R.I. town becomes ground zero in war on teachers

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. – Some 1,000 teachers and supporters from Rhode Island’s labor movement packed a town park here Tuesday night in a rousing show of support for nearly 100 teachers and school personnel threatened with firing by the school superintendent, Frances Gallo.

But that did not deter the school board from voting, 5-2, to OK the firing of every teacher at the only high school in this impoverished, majority minority, former mill town. As the names of 74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals, were read aloud, the teachers, many wearing red – one of the school’s colors – stood up, some crying.

In the audience also were students like 17-year-old Kelyn Salazar, a Central Falls High junior, who told a reporter, “It’s not motivating me to come to school anymore.” At the rally earlier, she told the crowd the teacher firings would hurt students academically and emotionally. It “makes my heart break into pieces,” she said.

The firings were hailed by right-wing anti-union groups such as the Muskegon, Mich.-based “Education Action Group Foundation,” which said it is putting up a billboard in Central Falls backing the superintendent’s action. This group boasts that it publishes two anti-union blogs, NEAexposed.com and AFTexposed.com. It has ties to the Michigan Republican Party and billionaire Dick DeVos.

The mass teacher firings also drew immediate praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In comments his aide e-mailed to the Providence Journal that night, Duncan said he “applauded” the school board for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”

Duncan’s support for the mass firings will be seen by many as a slap in the face to teachers, their unions and the entire labor movement. The impact could extend far beyond those directly involved in education, as labor is widely recognized as the crucial factor to Obama’s 2008 victory in some key states.

Gallo said she made the move because teachers refused to accept her “transformational” plan to remedy the school’s low test scores and graduation rates. But Central Falls Teachers Union President Jane Sessums told a reporter, “We don’t take lightly that our scores are low. Everyone acknowledges that we have work to do.” The union, part of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, says it agreed with the transformation concept but objected to the superintendent’s “take it or leave it” approach.

Last August, Duncan announced requirements for $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement grants to “turn around the nation’s lowest performing schools.”

Each school district applying for the funding is required to implement one of four “rigorous interventions.”

First on the list is a “turnaround model” that calls for replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, and adopting a “new governance structure” and “new or revised instructional program.”

Number two is the “restart model” – close “failing” schools and reopen them under the management of a charter school operator or “management organization.”

Number three is simply labeled “school closure” – close “failing” schools and transfer the students to other schools in the district.

Last on the list is the “transformational model” – 1) developing “teacher and school leader effectiveness,” which includes replacing the principal, 2) implementing “comprehensive instructional reform strategies,” 3) “extending learning and teacher planning time and creating community-oriented schools,” and 4) “providing operating flexibility and sustained support.”

Any district with nine or more schools affected is not allowed to use any single strategy in more than half of its schools.

Chicago, where Duncan was schools chief before his current job, has been a laboratory for those models, with 85 school closings in the past few years, massive shuffling of students among schools, and wholesale firings of everyone from teachers with Master’s degrees to cafeteria “lunch ladies.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “We are disappointed that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t get all the facts-or even speak with teachers-before weighing in on the mass firing.”

“Everyone involved, including teachers, has a responsibility to improve the quality of education at Central Falls High School,” Weingarten said. “We are surprised that Superintendent Frances Gallo, who wants to fire every school employee, has not accepted any responsibility herself, especially since she has been at the helm for three years.”

The union head also expressed disappointment that Gallo and the state education commissioner had rejected Weingarten’s offers to meet to resolve the situation, and had also rejected a mediation proposal by former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, now an independent and front-running candidate for governor. The union has a track record of success in collaborative problem-solving.

Photo: PW/Susan Webb



Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.