SA Teachers Union: Fighting for the ‘Soul of Public Education’

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Elizabeth sits underneath the table in Ms. Smith's classroom. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A student sits under her teacher's table in a second-grade classroom at P.F. Stewart Elementary School.

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel’s disagreement with San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his proxy, Robert Rivard, isn’t about our rejection of progress.

It’s about two competing visions of the future – one in which internally segregated, corporatized “public” schools serve the new inhabitants of a homogenized, gentrified city, and another in which students, teachers, and the diverse, historic communities they serve collaborate to make decisions about how, and in whose interests, their schools should be run.

We have no interest in maintaining a status quo that fails too many of our students. But the solutions to our district’s problems are not – and never have been – to privatize our precious community resources, to facilitate playdates between rich and poor students, or to remake our neighborhood schools as nexuses of gentrification and displacement in our rapidly changing city.

As a member of SAISD’s inaugural cohort of master teachers, I’m one of those teachers Rivard calls his heroes. I thank him for the compliment, though I feel that his analysis is as misguided as it is ideologically driven and intended to divide our teaching staff into those who should be valued and retained and those who should be fired to clear the way for his corporate conception of progress.

SAISD’s decision to ask principals to divide their staff into “good” and “bad” teachers represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our work. We’re team players, our success predicated on the constant support and solidarity of our colleagues, and the tireless and too-often-ignored involvement and leadership of our students and their parents.

Rivard’s claim that the Alliance prevents the district from firing poor-quality teachers untrue and reflective of a myth trotted out every time corporate raiders – those desperate to attack unions as the last impediment to their plans to privatize public schools – face organized opposition. The truth is that SAISD faces the opposite problem: it can’t keep its best teachers.

Many of the teachers I know are considering leaving SAISD. Many of the master teachers I know, members of SAISD’s flagship program for district transformation, are seriously considering leaving the district, or – like me – doubt that they wish to continue as master teachers next year. “Teachers of the year” leave the district the same year they are recognized. Outstanding teachers are at their breaking point, not because of their students, or their amazing families, or the diverse and caring communities in which they work. This district’s teachers are quitting because they have overwhelmingly lost faith in the highest levels of district leadership.

In terms of progress, our Alliance has in the the last year: pushed SAISD to pass a resolution in support of our undocumented community members; pushed the district, with our friends at SA RISE, to provide know-your-rights information to all students and teachers; and asked repeatedly, with requests repeatedly denied, for time to train all teachers on their responsibilities to undocumented students and their families.

In the last month we’ve raised serious concerns about the lack of emergency preparedness at many campuses, provided the school district with an application process to pilot restorative practices in our schools, and called on district leaders to expand SAISD’s simplistic conception of student success and measure our students in ways that do justice to their social and emotional needs – something absent from SAISD’s endless focus on standardized test data.

We’ve called on SAISD to expand its non-academic support for our students – support sorely missing in a district that appears to prioritize the addition of new leadership positions in an already top-heavy district hierarchy over providing social workers or behavior specialists for our students.

At the March 19 board meeting, I’ll be calling on our district leaders to move immediately to deprioritize criminal justice solutions to behavior problems in our schools. Our national NEA Early Career Leadership Fellows are preparing to roll out a project that will, in collaboration with the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at UTSA, push culturally relevant pedagogy as a major instructional priority for our teachers – a truly transformative pedagogical and cultural shift in this district.

Our Alliance is a constant leader for change in SAISD, but not for the kind of change Rivard wants to see. That’s the important detail: not all change is positive, and some conceptions of progress must be actively resisted in order to create the conditions under which our communities can thrive.

We as a union believe that our students, their parents, and other community members should make their own decisions about their lives.

We believe that teachers should be meaningfully involved in the decisions that shape their workplaces, and that students should have ownership of the spaces in which they learn.

We believe in the power of our communities to create the changes they want to see, and reject the patronizing and paternalistic view that our communities, students, and teachers are incapable of making decisions for themselves.

We don’t believe that gentrification and displacement are the inevitable destiny for our neighborhoods, or that historical patterns of inequality are overcome by drawing middle-class students into internally segregated magnet programs in our neighborhood schools.

