Building a social justice teacher caucus: The story of BMORE
Some context: Why was there a need for a social justice union caucus in Baltimore?
Public school teachers around the country are engaged in strikes. They are walking out of their classrooms and schools to gain attention from state legislators, and not just for better salaries and benefits for themselves (although most American agree that teachers need to be paid more). Teachers’ main demand is for funding for public education. Teachers are calling our attention to a sticky problem that we have in American public education funding: It has remained inequitably distributed for decades, no matter what new initiative comes down the pike. Moreover, this inequitable distribution of funding falls along racial lines.
In Maryland, just like every other state, faces this inequity. The state has repeatedly and consistently underfunded Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) in violation of their own constitutional definition of adequacy, upheld by the courts multiple time. According to Corey Gaber, teacher in Baltimore City schools, “When adding up this gross underfunding of BCPSS, which is nothing short of the crime of theft being committed against the predominantly Black youth who attend these schools, we reach a very rough education debt to Baltimore City of 3.2 BILLION DOLLARS!”
There have been commissions appointed, like the one formed in 2000 named after Alvin Thornton, the Howard University professor leading the commission, that recommended equity in school funding across the state. Following the commission’s report, there would be a phase in process of millions of extra dollars into districts like Baltimore that faced budget challenges every year. In 2008, the state claimed that there were no funds to provide equitable school funding because of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, every spring, there is an assembly of hundreds of parents, teachers, administrators and advocates rallying for additional funding from the state to ensure that schools in Baltimore schools can keep their doors open.
In reality, the funding inequity dates back to the Jim Crow period during which Blacks paid taxes in Maryland, but received nothing in return to fund their schools. There were Black schools, but since they did not receive public money, they had crumbling facilities, second or third hand books, and poorly compensated teachers, (Baum, 2010). In this way, governments “reasserted Black inferiority and proclaimed white supremacy the cultural and economic law of the land and the preferred social order,” (Rooks, 51). Not much has changed since. Nowadays, Black school systems still suffer from unequal funding, have inadequate facilities, like in Baltimore where they cannot even provide heat in the winter to the students.
Part of the problem is that after the Jim Crow era, the state still has not invested in the city and its Black community. A clear example of this was when Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland. Riots followed after the death of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and Agnew summoned Black leaders to the state capitol to demand that they help restore order, but offered nothing to the city or to help Black communities in any way, (Baum, 2010). This lack of investment reveals a clear disdain for the city of Baltimore. Interestingly, Agnew went on to become vice president under Richard Nixon and continued this policy of “benign neglect” of urban centers for decades to come. Cities like Baltimore around the country, therefore, lived with this divestment which compounded over four decades. We can trace the problems that many cities face today to this period.
This disdain for the city became clear when advocates appealed to the state for funds to fix its crumbling school buildings. In 2012, the ACLU’s education reform project along with others proposed leveraging bonds to pay for school renovations that were long overdue. The state agreed as long as the city promised to shut down 26 of its 200 schools. Sheepishly, the city agreed to this, but the process of closing schools has been more difficult than the city bargained for. The city used metrics of under-performance and under-enrollment to close schools. Given the historic lack of investment in the schools and neighborhoods of Baltimore that has occurred over decades (Baum, 2010 Pietila, 2010), the blunt instrument used to determine which schools to close led to closures in the most low income and the neighborhoods with the most Black people, what is now commonly known in Baltimore as the Black Butterfly.
In 2015, public outrage blew up when Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody. Schools shut down while the city dealt with the public uprising. People poured into the streets demanding justice not just in this case, but justice for the decades of disinvestment into Black communities that resulted in the conditions that created neighborhoods in which poverty was endemic and police brutality was a daily reality. The state, once again, responded with disdain for the city. The governor called the mayor to task for not getting her city under control, and demanded that there be law and order.
A few days later, schools opened again and teachers resumed their work without paper for photocopiers, without heat in the dead of winter, and without support for students experiencing trauma. In spite of this, teachers had discussions with their students about structural racism, the police and police brutality, inter-generational poverty, and how to get involved in making change in the city.
Suddenly, it seemed as if advocating for more school funding was important, but not enough to ensure justice for the teachers and the children of Baltimore. The organizing work at the state level to ensure equity in funding was certainly on everyone’s minds, but there was a sense that more needed to be done, and that the leaders that had been at the helm were not going to be able to bring more back to Baltimore. A change was coming.
