Teacher Unions Quiet as School Starts Up Again

The first part of September is known for two things here in Rhode Island: back to school and possible hurricanes. Traditionally, occurring along with the return to school can be teacher strikes and angry protests over contracts. Not this year, however. Teachers (and their union representatives) are pretty quiet right now, undoubtedly glad just to be back at a paying job. Five school districts, including Providence, are operating minus a new contract but none have planned any strikes or job actions, which could be a first in the state’s teacher union labor history.

Over the past year the landscape for public school teachers has changed quite a bit, driven by a deep recession that has cities and towns cash strapped and having to operate their schools without a big portion of state aid for the first time. Financial desperation combined with a public attitude that has soured on teacher unions, makes this season a time of quiet and relative peace on the public teacher labor front.

Let’s review the past year in public education here in the Ocean State to see how we got to this point. East Providence was the first municipality to draw the line on teacher salaries and benefits, saying it could no longer afford what it was paying because doing so would push the city to possible bankruptcy. The East Providence School Committee took an unprecedented action: it cut teacher salaries and imposed healthcare cost sharing. The teachers union took the city to court but, in a surprise decision, lost.

Now the city of Warwick has done the same thing, except this time to non-teacher school employees: the Warwick School Committee, declaring it had no other choice in the face of an $8 million deficit, has imposed a pay freeze and a new requirement to pay 20 percent of healthcare insurance. The Warwick Teachers Union has filed a motion for a restraining order, arguing that the School Committee’s action violates the terms of the contract. But just like in the East Providence case, there is no existing contract in place to break.

Then we had the Governor and the General Assembly, attempting to plug a yawning deficit hole, eliminate some $29 million in state aid to education. This was a major body blow to many struggling communities. In the midst of this cutback a number of teacher unions quietly accepted concessions in negotiations, agreeing with the premise that there was no more money to be gained under the circumstances and that healthcare costs now needed to be shared.

Next we had the Central Falls High School disaster and the firing of all the school’s teachers en masse. The Central Falls debacle came at the same time that Rhode Island was contending with the other states for a piece of the Race to the Top education funds. Of significance in being passed over in the first round was that fact that Rhode Island could not show broad teacher union support in its application, which again did nothing positive for teachers in the public eye. To their credit, most of the state’s major teacher organizations did get on board for the round two submission, which won Rhode Island $75 million in federal funding. While the federal money is significant, it does not go to pay for personnel costs or even much needed infrastructure costs, but rather for teacher training and support, improved data collection and other initiatives. This leaves our schools still struggling with their operating deficits.

Rhode Island does have a new school funding formula, which is a much needed and significant step to improve revenue sharing across communities. The problem, however, is that there’s no revenue right now to share. Now we have a tug of war about to happen over new federal money awarded to Rhode Island – some $33 million – that is specifically meant to preserve teacher jobs and salaries. Instead Governor Carcieri wants to redirect the money into the General Fund to plug most of the remaining deficit gap of $38 million. In passing their budget this year, legislators counted on receiving federal Medicaid money sufficient to plug the deficit gap – about $107 million. Instead they received less than needed to accomplish that, and a portion of the fed money, that $33 million, was sent not for Medicaid use but to help teachers stay employed.

Actually, apportionment of the funds is up to the legislature not the governor. If the Democrat-dominated legislature puts the money into education jobs, then they will have to plug the remaining budget deficit some other way when they return in January. If they decide to use it to cover most of the deficit, should the feds allow that, then they will have turned their back on teachers, a core constituency. It will be interesting to see what they decide.