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Labor, Layoffs and Education Reform

Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, has been a pivotal figure in Rhode Island's education reform movement. He has joined with Providence Superintendent Tom Brady in a unique labor-management partnership to turn around failing schools - a model that has won national attention. And he provided a key bit of support in the state's successful, reform-minded application for $75 million in federal Race to the Top dollars.

His efforts have drawn some sidelong glances from others in organized labor - particularly at the National Education Association-Rhode Island, which has consistently pushed back on the reform effort. Indeed, NEA-RI declined to sign on the Race to the Top application, which pledged more charter schools and more stringent evaluation of instructors, among other things.

So when I spoke with Pat Crowley of NEA-RI, his take on Smith's current predicament was not entirely surprising - but it was interesting nonetheless.

The city of Providence, of course, has sent termination notices to every teacher in the public schools - with plans to rescind many, but not all, before they become effective next fall. The move, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras contends, is designed to provide the city with maximum flexibility as it tackles a historic budget problem. But it has deeply upset Smith's members, some of whom are rallying outside Providence City Hall in a major protest as I write.

Crowley's argument: if organized labor's leading reformer gets treated this way, why should the rest of the teachers union movement engage in reform?

"The way this has gone down in Providence has got to give people in labor enough pause to say, 'I'm not going to be the next Steven Smith,'" Crowley says.

Indeed, no one should be more upset about the treatment of Smith, Crowley argues, than the education reform crowd.

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for Democrats for Education Reform, says he did, in fact, mention Smith in testimony before the Senate Education Committee yesterday. It is not lost on him, Fischer says, that Smith stuck his neck out on reform. And he is hopeful, he says, that the present turmoil will not derail reform efforts in Providence and elsewhere. (I couldn't reach Smith, who is at the rally, for comment. But I'll update this post if I'm able to reach him.)

And Fischer, who calls Crowley a friend, says he hopes the union leader will not use the present situation as a "wedge" in his efforts to slow down reform.

Whatever Crowley's efforts, the Providence firings seem bound to leave a sour taste in the mouth of organized labor. We'll see what the long-term impacts might be.

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