While some public school districts have successfully negotiated new teachers’ contracts, several of the state’s largest districts remain locked in contentious talks with their local teachers’ union. In fact, the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts have both entered mediation with their respective unions after failing to reach agreement on new 2014-16 contracts.
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) began contract talks in June, but despite apparent early progress, the MFT abruptly decided two months ago to short-circuit the negotiations in favor of mediation. The minutiae of collective bargaining negotiations may seem unlikely to provide riveting drama, but the stakes are very high for parents, students, taxpayers, and the public education system.
Back in September, Chris Stewart, former Minneapolis school board member and executive director of the African American Leadership Forum, said the union’s decision to go to mediation was “insufferable, intolerable, and it will not go unnoticed…The only reason to close negotiations is so you can hide important details to the public.” He was right on all counts.
Not only was the union’s request for mediation premature, it was also a blatant ploy to move all contract talks behind closed doors. The Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), the state agency that oversees contract mediation as well as labor union elections, chooses to conduct all mediation sessions in private — even when those sessions deal with public schools and public contracts funded by public tax dollars. In the case of the Minneapolis teachers’ contract, approximately $250 million is being divvied up behind closed doors.
The union’s insistence on secrecy is outrageous, especially considering the sorry state of Minneapolis Public Schools, where only 38 percent of students of color graduate high school in four years. It also puts MFT and its parent union Education Minnesota at odds with the very people the unions claims to champion. While the union claims to embrace racial equity, it is defying the calls for transparency by African American parents, students, community leaders, and organizations. The head of the Coalition of Black Churches said of the union’s actions: “We have been spit on and we won’t tolerate it.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that teacher contract talks have failed the transparency test. The district and its teachers’ union have a long and sordid history of conducting their business behind closed doors and out of the public eye. In fact, it was only after repeated inquiries from the Freedom Foundation that the most recent teachers’ contract in Minneapolis was made public.
This time, however, is different. The district’s leadership, to its credit, has sought to keep contract sessions open to the public, and Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson has made a high-profile push for some critical education reforms, including increased instructional time and greater flexibility in hiring and managing staff. The union has rejected these proposed reforms and now refuses to negotiate those terms in front of the public and the news media.
Which is why parents and community leaders are outraged, and refuse to let the union’s misconduct go unnoticed. In fact, Wednesday night, a throng of parents, students, and activists with Students for Education Reform (SFER) gathered outside union headquarters, demanding that contract negotiations be held in public view.
If Governor Dayton is sincere about making the 2014 legislative session all about positive government reforms that eliminate bureaucracy and improve citizen access, he can start by changing the state law that allows government contracts to be mediated behind closed doors.
Wednesday night’s protest was an inspiring display of defiance by parents and students who are deeply invested in their public school system, a system that continues to fail them. There is simply no greater impediment to reform and no greater roadblock to student achievement than contracts that protect those who seek to preserve the unacceptable status quo. As President John F. Kennedy said about the importance of education and equality for every child in America: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.” That progress is being impeded by an all-powerful and self-interested teachers’ union. Thankfully, the people of Minneapolis are fighting back.