SEATTLE - Delegates to the 81st convention of the American Federation of Teachers here stood at floor microphones and blasted arbitrary closings of public schools, privatization and busting of unions that represent teachers, carried out in the guise of "education reform."
During debate on a resolution on "Unjustified Closure of Urban Neighborhood Schools," Carol Caref, a Chicago math teacher, told the 3,200 delegates, "The reason you're hearing so much from us is this: [U.S. Education Secretary] Arne Duncan came from our city. We know what the nation has in store for it. In Chicago, school closings ... have been going on for years and the reason this newly elected Chicago delegation is here is finally people in our union started fighting against them."
"We hear a lot about Rhode Island," Caref continued, referring to the 90-plus teachers at Central Falls High School fired en masse but since rehired. In Chicago, she said, "school closings and mass firings have been going on for years. That's why we decided to fight back."
African American neighborhood schools "are the schools that Arne Duncan determined were 'low performing,'" she charged.
The schools were closed, veteran teachers in higher pay brackets were fired and charter schools were opened in their place with freshman teachers at the bottom of the pay scale. A hundred charter schools have been opened in Chicago over the past decade and only three of them are unionized. Caref added that organizing the teachers and staff at charter schools is imperative if for no other reason than to eliminate the economic incentive for closing public schools and converting to charters.
The resolution points out that 20 schools have been identified for phase-out in New York City and 29 schools in Kansas City.
Approved unanimously, the resolution says the AFT will "continue to oppose school closures based on invalid measures that disregard the impact of neighborhood schools in the life of a community and do not offer solutions to improve teaching practices and supports for student learning."
Earlier, the delegates debated and adopted a resolution demanding that charter schools be subject to transparency and accountability as stringent as public schools. It notes that right-wing foundations like the Walton Foundation and the Bradley Foundation resist accountability and engage in "cynical and selective funding of charter schools [that] conceals their larger purpose of privatizing public education and stripping educators of professional voice and parents and communities of the information and power to assure a quality education for their children."
Another resolution approved by the delegates calls on the AFT to make organizing charter school employees into the union one of its highest priorities. Aileen Mercado, a Filipina teacher in Baltimore and a member of the Baltimore Teachers Union executive board, drew a strong ovation when she told the convention, "We have 27 charter schools in Baltimore and all of them are represented by the BTU."
David Condon, a high school history and economics teacher in Victor, N.Y., told the People's World, "Unionizing the charter schools is a challenge for our entire community. Everybody wants what is best for children. I think New York is a little ahead of the curve because all chartered school teachers are certified and these schools must meet the same New York State standards and regulations as public schools." A key problem, he said, is stagnation in real pay for teachers and other wage-earners. "If you look at the statistics, workers' wages over the past 20 years, it's gone up in real terms about 5 percent while the pay of CEOs has gone up 70 percent."
Joe Menuwissen, a school psychologist in Bloomington, Minn., told the World there is one charter school in his district and it is non-union. "We need to unionize these folks," he said. "This is a big deal for us. We're a merged AFT-NEA state. In two weeks, I'm heading off to 'Union Camp.' We're going to learn about organizing."
Minnesota's unionization rate is fairly high, he said. "But we're dealing with a Republican governor who is all takeback. Public employees are being laid off and furloughed to balance the budget. I think this march on Washington October 2 (the One Nation March on Washington for Jobs) is very interesting. That would be something to participate in."
Photo: Chad Adams, a teacher at a Chicago charter school who helped organize the school workers into the AFT, speaks at the convention. It was his first AFT convention and the delegates gave him a standing ovation. (PW/Tim Wheeler)