changes to the evaluation system to include student growth on the district's high-stakes Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test, as well as "stakeholder evaluation," which is assumed to be student and parental input.

All new teachers would have been required to work under the SERVE system, and existing teachers would only receive pay raises if they opted into the system.

Members of Seattle Education Association rally in August
Members of Seattle Education Association rally in August

Particularly egregious components of the original SERVE proposal included changing the criteria for layoffs to be according to performance instead of seniority. SPS also wanted SERVE to include a district panel that, along with the superintendent, could reverse any teacher's evaluation--and teachers couldn't file grievances if the decision went against them.

Faced with these demands, the SEA union leadership, whose regular bargaining updates through the summer lacked any details about proposals from either side, suddenly kicked into high gear. The union notified the membership about the lies contained in the district's informational releases on SERVE. In addition, SEA leaders railed against SPS for disregarding the Professional Growth and Evaluation (PG&E) system, which was developed by SPS in collaboration with the teachers' union over the past year.

Importantly, SEA held a series of focus groups to get some feedback on SERVE. However, these were sparsely attended, having been called at the last minute. What's more, information about the PG&E system was completely absent.

After some prodding from union activists, the leadership called a rally for the school board meeting scheduled for August 18. About 200 teachers showed up and upstaged the local astroturf education "reform" group, Stand for Children, with pickets and chants of “Kids first, not tests, kids deserve the very best!” The pressure ultimately forced SPS to drop its demands for SERVE.

WHILE SEA activists were happy to see their leadership stand up against SERVE, many were surprised to learn that the union had already been working with SPS on developing another evaluation system, the PG&E.

Under the new contract, PG&E will conform to a new state law mandating two evaluation tiers--comprehensive for provisional, or new, teachers and those with poor ratings, and a general level for everyone else. Teachers will be evaluated based on four domains. Provisional teachers found to be unsatisfactory in any component of the four domains will not have their contract renewed.

However, under PG&E, even tenured teachers can be returned to the comprehensive evaluation tier by their administrative evaluator based on formal or “informal” observations. This entails a more stringent observation cycle, which allows administrators to build a case against teachers they are seeking to terminate. This decision is not subject to grievance by the union.

The PG&E also provides for teachers to elect a “career ladder” in which they will be evaluated more closely, including with student test scores, in order to become “master teachers” or coaches. These coaches would receive higher pay.

But while the new contract implements PG&E, teachers' slim raises aren't assured. Should a supplemental tax levy fail later this year, teacher pay raises will be scrapped. The expensive MAP test and new evaluation system, however, will remain.

Even without SERVE, the contract was controversial. The negotiating team reached a tentative agreement in the late hours of August 31, with details released online midday September 1. At a special Representative Assembly (RA) later that day, reps had many questions and voiced frustration with having to vote on an agreement that they received a mere handful of hours before. Ultimately, SEA representatives voted by roughly a 2-1 margin to recommend the agreement.

The next day, more than a dozen union activists, including members of the progressive caucus, Social Equality Educators (SEE), were outside the unions' General Assembly arguing for a "no" vote and to send the negotiating team back to the table.

Inside, about a dozen speakers, each limited to a minute, argued against the contract for pitting tested teachers against untested, validating the district MAP test, before a motion by the leadership to close discussion was approved.

Many speakers denounced the MAP test, which takes up 36 instructional days. Others raised the fact that Goodloe-Johnson sits on the board of the company that provides the MAP. Additionally, classified staff were absolutely livid in a change to the contract that would increase staffing ratios for English Language Learner (ELL) Instructional Assistants from 1 to 28 up to 1 to 40 students. This at the same time the contract lowers the ratio for ELL teachers!

Only a few members spoke in support of the PG&E system. Many contended that the deal was the best we can do under the circumstances. In the end, the agreement was approved by an estimated 70-30 margin. Nonetheless, this was a significant increase in an opposition vote from the contract vote a year before.

After approving the agreement, a near unanimous 1,500-plus members voted no confidence in the superintendent. After nearly a dozen schools held their own votes late last school year, SEA leadership had tabled a vote of no confidence proposed by SEE activists from a June Representative Assembly. Had the vote been taken at that time, it would have put pressure on the Seattle School Board when considering whether to renew Goodloe-Johnson’s contract in early July.

Nonetheless, the vote marks serious discontent in the union with SPS leadership and represents a disconnect of the union leadership from that sentiment. Activists from Social Equality Educators reached out to those dissatisfied teachers by promoting a panel with anti-school reform expert Diane Ravitch in Seattle on October 5.

Clearly, many voted for the contract in order to reject the much worse SERVE proposal. However, teachers will have to reconcile voting for a contract with elements of the same reforms they so clearly opposed in the vote of no confidence. Worse yet, by working with the district to craft the PG&E evaluation system, the union concedes the argument that a lack of quality teachers is the source of deficiencies in public education.

If we refuse to fight now, we will lose an important opportunity to stake out valuable political ground to stand on later.

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