Labor's love lost

Editor's Note: When staff writer Sandra Svoboda said the clashes over public education were a Shakespearian-level drama unfolding, we said, "go forth, our muse, and tell the tale in the bard's vernacular." The result unfolds before thee, dear reader. Miss Juliet and Mr. Romeo are fictional characters, though reflective of many of the experiences, actions and opinions of teachers in the Detroit Public Schools. Other characters are real people, their lines liberally based on interviews with Metro Times, other media accounts and Shakespearian scripts.

ACT I, Scene I (In a government office, sometime in 2009)

Thunder and lightning. Enter Three Education Politicians

FIRST POLITICIAN, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
When shall we three meet again?
In Washington, Detroit or Lansing?

SECOND POLITICIAN, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm
When the Two-First's work is done
We need the battle to be won.

THIRD POLITICIAN, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten
Yes Robert Bobb's our favorite son,
With Two First names, a chosen one.
Strip the school board of its power.
We must crack the Ivory Tower.

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Kids can't read but politics bubble.

FIRST POLITICIAN, Secretary Duncan
For 10 years the "reform" has ruled,
But Detroiters flee to other schools.

Now Two First's power is a lock,
O! Tests scores shall not further drop.

THIRD POLITICIAN, President Weingarten
And my union brethren should not block.
We can change what's in our cities,
Two First's vision we'll make pretty,
Come charters, once a district's bane,
With public dollars the power will reign,
And we'll help some children's brains?
Stubborn teachers can't remain.

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Keep Two First's power in a bubble.

FIRST POLITICIAN, Secretary Duncan
One year for Bobb was not enough.

THIRD POLITICIAN, President Weingarten
The road to reform is very rough.

But 'tis time, 'tis time,
I grant Two Firsts a second year,
And give him power to all he holds dear.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Appoint consultants, stay in your bubble.

FIRST POLITICIAN, Secretary Duncan
In Chicago city by the lake
As CEO, reforms I make.
The jury's out, results not in
But fear not, we'll spin all and win.
Now I've come as Obama's education czar,
To shake up schooling, near and far.
Around the country these efforts we try,
While parents blink, we pass them by.
We bring our plan to redesign,
Many districts now fall in line.
They label new schools as "Renaissance" and "Chancellor's"
Make them fancy, not sounding poorer.
Teachers, aye! Shall get on board
Or fade from the power that we hoard.

We'll call them now "priority," schools
In Detroit, we'll start their rule.
With consultants, "partners" and public dollars,
Strip the fringes. No one dares holler.
Let's ignore the sports, the clubs, the arts?
Keep reading, math no extra parts.
Teachers? They can reapply. 
Then we'll keep them under watchful eye.
We can make schools as we please
While teacher budgets we do squeeze.
Just keep the children in the seats,
A charter by any other name is just as sweet.

THIRD POLITICIAN, President Weingarten
O well done! I commend your pains,
And many among shall share the gains.
There's not enough for all to feast,
So let us not overfeed the beast.
Just about the Capitols we'll sing,
Like elves and dragons in a ring.
Leave children, teachers out to fend,
While consultants, budgets meet the ends.
But teachers and their compensation
Might think this an abomination.

Fair is foul and foul is fair.
Let's get union leaders' support, let us now breathe fresh air!
If labor's lost in a supportive crowd,
Our plan can resonate but only loud.


ACT I, Scene 2 (At the Detroit Federation of Teachers' union meeting, December 2009)

The 7,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers gathers to discuss the recently negotiated contract between DFT leadership — headed by President Keith Johnson — and EFM Robert Bobb. Johnson must "sell" the contract to his members, but it contains controversial provisions, most notably a deduction from 40 biweekly paychecks of $250 to total $10,000. The program is known as "TIP" — Termination Incentive Program. When teachers retire or leave the district, they're to get the money back. The contract also includes the development of "priority schools," which Johnson maintains are innovative learning centers. Opposition in his rank-and-file calls them charter schools in disguise because of their management consultants and process of selecting teachers, among other issues. Under the proposed contract, dozens of schools could be set up.

Johnson speaks on the stage to the crowd. Mr. Romeo, a 20-year teacher with a master's degree who makes about $74,000 a year, and Miss Juliet, a first-year teacher with no tenure making about $40,000, speak to themselves.

