When Unions Lead Education Reform

In the summer of 1995, Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, and Helen Bernstein, former president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), organized a group of union leaders from 21 locals across the country to discuss how teacher unions might mobilize their resources to strengthen and improve public education. The Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) launched one year later, and over the next two decades, the voluntary network would convene several times per year to share ideas on how their American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) locals could do things differently and better. 

In October, marking a notable shift for this generally loose, informal network of locals, TURN released their first-ever national report — a chance, they say, to revitalize public education and strengthen democracy through “the collective wisdom of teachers.” The report emphasizes priorities that have been largely sidelined by corporate school reformers over the last few decades, such as strengthening citizenship, promoting racial integration and providing wrap-around social services. However, lacking a well-defined organizing strategy, it’s not clear how TURN’s ideas will amount to more than an aspirational blueprint.

The report is divided into four sections: promoting “learner-centered” schools, recognizing teaching as a profession, promoting excellence with equity and promoting collective bargaining for educational equity. Within each of these sections, TURN lays out policy ideas — ranging from the relatively specific (supporting pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten programs for all children) to the fairly vague (developing “authentic, performance-based and broad-based assessments”).

Funded by the Ford Foundation, the report has four lead authors with deep ties to the labor movement. Adam Urbanski is still president of the Rochester Teachers Association, and Ellen Bernstein is president of the Albuquerque Teachers…

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