Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Reprint of an Interview with Steve Cook, the new MEA president

Copied from: http://www.mlive.com/education/index.ssf/2011/09/new_mea_president_steven_cook.html

EAST LANSING – As the leader of the state's largest teachers union, Steven Cook hoped to have a seat at the table when it came time to discuss how to improve Michigan schools.
Instead, the newly installed Michigan Education Association president finds himself locked firmly on the outside while a Legislature that he calls the most polarizing he's ever seen continues to chip away at gains and protections his 155,000-member union accumulated over years.
“If you look at our won-loss record since January, it's not very good,” Cook said this week in his first wide-ranging interview since taking the helm of the union Sept. 1.

“I don't know how we get past the political rancor, because schools should not be a political issue. The question we're asking is: How can we get past all that? There doesn't seem to be a lot of talk about improving the quality of education. It all seems to be about political payback.”
A former community school coordinator in the Lansing district, Cook, 54, is the first nonteacher to be elected president of the union that has seen its clout eroded since voters handed Republicans control of the state House, Senate and governor's office.

In recent months, the union has been powerless to stop once unimaginable changes to the tenure system, finds limits to what it can bargain for, and will see teacher evaluations partly based on student performance on standardized tests.

The Republican majorities also are looking at other moves, such as allowing districts to hire nonunion teachers, erasing the cap on charter schools, and even preventing districts from collecting union dues.

Cook said teachers are unhappy – and he believes that discontent has spread to union members of all stripes and to a growing part of the public.

“It seems as if there is an all-out war,” he said. “Our people feel pounded on, vilified.
“There are two ways people can go. Some of our people want to fight. The other people want to just quit and say, 'We're not going to fight; we're not going to rally; we're just done. Most of the people I hear from are on the other side – they're angry and they want to fight.”

MEA President Steven Cook shared his opinion on personalities and issues
The faction looking for a fight has responded by attempting to recall numerous Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Rick Snyder, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, of Monroe, and Rep. Paul Scott, of Grand Blanc, who heads the House Education Committee.
Cook said recall attempts have unquestionably widened the divide with the GOP.
“It's hurt us with the Republican leadership,” he said. “They've got thin skin, and they're out of touch with their constituents. They won't even meet with out lobbyists. We ask why, and it's because of the recalls.”

Cook said there is a perception that the MEA is running all the recalls, but he swears each was the result of grassroots groundswells. The union has starting spending and offering manpower, especially in the campaign to oust Scott, who represents a union-friendly Flint suburb and who Cook said treated Iris Salters, his MEA predecessor, disrespectfully.

“Our people are frustrated and angry and lashing out,” Cook said. “And it's not just the teachers. They're being joined by the pipe-fitters and the electricians and everyone else. They've had it, and they're asking: 'What can I do?' They come to us and ask us to back up the money truck, which we don't really have.

“There's a downside. Will they recall enough people to flip the House or Senate? No. Will they get the million signatures they need to get the governor on the ballot? That's tough to do. But if I go out there and tell our members not to do these things, you're going to be able to measure my time in office with a stopwatch.”

The union backed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Virg Bernero, but leaders met with Snyder during the campaign. The union also introduced its own reform plan – the A+ Agenda – that suggested changes in tenure, evaluations and other areas.

But Cook said the A+ Agenda “never got a fair hearing” and called Snyder “a big disappointment” who doesn't seem to be in control of what his party members are doing in the Capitol chambers.

“We knew the House and the Senate would be polarizing, but we didn't realize it would be this bad,” Cook said. “If a good idea comes from a Democrat, it won't get heard.
“We've tried to work with people on the other side of the aisle. But the Republicans don't look too kindly on people who leave the reservation. We have friends in the Republican party, but they're afraid of the repercussions.”

Looking forward, Cook said the union will continue to reach out and advocate for members. A governor's commission is creating the guidelines to determine a teacher evaluation system, and he's hoping for a seat at the table.

He said the union also will push to restore some of the state aid that was cut this year. He said he also wants districts to keep class sizes smaller by adding more teachers, which he said research shows to be effective, even if it is expensive.

“Many of the things they are pushing, the rational is that they save money,” Cook said. “It's not about improving education, it's about saving money. If cheaper is always better, we haven't seen that.”