KEITH JOHNSON on the stage
During the course of the negotiations, 
It was apparent to me,
That on reforms, we should lead.
We the teachers. We the union.
Our President. Ms. Weingarten, has developed a theme,
That AFT is spreading from the nation's capitol
To its smallest districts:
"Do it with us, not to us"
We say come, comrades, join me, 
Join us, in forming reform.
And by that mantra, I met with Robert Bobb.
Ah, Mr. Bobb. To him, I say,
We recognize that we cannot improve by remaining the same.
A teacher by any other contract would not smell as sweet.
So we reach this pact with its assistance and review,
We shall hold teachers accountable
And reward them with school-based bonuses,
If their performances are deemed worthy.
And for those who say this contract,
This agreement, this treaty for teachers,
Is an affront to the teachers union's tradition?
I say, fear not! The union of today must address reality,
Must address the deficits,
Must address the classrooms,
Must address the White House agenda,
Must address Bobb's power.
The union and the district, 
Mortal enemies in past conflict,
Now join as one to collaborate on the development, 
And implementation of the priority school concept.
And then the teachers in those schools have ownership. 
To Bobb, or not to Bobb: That is the question: 
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep.

MR. ROMEO (seated in the audience)
Director's note: Mr. Romeo represents the rank-and-file teacher, angry at what he perceives as his union leadership selling out to the politically appointed Bobb. He must be pedagogical, notably angry and a touch anti-authority in his approach.

President of our union band,
So-called "reform" is here at hand,
And the contract mistook by me
Is pleading for a teacher's fee.
$250 that I give to thee?
Shall we their silly pageant see?
Lord, what fools these leaders be!

Art thou worried about the district's bankruptcy?
We have heard it's nigh from the town criers.
But rest softly, my good people,
He of Two Firsts promises it is naught.
And when you, like he, has the unprecedented latitude, 
And scope of authority,
Then along with that comes the burden of negotiating something that you can afford.
Ah, Mr. Bobb, what a sight he has,
Both short-term toward the setting sun
And long-term with the harvests of many seasons.
I am not all fond of his bravado. 
But he has his reasons
And we share in the belief that union and district
Be not mortal enemies.

MISS JULIET seated near Mr. Romeo
I am new and of the 10 percent
Of teachers who are not among the top experienced,
Top education and top scale of pay:
That $70k, I only dream.
But as I listen here today,
I believe what our president doth say.
If it were done and could be well
If it's done quickly, if the contract
Could catch the consequence and catch
With success, the teachers' support
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here.

MR. ROMEODirector's Note: Here, Mr. Romeo falls in love with Miss Juliet upon seeing her for the first time. But she has alternative views from his on the contract and he is disturbed by this.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair
To merit bliss by making me despair.
She likes the contract and in that vow
Do I live dead then live to tell it now?
Perhaps she needs to be enlightened
Knowing how this contract frightens?

KEITH JOHNSON continuing his speech to his membership
You shall remember with me, comrades,
Even those who go asunder
In the schools of old where administrators plunder.
Let us not make a blunder.
For we now have lunch hours,
Planning period, health care,
Due process so as not to scare.
Unions fought and won years ago,
How we have forgotten so?
This new contract, fought for hard,
Preserves our rights and stands on guard.
Tho at the expense of your $250 a pay period.
Education, I do confess,
Faces new reality, plain and simple.
It's not necessary for labor and management to always agree. 
Discourse is not a bad thing. 
But if our destination is the same,
And heads to the land of achievement,
Then those who develop policy have to be able to work with those who are going to be responsible for its implementation.

MR. ROMEO still gazing at Miss Juliet
I will show her, I will teach her.
We must preserve what is our public education.
Our American tradition.
Not this false contract Mr. Johnson presents at Mr. Bobb's behest.

The vote is scheduled. Go forth.
Mark your ballot, show your worth.
But I will not return to the bargaining table.
Getting more, we are not able.
For Mr. Bobb's offer was a 10 percent cut.
That I know you do not want.
Our salary loans of $10,000 are better.
Yes, I know I've changed my tune,
I campaigned for smaller class sizes
And narrowing salary disparity between city and suburbs.
But now, see my threat on your ballot,
This is how we just must have it.
Vote "yes" and keep your jobs,
And hundreds of others of your brethren.
Because without this contract, Mr. Bobb will release them.

As I say, If it were done and could be well,
If it's done quickly, if the contract
Could catch the consequence and catch
With success, the teachers' union's support
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here.
I will vote yes, for darker days surely await if it fails.

ACT I, Scene 3 (Outside of Miss Juliet's classroom at Avon Elementary School)

Here Mr. Romeo is a building representative for the union. He is outside of Miss Juliet's classroom discussing the contract with other teachers when he realizes her room is around the corner.

