Unlikely Allies: The Next Chapter

Also from ES | January 23, 2012
Photo of Providence, Rhode Island, credit: flikr user martha_jean

In February 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan welcomed hundreds of district superintendents, union leaders, and school board presidents to Denver for a three-day conference designed to “redefine labor-management relations for the new century.” The timing was apt. Teacher policy, including changes in hiring, compensation, evaluation, and dismissal, had become central to education reform proposals. And tensions were growing over what role teachers unions should play in reform, if any. States like Wisconsin and Florida boldly and publicly battled against teachers unions. And articles in The New Yorker and The New Republic on the egregious practices of New York City’s teachers union in protecting (and paying) teachers who weren’t teaching fueled anti-union sentiment among the public. In many respects, labor was put on notice: if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Many unions stepped up to this challenge. Both national unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, announced plans to push for previously untouchable reforms, such as changes to hiring and evaluation policies. In Illinois, the state’s teachers unions helped to develop and pass an ambitious slate of school reform legislation that ties teacher pay and tenure to student learning outcomes. Local unions in cities including Denver, New Haven, Conn., Baltimore, and Hillsborough County, Fla., forged full partnerships with management in support of a variety of teacher reforms. In his concluding remarks at the February conference, Secretary Duncan highlighted these cities as models of success and pointed to yet another city embracing the union as a partner in reform: Providence, Rhode Island.

Education Sector chronicled the story of Providence’s union-district collaboration in its earlier 2011 Unlikely Allies report, describing the efforts of Providence union president, Steve Smith, and then-superintendent of schools, Tom Brady, to create a joint management organization “United Providence” or UP.1 In what is believed to be the first such arrangement in the country, the union and the district created a novel alliance in which the two factions would develop reform plans for the city’s lowest-performing schools together—and together, they would share the responsibility of making it work. Under the plan, the district would give up some control over the schools. Teachers would give up many of the guarantees and securities that come with the union contract.  

Just a year before, Smith and Brady had been in court over the issue of criterion-based hiring. As Unlikely Allies explained:

In 2009, acting on an order from then-Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters2, Brady abolished the practice of “bumping,” the process through which a teacher with less seniority is displaced by a teacher with more, regardless of school need or the teacher’s record in the classroom. The order, overriding the existing contract, provided that teachers would have to formally apply for vacancies and be selected by principals through a criterion-based system.

Unlikely Allies told of expected problems and pitfalls as the two tried to develop a new way of operating Providence’s lowest-performing schools, but concluded that this unique restart model, and partnership between Smith and Brady, held great promise for the city’s schools. What has happened since—new mayoral leadership, financial crisis, the termination of the city’s 1,900 teachers and the resignation of Brady and school board chair Kathy Crain, and a new collective bargaining agreement—spells big changes for any joint labor-management efforts in the city. Is it yet another chapter in the city's long and highly political story of school reform? An indication of unresolvable differences between labor and management? The end of UP? Are there any special lessons for districts seeking to turn around low-performing schools? And what does it tell us about the potential for labor-management collaboration going forward, in Providence and in other unionized urban districts?

Education Sector invited Smith, Brady, and former board chair Kathy Crain to sit down with us and discuss what happened, where Providence is headed, and what lessons we can learn.

Education Sector: Let’s begin with the very last sentence in Unlikely Allies:

“Already, Brady and Smith are wrestling with scheduling designs for each school, trying to find ways to expand learning for students without breaking the budget or losing teacher support. The two leaders fully expect such challenges. ‘I am not foolish enough to think that just because I’m working through this with Steve that it all will automatically be absorbed and endorsed at every level overnight,’ says Brady. ‘But I know that if we don’t work together on this, it will be three years and done.’ Smith, too, is frank about the plan’s difficulties and its stakes. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘nothing is simple or straightforward about this. We have to fix this together. We can’t walk away.’”

Tom Brady: Probably the first thing we need to do is to put Providence in some context. There’s a district in California  . . . ABC Unified, that had been working together harmoniously with their unions for years. That didn’t happen overnight. It took 10 years to build that level of trust.

We didn’t have that time. Very quickly, Steve and I needed to trust each other to do this. We came to the recognition that to get anything done, we’d need to do it together, to get to a compromise, and I think we did a pretty good job.