Our union’s resistance to the superintendent’s plan for Stewart Elementary is based on the fact that the Stewart community has been completely left out of a decision they should have been centrally involved in from the beginning.

While Rivard was publishing his hit-piece on this district’s teachers, Alliance members were block-walking in the Stewart community. Again and again residents told us of their shock at the news that the school their families had attended for generations was being handed over to an outside charter company without meaningful consultation.Many hadn’t even heard the news.

If this is the progress Rivard wants us to stop resisting, he’ll be disappointed by our response. We’re going to fight for our schools, our students, and their families. We’re going to fight to reimagine our schools as spaces in which the word democracy means more than informing families what the serious people with access to power have decided for them. And we aren’t going to quit – this is a fight for the soul of public education, the very precondition of a functional democracy.

We’re going to keep fighting, and we’re going to win.

13 thoughts on “SA Teachers Union: Fighting for the ‘Soul of Public Education’

  1. It’s not right when districts or administrators make decisions without all stakeholders involved. As the teacher you see what happens on a regular basis, these are your children, and though they are not your blood, you still care about them as if they were. As the teacher you need to speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves, and help them to realize their potential. Together our union is trying to help SAISD families realize the great potential it has without outside help. It’s first step is recognizing and honoring the powerful teachers it already has and giving them the respect they deserve!

  2. Luke! This is fantastic! Our union is part of the fabric of this district, as it is made up of wonderfully committed teachers. Your passion for our kids is inspiring. Keep up the great work and the good fight.

  3. As a parent who has had “Fight Song” on repeat in my head for the past 5 months, who has had many many teachers tell me, “thank you for trying to save our school,” who is sure the district would rather I just go away and let them dictate how to run our school, THANK YOU.

  4. Two competing visions for the future is exactly right. SAISD is spending its money, time, and resources on enticing middle class families from outside of SAISD to come to our “special schools.” Schools that were designed for them. We should be spending that money on educating our own SAISD students. I am proud that Luke and our Alliance are fighting back. The SAISD superintendent has no experience in the classroom. He does not know how to educate our students that is why he continues to sell our schools to the highest bidders. He is systematically dismantling SAISD. For those that are interested, come to the March 19th press conference and school board meeting. Hear what people are saying and why it’s important to listen to the ENTIRE conversation and not just one side.

  5. Luke, thank you! We are absolutely fighting for our schools and students, for our SAISD communities! I am proud to be a product of SAISD and proud to work hard to preserve its legacy.

  6. While I confess that I don’t know the full details about Stewart Elementary (and the charges are concerning), is it wrong to say that my family generally LIKES the direction SAISD is headed?

    The public (aka SAISD) educational choices that my kids have now vs. when we moved to the district 20 years ago (before kids) are vastly different and greatly improved. Granted, most of the credit goes to the individual teachers (which have been awesome), but I think the current school board and superintendent should receive SOME credit as well. Note that as recently as a decade ago, I wouldn’t have said that. Do improvements need to be made? Is there still an overreliance on testing? Of course; but let’s recognize the positives as well.

    I don’t see competing visions of neighborhood vs. magnet schools, but rather options. Options that other districts have had for a long time and that our kids deserve as well. Have you been to one of the 8th grade school fairs that were held? All that my 8th grader’s fellow classmates could talk about were the options that they saw. “I want to go to Travis Early College.” “Well, I’m going to go to Jefferson IB.” “I think I like Highlands STEM.” It didn’t matter that they would split up in high school – it was about finding the right school for them! They are focused on their future!

  7. It’s amazing how much technology and resources have been sucked from SAISD schools to their in-district charter schools. Literacy is a top priority, but your school has a part-time librarian and you get 45 minutes of library time once every two weeks. Fantastic!!! Computer labs are vacant each day, unless the kids are taking a standardized test to collect data. Pretty much no educational computer time for any students, unless the district got a grant for one year. The district will not pay for a second year, and the kids ask repeatedly what happened to the program they were learning on last year. The district of innovation is taking steps back to the Little House on the Prairie days.

  8. I would like to start with the acknowledgement of the talents, the verb, and the commitment this educator has for education. His heart is certainly in the right place. I disagree with his points on policy and overly generalized view used to extrapolate criticisms against the Board’s decision to partner with Democracy Prep.

