In Florida, a teachers union that doesn’t just say no

Editor’s note: In one of yesterday’s posts, we noted how often school choice supporters are caricatured. But truth be told, we’re not alone. Teachers unions and their members are sometimes dismissed with unflattering generalizations too. Doug Tuthill, a former teachers union president himself, pauses today to spotlight a union right here in our backyard that defies the stereotype.

Jean Clements is the teachers union president in Hillsborough County, Florida, which is the eighth largest school district in the U.S. And she and her union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, are unique in a way that deserves national attention – and national praise. While most teacher unions are resisting efforts to systemically improve public education, Jean and her constituents have partnered with their school district to embrace innovations that are taking on all kinds of sacred cows.

Teacher unions came into being in the early 1960s to protect teachers from management decisions, most notably in the areas of employee evaluations and compensation.  Consequently, teachers’ collective bargaining contracts today prescribe evaluation procedures that render evaluations irrelevant except in the most extreme cases, and standardized pay scales that treat every teacher the same, regardless of their effectiveness.  So, naturally,  eyebrows were raised across the country when Jean and her HCTA colleagues partnered with the Hillsborough school district to win a $100 million Gates Foundation grant to reinvent the district’s employee evaluation and compensation systems.

This wasn’t the only time Jean went out on a limb.

She was out front in support of Race to the Top. She worked with Superintendent MaryEllen Elia to build up budget reserves that allowed the district to weather the recession better than other districts. She partnered with my group, Step Up for Students, on a teacher training program for private school teachers. And she recently joined the advisory board for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a board that includes the likes of Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and Wendy Kopp.

As often happens when union leaders collaborate with management, some teachers complained loudly that the union was selling out. Jean drew two challengers when she ran for re-election, in a contest that local news media billed as a referendum on the Gates grant.  But when the votes were counted last week, Jean won 54 percent on the first ballot.

Her re-election speaks volumes not only about her, but about the teachers in Hillsborough. Together, they’re proving that public school teachers are willing to take chances and rethink how public education is organized and managed. But they require leaders they trust, and earning that trust is difficult.

Teachers in school districts today are understandably skeptical of reforms given all the change that has occurred in public education over the last three decades.  Before they’re willing to embrace meaningful systemic changes, they want trusted leaders to explain why these changes are truly improvements.  But as Jean has shown, once leaders lay out a vision and a believable strategy for accomplishing that vision, public school teachers are willing to roll up their sleeves and give it a try.

Jean and I have been friends for almost 30 years. I know how hard she’s worked to develop a relationship with her members that enables them to trust her and follow her even when the path forward is murky.  I also know she is often criticized by other local, state and national teacher union leaders who fear she is undermining traditional teacher unionism. But Jean and her HCTA colleagues are the future of teacher unionism.  If teachers unions are to survive and thrive, they need to embrace a new unionism that is organized around systemically improving public education.

Just saying no is no longer an option.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.

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