But a number of decision-makers weren’t part of that trust building and so, as a result, had preconceptions against district-union relationships. There wasn’t enough time to get them to feel comfortable.

There’s a lesson there for all districts that you can’t do the hard part between two leaders without including the governance. You have to talk to school boards and strengthen those relationships. [Video: Tom Brady on the importance of communication]. I was hired by a mayor who said, “I appoint the school board. If you want reform, you do it, and I’ll make sure the school board does what I want them to do.” Sounds great, and it worked, for what, two years? And then a new school board came in, and the members of that school board-- Kathy being one of them at the time--were very adamant on reform and reform now. Then, the mayor became a congressman, and a new mayor came in.  

So Steve and I worked through the hard part, and then said, “Here we go, here it is.” Then we ran into the actual decision-making to go forward with a very intricate and very novel thing.

Kathy Crain: I think much of what you say is right. The Providence school board, which is appointed, historically, has been known as a rubber stamp for the superintendent and or the mayor. A group of new members came on board prior to this. The new school board approved this model, and we were supportive of the idea in theory. But we wanted to see the details, and we didn’t get a lot of them. We were knocking on the door, saying, “we have to approve this, you have to let us into this, you have to give us the opportunity to participate in this process.”

At the end of the day, we knew we were going to be responsible for these schools. So, one of our big issues was what do we do if it’s not working? What do we do in 18 months if it’s failing miserably? Do we pull the plug on it? Do we have the right to pull the plug on it?

The other big issue for us was that we were in litigation on the issue of criterion-based hiring. We were concerned about what would happen to the teachers who would be displaced. Were we just recycling teachers through the district that have been at low-performing schools, bumping teachers who were not in schools covered by the agreement?

We heard different things from RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education), but nobody was willing to put anything in writing about whether this agreement was going to be approved or whether we needed more regulations. There was a lot of miscommunication. And so, finally, I wrote what came to be known as the “Dear Tom” letter.

TB: Yeah. “We love you, but don’t do anything.” It said, and I’m paraphrasing, the superintendent can’t speak to the union guy. If you see him on the street, you have to go to the other side, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Under normal circumstances, I would have burned it and walked out that night. But I said, OK, I’m going to suck it up and not do anything because the new mayor is going to come in and straighten this out.

ES: Only that didn’t happen.

KC: Instead, we got a call from the new mayor who told us a financial audit showed that the city had a $150 million structural deficit. He said we weren’t going to have paychecks for anyone in the entire city in August; we were going to have to lay off teachers; we were going to have to close schools. But he said that because we didn’t know which schools to close or which teachers to lay off, we should give everybody a notice and then work it out later.

Ironically, we had just come home from the union-district meeting in Denver [which closed with Secretary Arne Duncan’s praise for the collaboration going on in Providence]. We had an emergency school board meeting within 48 hours, and we asked ourselves, “What are we going to do? Do you want it to be on your head if none of the city employees get paid?”

What we didn’t do well is talk to the union about it. We didn’t reach out to the teachers and explain that this is a drastic measure that has nothing to do with what we think of you as a professional. But as a board, we felt that we needed to do it and then get busy trying to figure out how we were going to clean it up.

Steve Smith: Here’s how I found out. I was meeting with the mayor to discuss criterion-based hiring. And at the end of the meeting I said I had a meeting with the superintendent. The mayor said, “Oh, he’s going to tell you that we’re going to be terminating all the teachers.” And I said, “Excuse me? Come again?” “Oh yeah,” he said, “we wanted to be fair. The fairest thing to do would be to fire everybody.”

The letters were already in the post office. Here I was talking about collaboration and this partnership, and my members were wondering, “Where does the partnership come in?” And teachers were actually saying to me, sincerely, “But, you and the superintendent are being recognized for the work. How can this happen?”

In an attempt to try to salvage this impossible situation, the union went to the mayor with a proposal to redo the letter. We had an honest disagreement over seniority. In our opinion, the commissioner’s order of 2009 said that seniority could not be the sole criteria by which to place a teacher. But the letter was about layoffs. We suggested sending the letter with all three options under Rhode Island law--you’re non-renewed, you’re terminated, or you’re laid off. All three. It would actually give the flexibility he thought he needed.

ES: It’s very important, the distinction between firing and layoffs.

KC: Layoff is by seniority, and we have recall rights.

