I recently had an opportunity to interview Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, for the show “Beyond Boston” that I host for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Representing more than 100,000 teachers statewide, the MTA is a significant force, though one that is often maligned in the media despite the fact that its members teach and care for our children. The Globe, for example, recently called Madeloni a “combative firebrand,” and while I think they meant that in a bad way, in the full-contact education policy arena it should be considered high praise. I asked Madeloni about everything from the remnants of the charter school ballot fight to the current war over high-stakes testing.
Please speak a little bit about your membership and what is currently on the horizon.
We have 110,000 members across the state, pre-K through higher ed. That includes classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and in higher ed it includes faculty, professional staff, [and] classified staff, so we really are the people who educate and serve the children of Massachusetts.
We have heard a lot about the threat of the Trump administration [to schools], and how that may trickle down to the Boston area. But education is one of those things that doesn’t seem to exist when there isn’t a big fight over charter schools or some other big messy brawl. What is your role in keeping the fight alive and moving forward.
I think public education should be the center of our fight—not only against the Trump administration, but certainly here in Massachusetts against the [administration of Governor Charlie Baker and Secretary of Education James Peyser]. There’s a lot of similarities in ideology between [US Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos and our secretary Peyser. Both are interested in privatizing [schools], but maintain an austerity mindset that says do more with less, and both have been instrumental in undermining public education in places where they’ve had the opportunity to do so.
Here in Massachusetts, it’s the high-stakes testing that they use. We’re in testing season now in Massachusetts, and I can’t tell you how many letters I’m getting, and emails from educators and parents, saying that we really have to stop this, that we’re going down a rabbit hole with the testing. I don’t know if people who aren’t in schools know how problematic it is, but we’re expected to function under these austerity budgets where more and more we are supposed to do more with less. And there hasn’t been the commitment from the governor and the State House to say, We are going to fund our public schools.
Why does all the far-right ideological thinking in the Bay State get whitewashed? Why isn’t there more outrage?
I think part of it is that over the past 25 years, it wasn’t just the right-wing Republicans who brought corporate ed reform to public education. The Democrats were right there aligned with them. I like to say that the Democrats walked us to the abyss that is Betsy DeVos. They bought the language of the failing public schools, they bought the austerity narratives, they bought the story of the failing teacher, and they refused to have the conversations about economic and racial injustice and what that means for the young people coming into our schools in the communities in which those students live. It’s been a long cycle of people who are supposedly our friends not working with us on public education.
The sort of good news-bad news of the Trump administration is that people are really paying attention, and we saw in the [failed] Question 2 campaign [to eliminate the cap on charter schools] that people want to hear from educators and that they really value their voices. It’s almost in their blood. It’s a visceral thing when you talk to people—they want fully-funded public schools to be places where children can go and experience the world in a hopeful, joyful, creative way. So we want to access that and bring that conversation forward.
Part of what we’re doing is there is going to be a [Rally for Public Education] on May 20 here in Boston. The message is to resist privatization and high-stakes testing and to fully fund our schools, but let’s also celebrate the incredible possibility that is public education, which started here in Massachusetts.
How do you explain privatization to your average voter or your average parent who just wants their kid to go to a good school and who doesn’t necessarily care about the bigger picture or the longer term?
The key is that when people think about their public school, they do think about it as a foundation of democracy. The ideal is that we bring all of our young people together in a world that is a democratic space. One of the major things that privatization does is it removes the elected school committee from the picture. You get appointed boards of directors, or self-appointed by the commissioner, so the idea of having elected officials disappears, and you have private interests coming in and making decisions about curriculum and hiring and firing where there’s no more public input. There’s opportunities for profit even in a nonprofit, and public education’s not supposed to be for profit. It’s supposed to be an institution of the common good, but people are finding ways to come in and profit off it, whether that’s through charter schools, or consulting companies, or testing, which is a huge industry. And now it’s coming with personalized learning, which is a huge industry in which lessons can be delivered through a computer, and we don’t even need educators at that point.
How do teachers stay the course through all of this, and how does it help for teachers to come out and actually be seen at events like the one on May 20? Does it help the MTA look like something other than a faceless union?
To go back to the No on 2 campaign, it really took a lot of educators to go and knock on doors. The welcome that we received was just amazing. So in spite of the media narrative that is abusing teachers, the reality on the ground is different. People love their teachers, they recognize the commitment that people are making. So part of what I do with teachers is help them realize the reality on the ground, and to build from that the quality and meaning of their work, and to recognize that there’s enormous power in that. There’s power in our unions, and there’s power in coalitions.
At the same time, it’s painful to be a teacher right now. We just had a meeting about the bullying that’s taking place from administrators trying to impose these accountability systems. [Teachers] were talking about what it’s like to have to [implement policies] that they know are bad for students. People get passionate about that, so our job is to help them recognize that emotion and get angry enough to say [they’re] angry and [they’re] not going to let this happen any more.
For more information on the upcoming rally visit massteacher.org.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.