Politics » Politics Feature

Shots Across the Bow

MEA officials let it be known they still intend to be heard from.



Give Keith Williams, president of the Memphis Education Association, his due. Like other officials of teachers' unions in Tennessee, he hasn't had many good cards in his hand of late, thanks to a governmental environment increasingly restrictive of union influence. But he plays on.

In a post-election "media dialogue" with Memphis reporters on Thursday at MEA headquarters on Flicker Street, Williams and other association members lashed out at several targets.

One of them was state government, as the group expressed concern that every educational innovation being undertaken either legislatively or by the administration of Governor Bill Haslam — specifically including charter school expansion, the creation of new super-districts, and the imminence of public vouchers for private schools — seemed to be aimed at Memphis, with effects not likely to be positive.

Yet, when MEA member and teacher Jesse Jeff advocated trying to "change Tennessee from a red state to a purple one," Williams responded, "I'm not a proponent of trying to change the state. I don't think we can." And he professed optimism that public school teachers, whose collective-bargaining rights have been abolished by the General Assembly, could yet achieve something via the "collaborative consulting" sessions that are still permitted by state law.

Williams seemed more concerned about developments closer to hand — specifically, the forthcoming merger of what had been Memphis City Schools with what had been Shelby County Schools, due to occur in August 2013 as a result of the surrender of the MCS charter in 2011.

"We weren't opposed to the process," Williams clarified. "We thought there should be a merger, not a surrender. We wanted to work things out beforehand. ... The surrender has really got us in an untenable situation. We wanted to have a plan we could see before we got into it."

Clearly, Williams and the other MEA members present were worried about uncertainties facing MCS teachers in the recommendations to the Unified School Board by the legislatively created Transition Planning Commission regarding a number of merger-related matters involving pay, benefits, seniority, and school closures. All of these issues, he and the others present Thursday felt, were being resolved by outsiders at a cognitive and emotional distance from Memphis teachers and children.

Besides having vigorously opposed the surrender of the MCS charter which began the merger process, Williams and the MEA profess uneasiness about the current situation, in which doubt and confusion dominate the post-merger landscape, including the ongoing effort by five Memphis suburbs to opt out and create their own systems, and everybody awaits a clarifying ruling from U.S. district judge Hardy Mays.

"We would prefer that it [had] never got to that point, with the judiciary speaking for the people. I was teaching when the schools integrated in 1971. You cannot force busing or consolidation when it is undesirable," said Williams, who deplored the "fighting" going on between components of the Shelby County population. "It could have come together. It would not have wound up in court. We would have had a planned agenda."

Instead, Williams said, the merger process was being dictated by "all of these other outside groups, all of these pontiffs and experts, like the Boston Consulting Group, which is from the Bain Corporation." It was all an exercise in privatization, "a buyout, having nothing to do with children, and everything to do with making money and capitalism."

There was no advantage, he said, "in trying to create this 'world-class school system' that we already had." It was a case of "goldfish trying to eat up the elephant," and he expressed sympathy for the suburban point of view. "I don't believe the people of [outer] Shelby County want to be separate for any other reason than stability."

Another MEA participant, kindergarten teacher Margaret Box, agreed: "People always want to control their own schools. The teachers just want to get on with it." She, Sarah Harper, and Stephanie Fitzhugh inveighed, too, against what they saw as the growing emphasis, in state circles and elsewhere, on unrelenting testing to achieve arbitrary standards, a process which, Harper said, leaves students "tested out, tired, and unreliable."

Other targets of the MEA group's wrath included lobbying groups like Stand For Children (Williams: "Where do they get their money?") and Teach For America, whose volunteer corps of "brilliant, non-educator teachers ... supposed to be so fantastic" are disruptive of educational continuity rather than helpful, according to Fitzhugh, Williams' predecessor as MEA president.

It was the specter of disruption that most concerned the MEA group — whether through a rash of ill-considered school closures or by uncertainty regarding teachers' continued employment or via the supplanting of seniority policies by merit-pay procedures or by what Williams sees as the inability of self-declared reformers to focus on poverty as a threat to children's development.

Maybe the MEA, like the Tennessee Education Association statewide, is fighting a rear-guard action against unwelcome change on a number of fronts. Maybe the new rules of combat, whether dictated by the courts or the legislature or by free-booting change agents of various kinds, don't leave much room for maneuver. But the MEA group on Thursday made one thing obvious: They'll keep making their opinions known and their pressure felt.

Even when merger comes, Williams promised, there will still be a unitary teachers' association to cope with, bearing the prefix "Memphis" or "Shelby County" or whatever.

• At Contemporary Media (the umbrella name of the parent company which operates the Flyer, Memphis magazine, and numerous other local publications), the term "entry-level position" means something a bit different than it does at other businesses.

Literally, the person who sits at our reception desk has more than a reasonable expectation of doing well in the world. We have had more than one well-known music diva sitting there, actors, entrepreneurs, movers and shakers of all kinds. And now we can count among these achievers a rising politician, Reilly Neill, whose hard and astute campaigning made her an upset victor last week, when she won a state representative's position in Montana.

Neill, a Democrat, turned out a Republican incumbent with a reform campaign, which — well, a post-election press report says it succinctly: "During her campaign, Neill said she supports responsible natural resource development, public employee unions and health insurance reform. She also said she supports a government-funded jobs proposal that died in the 2011 Legislature. She emphasized the budget responsibilities of the legislature over social issues, and said the 2013 session will need to make some important decisions regarding the more than $400 million surplus in state coffers."

Reilly Neill — whose father, Kenneth Neill, is the founder and publisher of the Flyer — is one of our own in many ways, including the fact that she's a journalist herself and publisher of the Livingston Current. We congratulate Representative Neill and her constituents for choosing well. We already knew what she could do!

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