    Mr. Amphlett stated, “It’s about two competing visions of the future – one in which internally segregated, corporatized “public” schools serve the new inhabitants of a homogenized, gentrified city, and another in which students, teachers, and the diverse, historic communities they serve collaborate to make decisions about how, and in whose interests, their schools should be run.” I do not subscribe to this polarized worldview between elitist reprobates and social justice crusaders. I believe the actual picture to much more complex. The leadership of Mr. Martinez has engendered an array of solutions to meet challenges facing our district. Do or will all of them work out? No. Have they shown gains? Some.

    While I concur with Mr. Amphlett’s assessment that SAISD has difficulty in retaining high performing teachers, it is true to be sure, I disagree that teacher unions (organizations) do not protect incompetency, especially the lackadaisical teacher. Terry Moe, political science professor from Stanford, debunks Mr. Amphlett’s claim that teacher unions do not support the status quo or do not protect bad teachers. In fact, his research shows that to be untrue. Unions have shown to oppose educational reform and to preserve the status quo. (See sources below.) Consequentially, this adds complexity to Mr. Amphlett’s aforesaid depiction.

    Progress has been impeded in the past. So it is today.

    While I laud Mr. Amphlett’s advocacy for positive change on part of the Alliance, ranging from rethinking student success measures to cultural relevant teaching, which are indeed in urgent need – this is true; I also respect his focus and level argument here, I disagree however with his support on the Alliance’s “leadership” in regards to Steward. I do not subscribe to his notion that SAISD’s contract with Democracy Prep is tantamount to “gentrification and displacement …[of] our neighborhoods.” That typical of argument is reminiscent of bathos and lack of understanding of the law. I believe we are conflating the status of a single campus with a larger social trend. Not all of SAISD’s IR campuses are in this situation. In fact, the solutions to turn theses campuses around vary and don’t involve charters or further “displacement” as it were. Furthermore, Steward under Democracy Prep’s leadership cannot cherry pick its students, as its student body will remain the same.

    I, too, believe in the power of communities to create change. However, I am not convinced this is the case in regards to Democracy Prep.

    This is about the law. After five years of IR status, this campus is headed for change one way or the other – whether you have community involvement or not. According to HB 1842, an IR Year 5 campus, such as Steward, shall close or the board shall be replaced depending on appeal to the Commissioner. However, SB 1882 offers a third option; partnering with a charter or other institutions, Steward stays opened and obtains a two-year reprieve on accountability. In fact, the ONLY CHOICE for the district is to partner up; OTHERWISE, it becomes the STATE’S CHOICE/MANDATE what happens to Steward. It is the way the law is written by our legislature, not by our Board. (Point your discontent where it is due.) Our Board has only two choices – let the Commissioner decide what happens to Steward – either campus closure or Board replacement—or partner with a charter or other institutions like Democracy Prep. Now, I do not think it takes very long, nor does it become “patronizing” or “paternalistic” to try to save a neighborhood campus from closure, or save a district from losing its democratically elected school board. SAISD’s only option to save Steward is to partner with a charter entity. So the idea “that the Stewart community has been completely left out of a decision they should have been centrally involved” is premature and reveals ignorance about HB 1842 and SB 1882. What community discussion is there really? “Hello, the State is going to close your child’s campus or remove your elected Trustee from office. The only option we can make that is proactive is to switch management of Steward to a charter entity in the hopes of turning it around. What do you what to do?” (To be fair, the residents should be shocked and complain about being uninformed about the PAST FIVE YEARS of IR.) So, let the Alliance and its masses protest and complain about being left out of a decision that had no alternatives, unless you consider school closure or an appointed Board viable options – which I am thinking must would not. Because, a school Board trying to save a school from closure is clearly an example of oppressive functionaries!

    In the end, I believe that much of this expressed anger and protest is really about Democracy Prep’s control over staff, including its hiring process. This is a natural fear of the unknown, to be sure, especially if that power undermines a teacher’s union influence for that campus. This is a reasonable concern, and I think working with the school board about what this will look like and how it will affect personnel is far more productive than making an argument about false “conceptions of progress” which aren’t afforded to you under the law in this case.

