“Those are the hardest days,” he said. “But I would rather they hear the news in our house than from somewhere else.”
With a direct role in high-stakes personnel decisions, budget setting and teacher training, the Montgomery County Education Association is on the leading edge of a wave of teacher unionism that emphasizes collaboration over conflict and makes school reform a top priority.
The pivot away from confrontation comes as teachers are pushing to maintain influence within an increasingly crowded field of education reformers.
“Unions are as cognizant as anyone that if the larger public-education landscape doesn’t improve, their days will be numbered,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.
The Montgomery union’s partnership with a school system that has narrowed achievement gaps offers a counterpoint to those who argue that confronting unions is essential to fixing public education. Instead, the relationship has “helped propel” the district “to the top echelons of school systems in the nation,” said Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a former school board member.
Critics say teachers unions everywhere promote the financial interests of adults over the interests of children. In Montgomery, some argue that union influence has led the school board to cut deals with teachers that taxpayers can’t sustain.
Montgomery teachers are among the best paid in the region. Despite some fierce conflicts with the County Council over budgets, the school board also has protected generous health benefits for teachers. School and union leaders are now fighting in Annapolis to safeguard a steady flow of local education funding.
Last year, Montgomery schools were featured at a conference in Denver, where the federal government convened delegations of union, management and school board members from across the country to team up on reform. Local unions in cities including Tampa, New Haven, Conn., and Portland, Maine, also have gained recognition for negotiating new ways to evaluate or pay teachers.
Still, it’s not easy turning historic adversaries into tight-knit teams. Joshua P. Starr, who became Montgomery’s superintendent in July, said he was amazed by the high level of trust between labor leaders and administrators.
He described a more arm’s-length relationship with unions in his previous job as head of the Stamford, Conn., school system. Leadership meetings happened privately, he said. “Then you would think, ‘How are you going to work this through the union?’ ”