Now Mr. Romeo is beloved and loves again,
Alike bewitched by the charm of looks.
But to his contract foe he must complain,
And she steals sweet votes from faithful voter rolls.
But passion lends them power, time means, to meet,
Tempering opinions with extreme sweet.
Like oil and water which never mix,
Our Romeo finds himself betwixt.

Wait, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East and Miss Juliet is the sun!
It is my lady. Look, she brings a bag of school supplies she purchased
Out of her own pocket, since the district can't provide enough paper and pencils,
Or tissue or toweling.
I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks.

Now students!
Off to recess while we still have it.

She speaks. O, speak again.

O, Mr. Romeo, Mr. Romeo,
Wherefore art my ballot?
Deny thy principles and approve thy contract.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn,
And I'll no longer be a teacher because of personnel cuts.

O, you will leave me so unsatisfied! So unprincipled!
Why must you follow blindly the false leader Johnson?
This contract is a farce. It will be passed on fear and fear alone.

Voting on this contract is such sweet sorrow.
But those like me do fear the day
When our jobs have gone away.
This contract is the best for which we hope.
And now, away to our classrooms, where we must cope.
Three words, Mr. Romeo, and good voting indeed.
But the union's contract is honorable
Still, if you have better plans for students, 
Send me word tomorrow,
And I'll procure to come with thee
To your other meeting, where you plan such things.
And all my teaching fortunes at thy foot I'll lay.

ACT II, Scene 1 (In the Emergency Financial Manager's office in the Fisher Building.)

Howling winds rattle the windows and Robert Bobb is reviewing financial reports from his army of consultants trying to balance the 2010-2011 budget for the district. His office is lit by little more than the glow of his Blackberry)

Is this a budget ax which I see before me, 
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. 
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. 
Art thou not, consultant vision sensible
To education as to fiscal savvy? Or art thou but
A cutting of children's due, a false creation,
Proceeding from the politics-oppressed agenda?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshals me the way that I was going;
And such a budget ax as I was to use.
It's thy messy business which informs 
Educational spending to mine eyes. Now over the district
Tradition seems dead, and the governor's expectations abuse
My sleep; public opinion celebrates
Pale union offerings and withered classroom savings, but have
Alarmed the sentinels, the children's watchdogs,
Whose howl worries about the pace allowed
For children's strides toward MEAP and AYP.
Hear not my consultants, which way they expense for fear for
Thy very foundation of my budgets.
And take the present accounting,
Which now suits us, while I threaten, education and classrooms:
Words show the heat of deeds too that limited per-pupil funding gives.

ACT II, Scene 2 (In a church basement during January 2010, on Detroit's northwest side)

Here a growing number of teachers have been meeting on Saturday afternoons since the contract passed last month. They are led by Steve Conn and Heather Miller, married, Detroit teachers (she, middle school math and he, high school math) and longtime opponents of the DPS and DFT status quos. 

Two union factions, both alike in dignity,
In fair Detroit, where we lay our scene,
From a contract grudge to new mutiny,
Where student achievement makes hands unclean.
Mr. Johnson has his power,
But opposition grows right by the hour.
With fear and pay cuts looming nigh,
Is public education going to die?

The fight is defending of public education
From destruction, from privatization. 
Onward Detroit, for we are the front edge of a national assault
Against single biggest institutional gain 
In America in the last century:
The fundamental right to a public school education. 
For this generation doubt is being cast upon that,
And there's a real effort to turn to educational profit-making, 
To thy enemy, school is business.
And this system will leave children weak.

O! Teachers! Help us!
Education does work. It works in our classrooms
But for years, we've been attacked:
We, thy urban districts. 
You starve a school district, 
You starve it of funding, 
You starve it of all supplies.
It is not thy teachers who have feasted for these years:
It is the school boards, the superintendents and the administrators.

Public education works but it must be paid for,
It needs investment far and wide,
A debt paid by those who came before.
When students and teachers are starved of resources,

And now they say we make too much money.
So we shall give the district a loan!
Yes, I have a master's degree, 
And a decade in these trenches,
Show me the engineer, the doctor, the lawyer
Who bought his own clock for his work space as I have!
Rise up with me and oppose!

The fearful passage of the contract,
And the continuance of Mr. Bobb's reign,
Means Conn's followers finally came and came.
His dissent draws teachers who, once before,
Would not listen to him yore.
But now, they do begin a roar.
Recall Johnson! they cry. Recall!
It echoes thru thy union hall.
Some 1,300 hands have signed petitions
To recall Johnson before his time.
(Tho, some 5,000 have refrained.)
And a lawsuit's filed in circuit court,
As teachers wall their fragile fort.
The money taken from each check,
Could this be the district's wreck?

