Limited Taxation
Post Office Box 408     Peabody, Massachusetts   01960     (508) 384-0100

Barbara's Column
September 2000 #1

Massachusetts Teachers Association:
"For the Children"?
by Barbara Anderson

[Published in The Salem Evening News; a shorter version in The Lowell Sun]

As the commonwealth's children begin another school year and Beacon Hill prepares for the second phase of "education reform," let's go back to the beginning of the first phase.

The headline on the front page of the January 1992 MTA Today was a call to action: "It's time to mobilize!" The Massachusetts Teachers Association was preparing for the great education reform debate.

The Weld Administration, after meetings with legislative leaders, the Massachusetts Business Alliance, and the MTA, had placed its proposal on the table.

The commonwealth's largest teachers union liked the part about $800 million in new education spending, although its leadership wrote, "it's still not enough to have the statewide impact that is required," and then turned its attention to "impending attacks on job security rights - seniority, tenure, and recertification."

The MTA, as usual, had its priorities straight: more money, little accountability. The article stated the union's position on merit pay: opposed; charter schools, opposed; management empowerment: opposed.

There was a section in the union newspaper about retirement consultations, and a column recommending that "school employees should be able to retire with 20 years of service," and another column arguing against school choice. Despite the MTA's traditional support for higher taxes, there were several pages of advice to teachers on preparing their tax returns, "covering all of the deductions to which you are entitled" and advice about "tax-sheltered annuities, IRAs, and Keogh Plans."

In short, it was all about "the children."

Well, ed reform happened, and the teachers union got a commitment for new spending that has exceeded $2 billion dollars in seven years. But then-Governor Weld and enough legislators demanded concessions from the union in return, and we now have standard testing, some management empowerment, and most important, charter schools.

I recall opposing the final ed reform bill, on the grounds that there was a lot more money than reform, but now I realize: it was worth any amount of money to get a foot in the door on parental choice. Despite their mobilization, the MTA lost that battle, and in the end, will lose the war.

Once good parents see choice in action, and have a taste of control over their kids' education, they demand more and will never give it up. Children and teachers alike have been getting in line to apply to charter schools. The original cap on the number of these innovative alternatives was lifted by popular demand, and lifted again.

Now the Save A School Foundation, funded by pro-children philanthropist Lovett Peters of Newton, has made an outrageously challenging proposal: let the foundation convert 22 of the elementary schools whose students have failing scores on the MCAS exams to charter schools; if they don't improve after five years, the foundation will give the unimproved districts $1 million dollars.

"Pete" Peters is an unlikely Richard Hatch in reverse, pledging his own millions to vote the teachers union off the island. But he has Richard's sense of gamesmanship, for sure, and has "called out" the education establishment: of the superintendents whose schools "qualified" as worst, only Superintendents Frederick Kalisz of New Bedford and James Mazareas of Lynn have so far expressed interest in discussing the proposal.

Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant prefers to take on the teachers union in another way, by hiring the best teachers for new openings instead of the next in line. As he puts the best interests of the children ahead of seniority he faces a work action by the Boston Teachers Union, which does not.

Governor Paul Cellucci is urging state funding for a teacher recruitment bonus aimed at teachers in math and science where there is a shortage; now it's the MTA's turn to attack, insisting that union members continue to get paid the same, regardless of demand or specialized skill. Lt. Governor Jane Swift wants to fund volunteer tutors for the thousands of students expected to fail the 10th grade MCAS tests; the unions, who let kids receive social promotions for years, are not volunteering to cooperate.

Swift has been placed in charge of the next phase of "education reform." She may start off with a willingness to work with all interested parties but in the end she will have to choose -- as others have -- between the teachers unions and the children.

It's always been too bad that the good teachers get tarred with the same brush that has to paint the union leadership as what it is: the biggest obstacle to real education reform. Even many of the problems that teachers face in the classroom because of societal changes are due to the political action of the unions, which have usually embraced liberal politicians and their permissive agendas.

The time has come to take on the defenders of the indefensible status quo and fight for the kids -- by paying good teachers what they are worth as individual professionals, not union members, and empowering all the commonwealth's parents with choice.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

Return to Barbara's Columns page                     Return to CLT Updates page