The role of the teacher’s union
For many years, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) has argued for more funding and increased salaries for its members. It was so committed to the latter, in particular, that it negotiated a contract which included merit pay. The 2010 contract was hailed by groups across the country promoting school choice as a ”progressive contract.” Many teachers were unhappy with this contract negotiation, and thought it did not address many of the issues that were important to teachers. In fact, teachers voted against the contract in the first round and the AFT (the national teachers’ union) sent in organizers to persuade teachers to agree to the contract. What is more, the superintendent at the time, Andres Alonso, who was instrumental in expanding existing alternative certification programs (i.e. Teach for America), rallied those teachers, in particular, to support the contract, which promised items inline with his neoliberal approach to reform, like an end to seniority as the only way to earn more.
Although there was a public statement expressing excitement about the new contract, city teachers were much more divided than the press about the contract let on. Mirroring union members around the country that were disaffected with their union leadership, many Baltimore teachers wanted their union to fight for more than the bread and butter issues for teachers. They wanted a union that would fight for better conditions for teachers, students, whole schools and communities. These teachers wanted a social justice union, focused on justice for Black students whose neighborhoods have been disinvested in for too long.
Like union leadership in other cities, the leadership in Baltimore’s Teachers Union (BTU) has been the same for many years, elected by a tiny slice of the rank and file membership. Only 1200 or 6000 members voted in the last election in 2016, giving the current president, Marietta English, her eighth term in the position. In the last recent attempt, in 2016, teacher Kimberly Mooney lost to English by a small margin. Among teachers, she lost by only seven votes (paraprofessionals also vote in the election), suggesting that there was and is dissatisfaction with current leadership. Mike Miazga, a veteran teacher, said,“I make more money than I thought I would ever be able to make as a teacher, but there are too many things I don’t hear coming from the BTU. I feel like their focus is not the focus of the teachers and students a lot of times, and I wanted a different voice.”
Over the last several years, there have been groups of teachers trying to organize and present alternative visions of what the union could be, but none have had grown beyond a few members. In 2015, a group of teachers decided to be a little more deliberate in their efforts. They came together informally, just like some groups in the past, but began by learning. They read common texts, visited union caucuses in other cities (i.e. CORE in Chicago), and regularly discussed their vision for schools in Baltimore. Through this process built durable relationships with each other, reached out to others, and began to identify leaders among them. This group called themselves, BMORE, the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators.
Stories that describe BMORE’s development
by BMORE teachers (Corey Gaber, Cristina Duncan-Evans, and Natalia Bacchus)
One of the things that was important for us during the beginning was that we were just forming was getting a strong sense of who we were as a group. One key piece of that was to think about who we were in relationship to a Black city like Baltimore. As a group, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about race. We knew that race equity and Black leadership were important qualities for us, but it took us a while to figure out what that meant, and specifically what about Black leadership in Baltimore was significant for us. We also needed to stay secretive and closeted for a long time because as a small group we knew that the people who were part of our initial group would have an outsized impact on how we would eventually be perceived. So, when establishing our own identity we tried very consciously to avoid being co-opted by strident leftists whose mansplaining alienated would-be allies; neoliberals who want to use market-based ideas to “improve” the union; and people whose animosity towards the union leadership was nothing but thinly veiled anti-blackness.
We used this slow period to also build relationships with each other, bringing food and drinks to book club gatherings where we read about similar efforts around the country. Developing trust was crucial because there is a long history of folks claiming to be supportive of social justice movements, and then turning elsewhere when presented with an opportunity to personally rise through the ranks. We were set on this not happening to us, and to building a solid community of educators that made decisions democratically. It meant we would eventually be comfortable saying, “Cristina, can you handle that?” “Natalia, can you represent us at this event?” “Corey, can you write up something on this issue?” Over time, we were able to rely on each other knowing that our team would handle it well, without having to peer over each others shoulders. Now we have a steering committee with seven people representing elementary, middle, high school, traditional schools, charter schools, teachers, para-professionals. Five of our seven members are people of color, and that is intentional.
We first had to develop our knowledge base, and that happened in discussions as well as reading together. By talking though, we realized that our working conditions were severe and we needed to address them. Teaching can be such an overwhelming and isolating profession that it’s easy to not even know what’s going on elsewhere in your school, much less across the district. Consciousness grew tremendously as a result of listening to stories from teachers around the city. Teachers of ESOL students explained, for example, their teachers work to protect their families from ICE outside of the building. These students were also being asked to take the PARCC test, and their teachers would be evaluated in part based on those results. We gained greater empathy for the work of the Black para-professionals, who shoulder a disproportionate load of the behavior management side of teaching with ⅓ of the pay.
