Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
The leader of Albuquerque’s teachers’ union is talking strike – but she said Tuesday a memo she sent to educators last week about the possibility of striking was in response to teachers’ questions to her and not a call to take such action.
“Teachers have been telling me, ‘We need to strike, because this (system) is so demoralizing,’” Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said of New Mexico’s new teacher evaluation system, which she called “the ultimate statement of disrespect for what they do as teachers.”
Many teachers, therefore, want to make “the same kind of ultimate statement,” she said.
In the two-page letter, Bernstein acknowledged that a strike would violate state law and the union’s contract with the Albuquerque school district.
She added, though, “Regardless of the ‘no strike’ clause in our negotiated agreement, we can strike any time we are strong enough to carry out a successful strike – one that results in the attainment of our goals. A strike led by ATF means I would be in violation of our contract with APS and state law. There would be legal consequences. Of course, I would gladly go to jail for you by breaking the ‘no strike’ clause.”
Her letter goes on to describe how difficult it would be hold a successful strike, listing nine facts “about what it would take for a successful strike.”
Among them was that 100 percent of school employees in New Mexico must be willing to strike.
Others in the education establishment were appalled by the very suggestion of a strike.
“The bottom line is, it’s illegal and would be damaging to our 90,000 students,” said Marty Esquivel, president of Albuquerque Public Schools’ Board of Education. “That’s why it’s a state law. Any talk of a strike is over the top right now. I think all it does is cause bad feelings. It would be counterproductive to any kind of discourse we’d like to be having at this time.”
APS Superintendent Winston Brooks agreed. “Teachers need to be in the classroom,” he said. “Our kids need qualified teachers more than ever.”
Gov. Susana Martinez responded strongly to the possibility of a teacher strike.
“It is an unfortunate thing when a teacher thinks about walking out on students who are ranked 49th in the nation in education,” she said in an interview. “That would be the ultimate slap in the face to those little ones.”
Betty Patterson, president of the National Education Association, New Mexico, referred to the illegality of striking, saying that was something unions agreed to in exchange for having collective bargaining rights. She called the teacher evaluation plan unfair and poorly implemented, but said, “There’s not going to be a strike.”
Patterson refused to rule out other forms of protest, but said they would take place only when children are out of school.
Bernstein seemed surprised by the level of reaction generated by her Oct. 14 memo to the APS employees represented by the union, titled “Job Actions against Teacher Evaluations.”
Bernstein said it was only because so many teachers statewide had spoken in favor of a strike that she felt it was important to address the issue in writing. If union members want to act, “the union would have to do something,” she said.
The new evaluation system, put into place this year, was adopted through administrative rule by Public Education Department chief Hanna Skandera after two failed attempts to get approval from the Legislature. The system evaluates teachers based on several factors, including the academic progress of students and classroom observations.
Bernstein, in her memo, noted that her union has only 50 percent membership among teachers – not enough support for a successful strike.
Among other points she said were needed for a strike to work:
⋄ “This is a statewide problem, not an APS problem. We can’t just strike in Albuquerque and expect things to change. Shutting down APS won’t stop the PED.”
⋄ “Our union has to be stronger.”
⋄ “If you are not a union member, join now!”
⋄ All union members need to join ATF’s political action committee. “A solid core group of union activists must be in place within each school.”
⋄ “Strike teams will ask everyone to commit to the strike by signing a commitment card.”
⋄ A strike means no pay. “This is a personal sacrifice teachers must be willing to make.”
⋄ “Everyone must remain on strike until an acceptable settlement is made.” It could take days, weeks or longer.
Bernstein said teachers are not opposed to evaluations but rather the way they are being put into effect by PED. Teachers, she said, “embrace the opportunity to be accountable.” But the new system is “so unfair.”
Among complaints by critics are that the system places too much weight on student achievement and that it would allow classroom observations by someone other than the school principal or assistant principal.
Martinez defended the teacher evaluations.
“There isn’t a single job in this country that doesn’t get assessed,” Martinez said after participating in a panel discussion at University of New Mexico Cancer Center.
Bernstein’s letter ends with a call to teachers to contact their elected officials and become involved in the union’s activities.
“Whatever form it takes, it’s time to increase direct, sustained action against those who intend to scapegoat teachers and discredit public education … ,” she said.
Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.