Why we backed the ballot initiative alternative

“Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe?
Expediency asks the question: Is it politic?
Vanity asks the question: Is it popular?
But conscience asks the question: Is it right?”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Paul TonerPaul Toner
MTA President

Based on a few e-mails and Facebook posts from members who have called me a “sellout,” “traitor” and worse, it is fair to say that negotiating an alternative to the Stand for Children ballot question was not particularly safe, politic or popular in certain quarters. But I believe that it was right.

Do I wish Stand’s leaders had never filed a ballot initiative? Most emphatically yes. But the truth is that I am more disappointed that they framed the discussion and that we, the teachers and union leaders, were not the ones to lead on this issue. We must take charge of teacher quality and elevate our voices on all issues related to the profession.

Unfortunately, however, we had to deal with the reality we faced.

Stand’s ballot question contained many negative elements. Among other changes, it would have undermined our right to bargain over virtually all personnel policies, prevented part-time teachers from attaining Professional Teacher Status and blurred the distinction between PTS teachers and non-PTS teachers in layoff policies.

We met with Stand’s leaders repeatedly and urged them not to proceed. We also asked major education and parent groups and leading policymakers to press them to stop. Dozens of them did, including Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Secretary of Education Paul Reville, the Massachusetts PTA and John Walsh, the head of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Undeterred, Stand easily collected the first round of signatures needed to qualify the question for the ballot.

We challenged the attorney general’s decision to certify the initiative. When we didn’t prevail in that effort, we filed a complaint with the Supreme Judicial Court on behalf of seven plaintiffs contending that the question was not appropriate for the ballot. Many labor and education groups filed briefs supporting our complaint.

We assessed our odds of prevailing on the ballot and determined that it would be an enormous challenge. The initiative was very complicated, but easily reduced to an oversimplified sound bite: Every child deserves a great teacher; therefore, performance should be more important than seniority in personnel decisions. Our polling found that a vast majority of Massachusetts voters agreed with this proposition. Significantly, so did a majority of our members, who were polled on the issue in three separate random sample surveys.

I felt the choice was clear. We needed to take control of the debate. We received approval from the MTA Board to try to keep the question off the ballot by negotiating a legislative alternative. Our bill was crafted to get rid of the damaging provisions in the initiative that would undermine collective bargaining, PTS and due process rights. That could only be done if we could find common ground on the role of seniority.

Like most MTA members, I believe that experience is very important. Teachers — like lawyers, doctors and journalists — become masters of their craft only after years of practice. On the other hand, performance also matters. In the relatively rare cases when layoffs reach into the ranks of teachers with PTS, it is difficult to defend a policy in which a low-performing teacher who has received consistently poor evaluations is retained while an experienced but more junior teacher is laid off.

If we want to be treated as true professionals, then I believe we have to agree that performance should be the primary factor in personnel decisions — as long as we are involved in setting the performance standards through collective bargaining and can ensure that protections from abuse are in place.

In this legislation, we have protected the right to bargain over evaluations and personnel practices. Preserving those rights is huge, particularly in light of how they are being gutted in so many other states. In addition, districts must inform the state how they plan to train teachers and administrators in the new evaluation system. Only with a solid, evidencebased evaluation system in place can we have confidence that teacher performance is being assessed fairly.

Since the vast majority of teachers will be rated “Proficient” or better, I expect that seniority will continue to prevail most of the time. If a teacher has received poor evaluations for years, then that teacher’s supervisor should be held accountable. Making sure every student has a great teacher should not be something districts strive for only when there are layoffs and transfers. Rather, it should be the driving force behind managing a good school every single day.

The alternative is far, far better than the ballot initiative. We won so many concessions because we had strong arguments in our favor, a well-reasoned lawsuit, powerful allies and activist members. A ballot campaign would have satisfied the desire some members have to fight back, but the outcome was uncertain and the reputation of both organizations would have been hurt. Stand would have been labeled a tool of corporate interests, and the unions would have been accused of defending “bad” teachers.

With the alternative, I believe we fare better. Stand may claim a “victory” in Massachusetts, but in reality the organization’s reputation has taken a beating among former friends and allies. There is little love lost for Stand on Beacon Hill, and the same holds true among education leaders across the state.

By coming up with a reasonable alternative, we showed that we are willing to promote sensible change, but also willing and able to defend our core values. Those values include protecting collective bargaining and promoting quality public education for all students.

I respect the fact that some members wish we had reached a different decision. But negotiating an alternative was a judgment call made with the best interest of our members, our organization, our schools and our students at heart.