There was also a lot of invisible work that we needed to do to build our own common knowledge base. In our group we did research on the history of underfunding, which allowed us to properly frame the facilities issue in the context of decades of state abdication of responsibility. Bouncing different potential ideas off of other teachers we knew allowed us to craft something quickly that accounted for a variety of perspectives. Talking on the phone with principals we knew gave us another angle when considering a solution that worked for all people on the ground in school buildings. Without this prior invisible work, we couldn’t have churned out such a thoughtful list of demands that caught on and allowed concerned citizens to channel their outrage into a tangible path forward.
That said, we feel that, in many ways the circumstances of teaching in Baltimore are the hardest that they have ever been, which gives limited energy for organizing, but the issues are so pressing that they need organizing in order to solve them. In January 2018, the temperatures dropped below freezing for days on end. There were schools across the city without heat. There were reports of teachers and students in classrooms with hats, coats, and gloves to make it through the school day. One teacher even launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for winter wear. This was a crisis. The school board got an earful from community members at their January 10th meeting, and still had no solution to offer. This was a great organizing opportunity for BMORE, we reacted quickly and it taught us how to do a campaign in a short period of time. Learning how to be public and loud was the last important piece of the puzzle that we started, and having an immediate outrage to respond to was a teachable moment.
We put out a set of demands in English and Spanish about the school temperature which asked for transparency, communication, a clear plan, and to close schools if the conditions were too cold for students and teachers. The district answered the demands, and eventually the governor stepped in to provide emergency funding. This campaign put us on the map, and got us working in coalition with many other groups around the city.
After the temperature crisis subsided, we returned to our October conversation about doing a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Baltimore, like many other groups of teachers in other cities had done. We were all 100% behind the idea, and also terrified of taking on another project on our own. Committing to something that extended beyond our current capacity forced us to reach out in partnership to other groups we admired from afar. Originally, we thought we’d get some t-shirts and do a single event. The response from Baltimore Algebra Project, Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor of public health at Morgan State University, and so many other individuals and organizations was so overwhelming that we ended up having an entire week’s worth of events. One key event was our Black Teachers Matter panel discussion at a local elementary school. At it, we showed this video, which conveyed the loss of Black teachers in our city which stands now only at 40%.
The week garnered enough positive attention that people now know BMORE. With our name on the map, other groups are now reaching out to us, eager to partner, and inspired by the work we’re putting in. This makes us think BMORE can be the kind of group that connects the dots between the people on the ground doing real work in the community, and lift up the voices of those who are traditionally and systematically ignored.
The ongoing challenge that we face is the nitty gritty of organizing. We got a lot of attention. We have been embraced by Black-led community organizations, but we need to expand our base of teachers. We needed more teachers to actually show up for meetings and the work. There seemed to be general support, but not consistent energy to move folks to add an additional obligation after the school day. In many ways, we needed to remain true to what we started, and continue to build relationships with teachers as much as we can. We could not let our visibility distract us from that. It took CORE (Chicago’s social justice teacher caucus) years before they were ready to take over their union leadership, which they did in 2010. We had to take a page out of their book, and continue to do the challenging work of organizing. We also had to recognize that the work is slow. If we just got everybody involved in BMORE, without considering that the people most likely to join up would be those with the most resources, time, and lack of discrimination on the worksite, we would be stuck with only liberal white teachers who over time, would create a white space that was no longer safe for educators of color to join and speak out at. We were very conscious of staying true to our original goal for Black leadership. After all, we are in a Black city.
Looking forward, we looked nationally and locally to build our power in order to transform the BTU from a service union to a social justice union. We believe educators should be proactively leading the efforts to advocate for, protect and improve our profession AND the communities where our students live. Public education serves the common good, and labor unions do the important work of protecting it from exploitation and privatization. We understand that public education is a tool for liberation and essential to a functioning democracy.
We will work to counteract Baltimore’s history of structural racism by intentionally promoting the voices and leadership of educators of color within our group. We intend to amplify the power of the people through relationship building and providing educators the tools to organize their schools and communities.
Part of achieving this vision was running delegates for election so that we can be represented at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) national convention in Pittsburgh summer 2018 (we have 33 candidates on the ballot). Locally, we planned a one day teacher organizing workshop as part of a week long coalition event commemorating the events of 1968, called Baltimore Freedom Summer. We submitted 850 petition signatures from BTU members to amend the BTU constitution to make voting more accessible. We are a regular presence at school board meetings and smaller work groups adding teacher voice to conversations around curriculum, teacher evaluation, and the recruitment and retention of black teachers in the district. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we put together a slate for the next Baltimore Teachers Union election. After a lot of organizing at individual schools, hosting events, and a social media campaign, we won! We succeeded ousting an 8-term union president. The Baltimore Teachers Union will be represented by teachers and para-professionals who have commitments to social justice and equity.