We're meeting weekly, our numbers grow
From few to dozens, I count so.
For years I toil for better conditions
With some eschewing my message and methods.
But now I have more support than ever.
Bobb has failed us, Johnson too.
And the politicians from Detroit to Lansing to Washington,
Wait to pounce on public education.
We teachers are not thy enemy but thy foot soldiers in the battle.
The battle that will save our children from life sentences
Of jobs they'd work like mere cattle.
We must remind the world that the Bobb-Johnson speak,
That's the most contemptible thing of all.
It's the ideology of blame-all-the-teachers.
They say there shall be no money,
All shall eat and drink on the cheap.
When they budget, they say, "Let's kill all the teachers."

MISS JULIET (quietly because she is drowned out by the fighting among union members)
But I have seen a reading method
That's able to breathe life into a stone,
Quicken comprehension and make you know vocabulary,
With spritely fire and motion, whose simple touch
Is power to erase years of neglect,
To give our children a pen in hand
And write compositions and read at grade level.
Will no one listen? Are the battle trenches now so deep
That education is asleep?
With Johnson's grip upon the throne,
And Conn Miller's revolution moans,
Wherein is our worthiness as educators?

I, too, want to teach my students.
I want to keep my job.
I want to be fairly compensated.
I know not where this recall petition and lawsuit
And contract and EFM shall lead us.
Is it toward better educating our children?
Or advancing adults' political ambitions?
Still, I fight from outside assault.

O, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
We agree on the passion, the children needs,
But how to educate, remains to be seen.

We are in the fight of our lives,
While Detroit sleeps, unaware of the threat these politicos bring.
O, I long to teach: numbers, letters, 
But the politics must be better.
And know, dear Juliet, if your job search tears you from my arms,
Only we and children will be harmed.

ACT II, Scene 3 (In a government office) 

Thunder and lightning. Enter three Education Politicians.

FIRST POLITICIAN, Secretary Duncan
I come to states with federal dollars,
"Race to the Top" for education valor.
Sure, you must agree to do
What the feds prescribe you to.

Here in Michigan we need the money,
The legislature's will is stuck like honey.
Since taxes surely won't be raised,
We need new grants to make the grade.

THIRD POLITICIAN, President Weingarten
I love this plan, tho' elders worry
Why do policy in such a flurry?
That's what brought us NCLB*,
And what a sham that turned out to be!

Double, double toil and trouble,
What will burst this underachievement bubble?

FIRST POLITICIAN, Secretary Duncan
I hear dissenters on the streets.
In Detroit they'll stay? Just there they'll keep?

Oh, yes, that city, an ache in my head.
Trouble may brew there but will not spread.
Those that govern surely know,
And passed laws just a few weeks ago.
State pay cuts, more charters, less medical.
May union strength be theoretical.

THIRD POLITICIAN, President Weingarten
My boss there, Johnson, he's holding strong.
(Tho some claim he reads his bylaws wrong.)
He ignores the calls for recall.
I call bravery what some call gall.

Double, double, toil and trouble,
To where will all this turmoil bubble?

ACT II, Scene 4 (At the Detroit Federation of Teachers for the regular monthly meeting.)

A crowd of about 400 has gathered. Some support the regular union business, about half support the Conn- and Miller-led recall drive of Johnson)

I call this meeting quick to order,
And before you is my agenda.
My report, my world-view.
I believe my opposition to number few.

We do not approve your plan.
Now listen up, you purchased man.
Your views have sold us down and out
Hear us now or we'll just shout.
We move to stop our paychecks taken,
We move to make the presidency vacant,
We move to count our vote recall,
We move to remove you, once and for all.

The motions are invalid.
This motion has no merit.
Sit. Stay. Quiet.
I lead, even if my castle is surprised.
This way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Hey, hey, ho, ho,
Keith Johnson's got to go.
We'll be back in one month future,
Forces strengthened, fortune sure.
Our numbers swell, for teachers see
Needs to fight, to teach to be.

The meeting is adjourned.

All the world's a stage, 
And all the teachers and administrators merely players.
They have their contracts and their tenure,
And one man, in his time as EFM, plays many parts,
His acts lasting many ages.
A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun for sorrow will not show his head,
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things,
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished,
For never was a story of more woe
Than of students and their teachers, like Juliet and Romeo.

ACT III, Scene 1

With a Feb. 11 general membership meeting scheduled, a growing number of followers signing on to the lawsuit over the teachers' "loans" to the district and attending the Miller-Conn meetings, and uncertainty about education legislation from Lansing, the Detroit Public Schools are a saga unfolding. The script continues to be written. And what, pray tell, will happen to our Romeo and Juliet?)

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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