Hononegah strike reveals larger issues

The three-week strike by teachers of the Hononegah Education Association demonstrates that if we truly value public education, taxpayers’ and residents should redirect their money and efforts.

The primary educational issues we face are increasing parent/guardian involvement in their students’ education, paying for new teachers as enrollment grows, training new teachers, decreasing bloated numbers of school administrators, reducing class sizes, eliminating standardized testing for performance assessments, and changing public education funding from being largely reliant on local property taxes to state and/or federal income taxes.

The failure to address these primary issues will likely result in burned-out teachers, difficulties in recruiting and keeping new teachers and a general decrease in the quality of education.

Critics of public education argue that it is a failure. However, the fact is that public education has greatly increased literacy rates in the past 100 years.

Standardized tests, the so-called measure of accountability and quality of education, exacerbates public education’s challenges. Americans, including many in the Hononegah Community High School District, believe if they are going to pay taxes to educate students, standardized tests will hold schools and teachers accountable for the quality of education they provide.

Rather than increasing quality and accountability, standardized tests shift our efforts from focusing on high-quality education to doing well on the tests. Instead, performance assessments such portfolios and learning records are better alternatives to standardized testing. For more information on performance assessments, visit the Web sites listed at the end of this article.

The strike centered around contract negotiations and teachers’ number of daily classes and planning periods. Teachers wanted to keep the standard of teaching five classes with two planning periods (5 + 2). The Hononegah Board of Education and administration wanted to continue the past practice of negotiating with an individual faculty member to teach an additional class with one less planning period, as enrollment dictated (6 + 1). In return, the teacher would receive a 20 percent pay increase.

As a former teacher who has taught under both scenarios, I can attest the extra class, under 6 + 1, is grueling and not sustainable during the course of a long career. Also, I was coerced into teaching the extra class. The teachers’ association alleges “attempts have been made to coerce teachers into taking a sixth class… .” The board asserted the teachers took the sixth class voluntarily.

If the board could force five faculty to teach an extra but similar class, they could eliminate paying for another full-time teacher. This tactic of assigning 6 + 1 is common in smaller school districts where union leadership is often weak. Key administrators in the Hononegah district come from smaller districts where such tactics are employed, according to teachers I spoke with on the picket line.

If taxpayers are interested in saving money by not having to shell out money for an additional teacher’s retirement and benefits, 6 + 1 is a good deal.

To be fair, there are cases in which 6 + 1 may be advantageous to all parties. For example, suppose a teacher wants the extra money and the board wants to offer a specialized class that doesn’t require hiring a full-time teacher and a qualified part-time teacher is not available.

Consider the case where a full-time faculty member may be asked to teach one advanced-placement physics course, which would add to their standard three biology and two chemistry classes. Such a requirement would not only add another class under 6 + 1, therequirement would significantly increase the amount of time and effort needed to prepare classroom and laboratory materials. The 20 percent pay increase, in my mind, isn’t worth the increased demands.

Everyone agrees the strike had a negative impact on the community—there is no doubt students suffered. However, taxpayers and parents/guardians of students need to also look at themselves for the occurrence and length of the strike.

The student and general population in the Hononegah district has grown significantly in the past 15 years and continues to rapidly grow. I personally know several families that fled the Rockford area for Hononegah.

These parents feared if they stayed, their children would receive a diminished quality of education in the Rockford and Harlem schools. No doubt, racism was also a factor in determining some families’ moves. Other families moved because of the extensive busing of their children and the high property taxes.

Regardless of the reasons why people moved, residents of the Roscoe/Rockton area are facing the difficulties of many growing communities. Increasing enrollment in public schools and a shortage of qualified teachers are part of those challenges.

The pact to end the strike is a temporary solution for a long-term problem. The pact requires the union to approve which faculty are allowed to teach the extra class and what subject is taught.

The issues that prompted the strike are not dead. People should continue to work to address the root issues. Unfortunately, participation in the democratic process is practically non-existent by most citizens until an incident affects them personally. Whether it’s addressing tuition increases at Rock Valley College or a lengthy strike by teachers at Hononegah High School, citizens’ efforts to improve education should continue.

The parents, guardians and others’ money and efforts to rent the school’s auditorium for motivational speakers and presentations is commendable. However, their money and efforts would be better directed toward addressing teacher recruitment, training and retention; reducing administration staffing and costs; reducing class sizes, replacing standardized testing with performance assessments, and replacing local property taxes with state and/or federal income taxes to fund education.

Why? Although board members and administrators are reluctant to admit their motivation for allowing teachers to strike rather than give in to the teachers’ demands, the board wanted to avoid asking taxpayers for an increase in property taxes to pay for more faculty.

Whether the board broke the law in the past by allegedly violating the old contract is the issue scheduled to be arbitrated this January.

Teachers feared that under the contract that was being negotiated, the administration and board were trying to make 6 + 1 the new standard, rather than 5 + 2. The teachers held out because they know how difficult it is to teach six classes.

The teachers also alleged the board had the opportunity to settle the issue last summer before school started. However, the board asked for a mediator in July and didn’t agree to meet with the union again until Sept. 8. Negotiations went downhill from there.

The end result was a strike about very important issues with many underlying causes that many districts face across the nation. A compromise was reached, rather than a settlement being imposed. We must continue to work together to address inherent problems if we are to avoid similar labor disputes in the future.

As we see more and more jobs shipped out of the area overseas, one thing is so obvious it almost escapes—these exports are intended to break our unions. Back your teachers so that the middle class and education aren’t further diminished. —Frank Schier, editor & publisher

For more information on performance assessments, visit: www.cwrl.utexas.edu and www.fairtest.org.

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