Teachers, flag burning, BLM

It was big news 53 years ago when the Bloomfield, Indiana, school board fired a 22-year-old teacher at the local high school. Her offense: making a controversial remark in the classroom.

This was in 1967, and opposition to the Vietnam War was in its very early stages. An English instructor at Indiana State University had burned an American flag in the classroom. Although he claimed his point was to demonstrate the power of symbols, the public was outraged.

But at Bloomfield High School, first-year teacher Patricia Reilly, a recent ISU graduate, told her students that she didn’t see anything wrong with the act. The students, most likely, were stunned. One wrote a  letter to the local newspaper, which published it without using the student’s name.

Then the American Legion jumped into the fray. In a resolution, the local post demanded that the school district “take conclusive action by termination of the teacher’s contract immediately and prevent said teacher from teaching in Bloomfield schools again.” The school board voted to fire her.

I know about this because Johns Hopkins education professor Jonathan Plucker sent me a copy of the Bloomington Tribune newspaper from April 26, 1967. His friend had come across it while cleaning out some old files. Presumably, it had been saved because of the story about the teacher.

“Bloomfield Teacher Is Fired,” blares the giant headline across the top of the front page. (For non-locals, Bloomfield is about 30 miles from Bloomington. The paper wouldn’t normally carry Bloomfield news).

The newspaper itself is a real period piece. Journalistic conventions were a bit different in 1967: The Bloomfield teacher is referred to as Mrs. James E. Reilly. The paper is crammed with local news, ranging from stories on the upcoming primary elections to a list of admissions and dismissals at the hospital. On the wire pages, there’s a hodgepodge of national and world news, including a bizarre story from Los Angeles about a “tall, husky youth” who tried to poke his eyes out after taking LSD.

Another element that dates the paper is that it includes a lot of labor news. Workers at the local Westinghouse capacitor factory had reportedly been on strike for 147 days. In Marion, Indiana, striking RCA workers had barricaded entrances and knocked down a security guard.

Which leads back to the story of the Bloomfield teacher – because this is a Labor Day story, in a way. Would the tale have played out any differently if it had occurred a few years later, after the teachers’ union movement picked up steam in Indiana?

Teachers in Indiana didn’t get collective bargaining rights until 1973, when the legislature enacted Public Law 217. Would it have mattered if the teacher had a contract or a union to back her up?

Maybe not. Even today there’s news about school districts playing politics with what teachers can say and do – like the Texas teacher who was suspended for decorating her virtual classroom with a Black Lives Matter poster and another proclaiming it a “welcoming space for everyone.”

When I first read the 1967 newspaper story, I imagined it as a tragedy: a young, idealistic teacher driven from the classroom by mean-spirited politics. But then I came across an obituary for Patricia L. Reilly, who had a 33-year teaching career in Indianapolis, Decatur Township and, yes, Bloomfield public schools. She died in 2014 in Florida at age 69.

“Her interest in theater and children allowed her to combine both passions into writing and directing plays,” the obituary says. “As well she loved constructive sewing, music, reading and writing.”

I’m glad she didn’t let the American Legion drive her from a profession she clearly loved. I’ll bet many of her students, had they known the story, would have felt the same way.

Teacher strikes ‘changed the narrative’

The teacher strikes that started in West Virginia in 2018 and leapfrogged to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona succeeded beyond what organizers could have imagined, journalist Eric Blanc said Thursday.

Eric Blanc

Eric Blanc

The strikes, largely led by women, were “overwhelmingly successful” in winning better pay for teachers and more funding for schools, he said. They also transformed teachers in conservative states from public servants resigned to low pay to activists who were excited about their power to effect social change.

“These were people who had never been political before,” he said. “They were skeptics who became militants. That sense of power is not something that’s easy to take away.”

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Power prevails in Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that it is unconstitutional for public-employee unions to collect fair-share fees — fees charged to non-members to cover the cost of representing them in collective bargaining and other matters. The decision in Janus v. AFSCME was expected but bizarre.

The court’s majority, after all, are supposed to be originalists who insist the Constitution means what the framers wrote over 200 years ago. Conservative legal critics are likely to mock the idea, expressed by the late liberal justice William O. Douglas, that “emanations” from the text of the Constitution form a “penumbra” in which other rights – such as a right to privacy – can be found.

Yet the five conservative justices looked at the First Amendment, with its five freedoms – of speech, religion, the press, assembly and to petition of the government — and found a sixth in its penumbra:

The freedom to free-ride on union members who willingly pay dues for what they get. Continue reading

Life after Janus? The view from Indiana

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision this month in Janus v. AFSCME, a lawsuit that argues it’s a violation of the First Amendment for unions to collect “fair share fees” to offset the cost of representing employees who choose not to join up and pay dues.

If the court rules for Mark Janus, the Illinois government employee who brought the lawsuit, the result will be bad for public-sector unions in the 20-plus states that permit fair-share fees. But unions can still be effective if they work at it, according to officials with the Indiana State Teachers Association – which has been down this road before.

Keith Gambill

“We really focus on the greater work of the association: our ability, when we join together and speak collectively, to be in a better position to effect change,” said Keith Gambill, the association’s vice president. “It’s that collective action, that coming together, that really assists us in working to make learning conditions better for our students.”

Indiana used to have fair-share fees for teachers, but the state legislature outlawed them in 1995. The ISTA, which represents teachers in most of Indiana’s 291 school districts, lost members and revenue as a result, Gambill said. In the years that followed, it lost key battles over education funding and teacher bargaining rights. But it hasn’t been sidelined, and it’s still a player at the Statehouse – despite fighting uphill battles as a group aligned with Democrats in a state controlled by Republicans.

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