At the beginning of the 2018 school year, Providence teachers entered work-to-rule status as a bargaining tactic for a new contract. Work-to-rule means that teachers will follow the exact language of their most recent contract, which is two years old, but not participate in any activities not explicitly specified. This means teachers will no longer stay after school, bring students on field trips, volunteer with extracurriculars, attend meetings outside of school, update school newsletters, or participate in school advisory boards. The hope of work-to-rule is to recognize the importance of teachers outside of normal school day hours and force Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza into negotiating updated teacher contracts, which have been absent since the 2016 school year. With Providence public schools facing insufficient funding despite educating already-underserved communities, teachers’ work outside of the 8am-to-3pm school day is imperative to the education and engagement of local students and families. The limbo that work-to-rule presents harms students in a desperate quest for for fair teacher contracts. It pits teachers against students, a reality which requires immediate reform from the mayor. The city’s inability to impose a contract that accounts for all of the work teachers do, thus leaving teachers with an outdated, meager employment agreement, hints at a broader problem; the US as a nation does not treat its teachers with the respect—demonstrated in contracts, benefits, and funding—that they both need and deserve. Work to rule in Providence illuminates the need to address our city and our country’s consistent undervaluing of teachers and to reform the system that shapes our future generations.
Though Rhode Island boasts the 9th best K-12 education in the US, the system still demands improvements. A 2017 study found that Rhode Island’s public schools needed $627.5 million worth of major repairs just to keep students safe. According to the Providence Teachers Union, teachers in Providence “have remained focused on providing the best education possible for students while working in some of the most deplorable classroom conditions throughout the state […] Teachers in Providence are some of the lowest paid in the state due to several pay freezes in previous contracts.” The result is that teachers in Providence are fed up with crumbling school conditions and unfair pay contracts.
Mistreatment and undervaluation of teachers in Providence also manifests itself through pension cuts, out-of-pocket money spent on supplies, and an inability to provide for bilingual programs necessary for a diverse, highly latino city like Providence. In 2011, Rhode Island Governor Raimondo slashed pensions, froze cost-of-living adjustments for two decades, and switched to hybrid 401(k) retirement plans that 2016 treasurer Seth Magaziner later criticized for not providing “protection during the periods of volatility” in the national economy. To compound these problems, teachers often bear the financial burden of buying school supplies when public funding is inadequate. The New York Times reports that 94% of US teachers spend their own money on school supplies.
The role of teachers in students’ lives, in Providence and beyond, is expanding. Teachers do their best to face their unique challenges and to serve students in a capacity beyond that which is required in their job descriptions. In Providence, where 16.3% of the population are native Spanish speakers, teachers must balance the added challenge of teaching bilingual students. A US Department of Justice probe found that the district violated federal law by failing to provide adequate services to those students. The changing role of teachers to provide for their students, out-of-pocket spending on supplies, and recent pension cuts exemplify the multitude of problems in need of government solutions: a phenomenon that persists both in Providence and across the country.
Throughout the nation, problems like those in Providence pervade the education system. With teacher’s pay falling and health care costs and pension debts rising, teachers are struggling to do their jobs in a system that consistently undervalues them. Teachers have mobilized across Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, and here in Providence. In West Virginia, a state with particularly poor policy for supporting public school educators, deficient teachers’ rights, wages, and benefits resulted in an almost two-week-long strike in every public school in the state, as well as a 34,000 person walkout. This strategy led to a monumental mobilization of teachers and succeeded thanks to the collective bargaining and widespread support for the cause. Though the context, execution, and scale of a movement such as that in West Virginia differs from that in Providence, the need for united mobilization, collective bargaining, and the fracturing relationship between state government and teachers marks similar calls for change.
Despite the success of movements like those in West Virginia, the foundational problems in our education system that warranted such a widespread and passionate response from teachers still persist. Public education in our country should not have to reach such a breaking point to elicit reform, but rather, our federal and local regulation should reflect the crucial value that teachers provide for our students and our country.
Further exemplifying the continuity in need for reform within the US public education system, the infrastructural problems seen in Providence schools persist nationally as well. The last truly comprehensive federal review of schools’ infrastructure across the country was in 1995, which found that around half of schools had problems linked to air quality, and around 150,000 schools were deemed unfit to breathe in. In the twenty three years since, there has been little national improvement. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers produced a report assessing the nation’s infrastructure—public schools received a D+. The neglect shown to public school infrastructure despite years of acknowledging its deficiencies represents the ways in which our public education system, and the teachers who operate within it, are not adequately prioritized.
Despite their necessary role as negotiators for fair treatment and reform in an undervalued profession, the unions behind teacher bargaining in Providence and across the country face an uncertain future following the recent Janus Supreme Court decision. The Janus decision dismantled the power of unions to collect fees from nonunion workers. This greatly inhibits a union’s power to fundraise and accumulate members, and has the potential to undermine the foundational capacity of unions that gives them power. The need for teachers’ self-advocacy is prevalent, hallmarked by the widespread infrastructural deficiencies, teacher strikes cross the country, and the work-to-rule status in Providence, and yet the backbone of these movements, the unions, are being threatened and undermined by court rulings like Janus, further highlighting the precarious position of our public education system and the unions it relies on.
The problems that face teachers, such as unfair payment, unstable contracts, high-cost healthcare, poor school conditions, out-of-pocket spending on school supplies, and pension cuts, are pervasive on both a local and national scale. Moreover, they represent a widespread under-appreciation and financial undervaluation of teachers. These problems necessitate strategic negotiations such as work-to-rule in Providence and teachers strikes throughout the country, forcing a wedge between teachers, government, students, and families. The country-wide movements portray the urgent and significant importance of reform in education and teachers rights in order to give teachers the dignity and respect that they deserve for doing one of the most important jobs for our country’s future.