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E4E teachers seek greater voice in policymaking

“For far too long, teachers have been treated as subjects of change, not agents of change,” said Sydney Morris, E4E co-founder and co-CEO.

Minnesota educators Lee-Ann Stephens and Laura Byard attended a dinner hosted by Educators 4 Excellence.
Courtesy of Educators 4 Excellence

The national organization Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) is expected to announce today that it has joined forces with a fledgling group of Twin Cities teachers who want a bigger voice in education policy and has appointed one of the local group’s founders, Madaline Edison, the new chapter’s first executive director.

If the group’s track record in other cities is any indication, the move has the potential to change both the influence teachers have over policy issues here and the tenor of the debate over the role of teachers unions. The invitation to become an E4E chapter will give the local group resources that could enable rapid expansion.

It won’t be without controversy, however. Already some 300 Twin Cities teachers, most of them union members working in mainline public schools, have signed a “Declaration of Teachers’ Principles and Beliefs” that calls for a number of reforms, including using student test scores in teacher evaluations, creating performance-based pay structures and ending the practice of “last-in, first-out” layoffs.   

Focusing only on those hot-button issues misses the point, say Edison and E4E’s national leaders, in Minnesota recently to deliver the news that an exploratory year had demonstrated enough interest to merit the creation of a full-fledged chapter. The aim is to give teachers a greater voice in making policy on many issues.  

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“Overwhelmingly teachers say, ‘I want my union, we need a strong union, but I want my union taking on issues like teacher quality,’” said Sydney Morris, E4E co-founder and co-CEO.

‘Teachers treated as subjects of change’

“For far too long, teachers have been treated as subjects of change, not agents of change,” Morris added during a meeting with a small group of members here. “The past year has demonstrated to us that the need is here. We feel like the time is absolutely ripe.”

E4E is one of a handful of relatively new initiatives nationwide attempting to give teachers a role in policymaking. Another, Teach Plus, helped to alter the teachers’ contract in Indianapolis to require that effectiveness be taken into account when laying off teachers with less than six years experience, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Critics have maintained that the groups are attempting to force an outside agenda that most teachers don’t agree with. Among other things, they fault the groups’ funding by philanthropic concerns that have spent large sums on education reform.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made grants to at least two of them, including a $1 million grant to E4E, according to the Journal. The nonprofit’s website doesn’t list its funding sources, but its IRS disclosures [PDF] show it received $339,000 in 2010 and $1.9 million in 2011.

To put that in perspective, the MFT raises slightly more than $3 million a year in dues; its parent labor organization at the national level spent more than $11 million on federal political races in 2012 alone.   

It wasn’t politics or union issues that propelled Edison to start organizing teachers, however. Like most new teachers, she charged into her first job full of idealism. She had victories with her class of English-language learners at St. Paul charter school College Prep Elementary, but often felt overwhelmed by the scope of the unmet need.

Systemic issues

“By year three I was despondent about the bigger systemic issues,” Edison said. “I kept asking for more, but everything I got was piecemeal. I started talking to friends in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).”

While their problems were similar, none felt like they had a very good place to turn. “My friends in the district schools had the union, and I felt like that’s where they should have that opportunity,” Edison said. “It struck me that this was an organizing issue.”

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She and five other teachers formed a group they called Empowering Educators for Equity and started networking in their schools. Soon, they had 80 interested teachers. In March 2012, they reached out to E4E, only 2 years old itself.

“It’s almost identical to what happened in New York in 2010,” said Morris, who hatched the idea for the first organization with fellow teacher Evan Stone as the two commuted every day from the East Village to a school in the Bronx. “We started with 12 teachers and a declaration of principals. Now we have 7,500 teachers in New York, a Los Angeles chapter and one opening in Connecticut.”

Local foundation support

The Twin Cities group became an E4E “project,” with funders including the Minneapolis, McKnight and St Paul foundations and the Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children. One of its first activities was to form teams that are discussing early childhood education, the DREAM Act and the contract between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and MPS.

Later this month Braulio Carrasco will begin teaching at MPS’ Emerson Spanish Immersion School, following a five-year stint at the district’s Richard Green Central.

Green is about 70 percent Latino. Almost all of Carrasco’s students there were first-generation immigrants and a majority came from families with at least one undocumented member.

“When I first sat down with Madaline I had tough questions about what their aims were,” he said. “I really like the vision of being an agent of change. We’re agents in the classrooms we’re in but I like the idea of being an agent in making change in the community.”

Engaging on immigration issues

He had been working on immigration issues for several years. The idea of engaging around them with other teachers was exciting. It’s been gratifying to spend time with other teachers who see the impact — and the possibility for making a difference — in their classrooms.

“When I think about it, I think about Pedro,” said Carrasco. “I think about holding him in my arms because they had taken his dad. He was a mess for like six months.”

Another policy team took up the topic of early-childhood education. Its members kept abreast of legislation that would fund pre-K scholarships for low-income families and testified at the Legislature.

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“We were able to deliver a huge packet of hundreds of signatures to both conference committees,” said Lee-Ann Stephens, a former Teacher of the Year who works with African-American and Latino Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate students at St. Louis Park High School.

A teacher at MPS’ Anne Sullivan, Laura Byard grew up in a staunch union household. When Chicago’s teacher union struck last summer, she found herself ranting at her husband, feeling angry and strangely powerless. “My husband said, ‘What are you going to do?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to wear red!’”

Solidarity isn’t enough, she continued. “If we lose our teachers unions, people like my parents wouldn’t have had the opportunities that got them where they are,” she said. “We need the union there to keep pounding on the door of the state legislature and keep saying we need lower class sizes. But we also need to take control of what we can now.”

Studied teacher contract

Byard is one of the E4E members who met regularly over the winter to read and try to understand the district’s notoriously complicated teacher contract, hundreds of pages long. Union background notwithstanding, she had as little understanding what was in it as most teachers.

“ ‘I don’t know’ — that’s where all the power just goes away,” she said. “We need to know what it is we’ve signed up for. We need to know what we’re fighting for.”

In May, member Holly Kragthorpe, a teacher at Ramsey Middle School, moderated a meeting between 35 educators and MFT President Lynne Nordgren. In contrast to critics’ charges about the group, the meeting was lively and friendly, she and Edison said.

The audience told Nordgren their top priorities were learning time, teacher-collaboration time and teacher hiring. More than half wanted cited teacher quality as their top priority.

“One of our big priorities for next year is to be more involved in the union,” said Edison. “There are lots of ways we see teachers finding their voices in the union.”

The local group’s shift to E4E chapter status will give Minnesota teachers a voice on national issues, too, added Edison. “It will really magnify what we are able to do,” she said. “It will magnify the way teachers can be involved in policy work.”