    Moe, T. M. (2009). Collective Bargaining and the performance of public schools. American Journal of Political Science , 53 (1), 156-174.26
    Moe, T. M. (2011). Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
    Moe, T. M. (2013). Vested Interests, Theory and the Political Dynamics of American Education. Stanford University Department of Political Science Working Paper
    Moe, T. M. (2014). Teacher Unions and American Education Reform: The Power of Vested Interests. In J. A. Jenkis, & S. M. Milkis, The Politics of Major Policy Reform in Postwar America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

  9. Please, no Moe, I beg you.
    Four sources, but all by T. M. Moe. He’s a xharter shill. Stanford, Hoover Institution, Koret, associated with Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, all of them in the game for easy tax dollars.
    It’s easy to see what you really care about here:

  10. Preach Luke! The teachers in the classroom are the experts when it comes to decisions about teaching and learning. The job of the central office administration and campus leaders is to create systems in which teachers can work collaboratively to serve their kids. The resources should be funneled to the schools so that they can make this happen. Parents and the community can and should be empowered to work with the schools. Your plan makes sense not only educationally but also morally and ethically. Keep fighting the good fight. Our SA kids deserve it.

  11. I support much of what Luke Amphlett had to say. As a 20 year teacher in the SAISD having taught in numerous Middle and High Schools I had first hand experience in how SAISD Administrations over the years always invested in and pushed top down so called best practices to solve the low achievement problems in their schools.
    Many of those practices were introduced as pilot programs or changes in curriculum that were attempted for a year or two and then discarded for the next newest idea.
    Never in the schools that I taught in, schools that were sometimes labeled as failing, did I even once have the SAISD district administration come to any school and say we’re going to sit down with you the teachers, the educators of these children and find out what you think needs to be done to raise your students achievement level and make your school a success.
    Instead we were told here’s what you must do. Here is the data on your students based on the state testing. Here are the metrics you must attain. Here is the schedule you must keep, here are the results your students must achieve.
    This is how you will be held accountable.
    It’s no wonder why great teachers leave any district and the profession.
    It’s amazing how the most successful tech businesses in our country promote and support innovation and independent thought and action and creativity among its brightest employees. They are creating the marvels of this century, but the teachers and educators who are charged with producing the workforce of the future is ignored, chastised and penalized for wanting to employ their own knowledge, creativity, and commitment to help every student succeed in their schools.
    Teachers unions are not the problem. There are some people who should not be teaching. There are administrative rules and policies in place to address this. The problem is that school administrators (like teachers) have so much on their plate because of all the accountability issues forced on schools today, that they try to make personnel changes but taking short cuts and by-passing their own policies or determining it isn’t worth the time. The Alliance simply guarantees the rights of all teachers to due process under the existing policies. Don’t blame the union for following the rules and advocating for its members.
    Privatizing public Education is not a solution to our challenges, it is a cop out.
    Segregating the best and the brightest from all the others is a recipe for failure for our entire community.
    The problem our public school face is the suffocation of public schools by the federal and state governments across the country and here in Texas by refusing to adequately provide the resources so that every classroom, every school, and every school district has what it needs, so that teachers can provide the best education to every child.
    Until the federal government and the Texas legislature starts worrying more about educating our children instead of saying “I didn’t raise your taxes, re elect me and doing right by our students, we will continue to see the decline of the public education system in Texas and across the nation.

    • “Segregating the best and the brightest from all the others is a recipe for failure for our entire community.”

      We know that in some communities, there are many students who have daily challenges outside of school, and historically schools seem to have been the mechanism by federal, state, and local governments to support children with these non-academic area. It is how it works, and there should be more resources provided, no doubt.

      Still, if a school is not meeting the needs of any students who may speeding ahead in any way, the solution for our country is not to put the brakes on them either. Rather, just like more resources are needed to bring help bring some children forward each year, some resources should target the needs of “best and the brightest” as well.

      Families with significant financial resources have always had private alternatives. Others choose to move to suburbia, such as the districts on the far north and west of the city, like district 9.

      While I do wish that administrators would listen to teacher far more than they do, the glacial pace of historical progress is incompatible with any particular student’s school career. So I expect motivated parents will continue to look for alternatives.

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