TB: This was, you’re fired. No nuance. It’s Rhode Island state law.

They were terminated.

ES: So it could have been done a different way?

TB: Oh, absolutely.

KC: To be honest with you, had the idea of writing a letter with the three options gone before the board, I think that would have passed. But we had a new mayor coming in, who I supported, campaigned for, had his lawn sign in my yard. I believed what he told us; I believed in what he was saying. At that point, you know, six weeks into his mayoral term, I and other members of the board thought, well, we need to help this mayor. I mean, he’s telling us that no one is going to get a paycheck in August, he’s telling us that we have to close schools. I later resigned because of him.

SS: And the guy who had to suck it up and stand before the vast majority of those 1,934 teachers is Tom.

I think Tom and I both knew that this was going to take time. And that I’m not going to get everything I want, and he’s not going to get everything he wants. But if we don’t lose our heads and we have a consistent message and we see this as a transition from a strictly seniority system to a teacher quality-driven system, then we can get there. What we didn’t do is undermine one another, and we did not panic no matter how bad the situation was.

ES: So, there’s a lot of compromise on both sides, which is central, it seems, to the labor management agreement or relationship. There is also risk and, Tom, you brought up trust earlier. Is your sense that you compromised too much? Not enough?

TB: I think it goes back to communication and trust on the part of decision-makers. We’re talking really about two different phases. First there was the phase that involved talking about criterion-based hiring and trying to get some sort of mediated settlement on that. I thought that was coming along.

Phase two is the United Providence phase--and that’s where you get into the new administration, the firing of the teachers, the alleged financial crisis, the closing of schools, and the alleged promise of the monies associated with those schools. That’s where you, Steve, struck the ultimate bargain--freakin’ genius--that the collective bargaining agreement can’t be touched for three years. [The firing of teachers and closing of schools put Smith in the position to negotiate a new contract that was settled in the fall.]

ES: Now let’s talk about looking forward. What would you say to districts that are attempting any sort of labor management agreement? It is likely that they will have financial crises and governance issues.

TB: My advice to any superintendent would be as hard as it is developing the relationship with the union president and the union, you have to do it. It’s not just Steve. It’s his board of governors, it’s teachers. There has to be a feeling that they really trust you and that it’s not just words. That takes time to develop.

But the superintendent needs to develop equal if not more attention to the board. That’s critical, and at the same time, you have to communicate to the administration--the mayor, governor, whoever’s running the school district. You do the best you can, and I don’t think I’ve hit it out of the park. I think I spent 95 percent of the time trying to work through the tremendous issues that came up with the union. So the school board, in frustration, was left behind.

ES: What happened to the schools that got turned around? Because, that seems to be the real test, right? You guys can get along and like each other, and that’s fine, but, are the turnarounds working, and have they benefited from the collaboration between the administration and the union?

TB: Not yet. You can’t tell whether they’re working or not until you get some data. But the collaborative sharing of decision-making between the union and the principal at the school level … I’m not sure the culture changed that much.

SS: In hindsight, we were under the gun. You could contrast our situation with a place like ABC Unified, which had a school board that insisted that the administration and labor work together. If you were going to be the superintendent of ABC Unified, you had to come to the table with how to enhance the partnership. [Video: Steve Smith on superintendents]. So Michelle Rhee need not apply. If you were going to be union president, you’d be obligated to attend forums, and your building delegates would be meeting with principals on a daily basis.

We didn’t have that in Providence. There wasn’t enough time for buy-in at the schools. The plans had to be drafted over the summer when no one was around. So when the principals were selected, they weren’t selected by this new shared EMO [United Providence]. Again in hindsight, the EMO should have jointly selected the principals. In our opinion—the union’s opinion—probably one of the three principals in the reciprocal obligations (RO) schools truly possesses the collaborative skills necessary.3 That’s not to say the other three are ineffective leaders, but they are not what I would pick as a partner for a shared governance structure. We didn’t have time to really implement the RO document and do the professional development necessary for RO.

KC: In public education, labor management is almost an oxymoron—teachers are college-educated professionals, and so principals need to treat everybody in a professional manner. The need is obvious, but the reality is a different story. Our board felt strongly that we couldn’t have teacher evaluation in place if those doing the evaluation had not been evaluated themselves. Just because you have risen through the ranks in the school department and you find yourself as a principal doesn’t mean you’re a good manager. That’s something we were trying to work on.

