By Amanda Litvinov
When the last bell rang one afternoon last November, high school English teacher Ryan Anderson and several of his colleagues set out across the state of Utah to attend a forum with a freshman state Senator who had sponsored a bill that the Utah Education Association President deemed “a nightmare.”
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Utah Senate Bill 64 was the sole topic of conversation during that five-hour journey, with its provisions that would make all educators at-will employees on a one- to five-year contract; eliminate early termination protections; limit bargaining rights to salary and benefits, all but destroying educators’ ability to advocate for students at the bargaining table; and base at least 25 percent of teacher compensation on evaluations, with little clarity as to how those assessments would be carried out.
“There was impassioned speech that night—paraprofessionals, teachers, support staff, superintendents, business administrators all speaking out, hoping our views as professionals would be heard,” said Anderson, who has nearly 35 years of teaching experience.
Now, a year later, Anderson still sounds amazed by the reaction he and his fellow educators saw in Osmond. “We could tell from his comments and his insightful questions he was really listening,” said Anderson. “The change in his perspective was visceral.”
“I came into office thinking I knew everything I needed to know about the direction we needed to go with public education,” said Osmond, who served as CEO of a for-profit education company prior to taking office. But after four meetings like the one Anderson attended held around the state—one of which was attended by more than 500 educators—plus a dozen classroom visits and hundreds of emails from educators, Osmond says he came to understand the challenges public school educators face in the course of a typical day: overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, language barriers, behavioral issues, and students who are hungry and unbathed.
“It’s just amazing to see the skill these committed teachers have. They’re getting so little in terms of compensation and they deal with so much, yet they’ve been framed as the enemy in public education rather than as the group we need to support the most,” said Osmond.
Osmond soon called together UEA leaders, educators, and other stakeholders like the State School Board and the superintendents association not only to create a vastly improved bill that would support educators by holding school administrators accountable for fair and effective evaluations, but to forge a working relationship that would change the tenor of the conversation about public education in the state legislature.
Some of those initial conversations were uncomfortable. Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, who taught elementary school for more than 30 years before becoming president of the Utah Education Association, says they had to confront the widespread perception that educator unions make it impossible to get rid of bad teachers. “But Senator Osmond heard us saying, hey, we don’t want ineffective teachers in the classroom either, that hurts the profession and worst of all, it hurts kids.” Once all parties realized they were on the same side, the conversation turned to authentic teaching standards, observational tools, and building in training and time for administrators to conduct fair and regular evaluations.
Later, when Gallagher-Fishbaugh presented to members the new SB 6—which would require educators to place in the top two evaluation tiers to move up the regular salary schedule—“they applauded,” she recalled.
The Senator wanted to let educators know what they had taught him throughout the process, so he wrote it on a blog he called Lessons Learned. His posts resulted in an outpouring of support from the statewide education community—even if they didn’t agree with Osmond on everything, educators expressed great appreciation for his willingness to listen and his transparency. But some of his colleagues back at the statehouse weren’t so enthused.
“There were conservatives on both sides of the aisle who felt he had set their agendas back, and he took heat for it,” said Gallagher-Fishbaugh. “But all of this work has opened the door not only for us to have a voice, but for those in the legislature who were waiting for this more moderate person to reach out to an unlikely ally. Some of his colleagues even said, ‘Great, thank you, we’ve been waiting.’”
Though at times it seems that too few GOP lawmakers are willing to buck the party line and work with educators to find the best solutions for public education, Osmond isn’t an anomaly. In Washington, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) has taken courageous stands against giving disproportionate weight to standardized test scores in teacher evaluation and voucher schemes that drain tax dollars from public schools to fund private and religious schools.
“My goal is to empower local educators to pursue the strategies that work best for their classroom, and to unleash the kind of innovative thinking our students need to compete and thrive in the 21st century,” said Biggert.
Like Osmond, Biggert says her view of public education was formed by spending time in classrooms, much of it as a HeadStart volunteer in Chicago. “I’ve seen what a profound difference innovative teachers can make in children’s lives,” said Biggert. “It was by working in the community that I learned to appreciate how crucial early education programs are to ensuring our students have the solid foundation that’s necessary for lifelong learning.”
Cinda Klickna, an English and Advanced Placement literature teacher in Springfield, Illinois, and president of the Illinois Education Association NEA, described Biggert as “an independent leader on public education issues and a strong voice for teachers and school employees.” The Congresswoman has also sponsored legislation to double and extend the federal tax deduction for educators’ out-of-pocket purchases of classroom supplies, and she continues to focus on much needed improvements in education and social services for homeless children.
Back in rural Utah last week, Ryan Anderson was busy getting ready for his students’ return. He reported that since SB 64’s passage in March, administrators and educators have opened up conversations “that are doing good,” and teachers have time every week designated for collaborative work.
“Educators by nature are collaborative, and we do our best work together around student learning,” said Anderson. He wishes he could tell all legislators as much: “Don’t legislate education in isolation—we need to work together.”