Why we should care about a $15 minimum wage

Ira Fader
General Counsel
November 28, 2017

The MTA Legal Services Division filed a lawsuit in 2014 after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took over control of schools in Holyoke and New Bedford. We claimed that, among other things, DESE’s “turnaround plans” failed to address the issue of poverty as required by the “takeover” statute. We saw the same missing pieces in DESE’s approach when it later took over the Holyoke and Southbridge school districts. The health, social and economic needs of the students and their families were simply not part of the state’s plan for taking over troubled schools and districts.

Now, fast-forward to the 2018 ballot, which will include questions about raising the state’s minimum wage and improving family and medical leave rights of all employees — and ask these questions:

The answer to the last question is easy: Yes, collective bargaining is the answer — except that most workers in the United States are not unionized. They do not receive the benefits of collective bargaining.

The answer to the second question is troubling: The great majority of our membership is paid well above the proposed minimum wage. But not all of our members! An increase in the minimum wage would create a new floor from which to bargain improvements for our most underpaid colleagues.

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The answer to the first question is the most compelling. Simply put, there is a strong relationship between a real living wage and student learning.

Lifting those who receive poverty wages is critical to educational effectiveness in communities where this ballot law would mean the most. The impact of poverty on student growth and achievement is beyond dispute. A student who is hungry or undernourished, who is without adequate health care, whose family is struggling to make ends meet, who did not have access to early childhood education, whose housing is substandard and whose streets are perilous: All of these social, health and economic problems have an enormous influence on that student’s ability and readiness to come to school and learn. For working students in our higher education institutions, a wage increase might be the difference between being able to afford college and dropping out. 

The debate these days is what to do next.

Popular among the education reform crowd is the idea that education itself can end poverty and income inequality. The so-called “reformers” argue that we can close the achievement gap and lift students to new levels of educational attainment and economic security just by fixing schools. How? The solution, they say, lies in standardized curricula and tests, strict accountability for school districts and teachers, and a reduced role for educators’ unions. Every student can learn, they say, and poverty is “no excuse.”  

And while we wait — and wait — what are our political leaders NOT doing? They are not addressing poverty and income inequality. They are not addressing why so many schools and districts are increasingly segregated by race and wealth. They are not addressing the health, social and economic needs of struggling communities, the families who live there and the students who go to school in them.

Saying “a good education will fix poverty” takes all the pressure off of our elected officials to actually fix poverty.

"The minimum wage ballot provision is how we — as a union and as a professional organization that is more than 110,000 members strong — can address the effects of poverty on student attainment."

Ira Fader, MTA General Counsel

Here is an example of what our public officials are NOT doing to address the effects of poverty on education. The Achievement Gap Act of 2010 created the five levels of school and district performance with which our preK-12 members are familiar. The bottom two levels are for schools identified as underperforming or chronically underperforming. The stigmatizing designation as a Level 4 or 5 school or district gives the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the power to end local control of the schools; to alter teacher compensation, hours and working conditions; and to abrogate collective bargaining agreements. But in enacting this law, the Legislature also said that every turnaround plan had to include measures to “address social service and health needs of students … and their families … including mental health and substance abuse screening,” to improve child welfare services and to improve workforce development services. 

Here is a test: Which provisions of the Achievement Gap Act have never been implemented? (A) Abrogation of bargaining agreements. (B) End of school committee control. (C) Requiring teachers to reapply for their own jobs. (D) Addressing the social, health and economic needs of students and families.

I think you know the answer.

So what happened to our 2014 lawsuit? The court concluded that unions do not have legal “standing” to challenge the “turnaround plans” designed by the commissioner.

The minimum wage ballot provision is how we — as a union and as a professional organization that is more than 110,000 members strong — can address the effects of poverty on student attainment.

Our federal government is certainly not the place to look these days for solutions to problems in public education (or in anything else, for that matter). At the state level, Massachusetts continues to be enamored of a “reform” ideology that is not first and foremost about the real day-to-day needs of students, families and our communities.

Teaching is a selfless profession. Working in our public schools, colleges and universities is a great public service. Fighting for the economic stability of our students is consistent with who educators are and what the MTA is as an organization.

We are acting in the interests of students, from their first day in school through their years of higher education. We are fighting, as we often do, for something bigger than ourselves.

Ira Fader is the general counsel of the MTA.