There’s also something to be said for professional development on management skills. That’s lacking in the EMO, to be sure, but it’s also lacking throughout the school district. [Video: Kathy Crain on the EMO and labor management].

SS: Principals sometimes think that being a leader means I get to tell people what to do, and if anyone challenges me, I get to do whatever I want. We saw a lot of this. Actually the funny thing is the need for a union, and the need for maybe an adversarial union, really came into play last year when we were trying to work out how to collaborate. “I need protection. OK, Steve, you did all this, great, but I’m fired. Do you get that? Because, you know, I’m paying dues, and I’m terminated. Why? What are the grounds? And what are you going to do about it?”

Those scars are gonna last a long time. A Providence journalist asked me how long I thought it would take, and I asked her, well, what do you think if this happened to you? She says, probably at least a generation.

ES: That’s the heart of it, isn’t it, Steve? That you have to represent essentially the economic interests, the job interests of your members. You can do all this stuff around collaboration, and you can say that our job is to work together to improve education for students, but when push comes to shove, you’re backed into a corner, you have to do your duty under your charter to represent the economic interests of the teachers.

SS: To some degree, you’re correct. But I would say this: if you back me into a corner, I have to fight. I try to find ways not to because I don’t want to. I think peace is the way to go. Fighting’s expensive. Tom and I understood that. But, sure, at the end of the day, when every teacher’s fired I protect them. Every forum I was going to I would hear, “You protect bad teachers.” And I would say, “Yes, I do. I protect all of them. Some of them happen to be bad, and if I hired them, I’d feel a little bit guilty about it. But I didn’t.”

When I took office in 2003, I thought the challenge would be moving the membership from a system that was solely focused on protecting members to a professional organization. I found that wasn’t as difficult as I feared. What I never saw coming was a school board, a mayor, and the revolving door of superintendents.

ES: You took a lot of heat, Steve, for partnering with the district. And on your end, Tom I know there was a lot of questioning: Are you really going to work that closely with the union? Because you’re giving up too much. Both of you were accused of giving up too much.

SS: I think the board felt Tom was too far out, that maybe I duped him, he gave up too much.  My membership felt I gave up seniority. And then I had other union leaders saying, you know, “What the hell are you doing?” You know, Race to the Top became, oh, “This is Steve just caving in, and it’s gonna affect all of us.” That’s constantly being used, even when we get into the pension reform--any issue, it’s used.

But we took that challenge on, and we came up with language that allowed us to change contractual language in an intervention school with an agreement between a labor-management committee. And the sky didn’t fall. That’s groundbreaking, I believe, and risk-taking.

On management side, it’s control—you gotta give it up. You can’t look at power as a zero-sum game. I think Tom believed that—that if he’s sharing that authority with the union president, that he’s actually gaining influence, as opposed to giving up control. That has to happen at schools, too. [Video: Steve Smith on shared authority].

We both paid in different ways. I’m an elected official. Tom’s not elected, but he has a constituency also—and you risk that constituency. If I lose my presidency, I’m not gonna die. If someone had told me in 2003, you’re gonna put up with all of this, and your job is to maintain the status quo and not change anything, not improve it—there’s no way that I would do that. I did that for 20 years in the General Assembly, why would I do it as the union president?

But yeah, I think we both had that same risk. When you get out of what people expect—this is what a union president should be doing; this is what a superintendent should be doing—you get pushback. And if you go too far, you’re no longer a leader; you’re a crazy man. You’re only a leader as long as people are following you.

UPDATE: Tom Brady announced his resignation as superintendent of the Providence schools in March, 2011. 

Kathy Crain resigned from the Providence school board in July, 2011.

Steve Smith is still the president of the Providence Teachers Union.


1. Prior to this, Education Sector had convened a group union and district leaders over a three-year period. This group developed a labor-management template it called “reciprocal obligations”, which was used in the formulation of UP.

2. Peter McWalters is a member of Education Sector’s board of directors.

3. The principle of “reciprocal obligations” recognizes the mutual responsibility and commitment between labor and management in public  education to ensure student and school success. It also embodies the shared belief that student and school success will either be enhanced or diminished based on a cooperative or contentious labor-management relationship, respectively.