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Teachers must step up; They need to buck union leadership and put their duty to students first

Let's not mince words: If an acclaimed school turnaround organization pulls out of Buffalo, it will be because the teachers union refused to agree to an evaluation system that other unions have adopted. It's time for the individual teachers to step up.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore will never acknowledge the union's responsibility. By his reckoning, it's always someone else's fault -- school boards, school administrators, now the entire State Education Department. There's always a boogeyman. Yet the evaluation system that the Buffalo union is rejecting was negotiated at the state level with, and endorsed by, New York State United Teachers.

Rumore and the BTF have always had a cranky, dysfunctional relationship with the school district and, frankly, the district's hands haven't always been clean in that matter. But the issue today is one that has been successfully resolved in other school districts, where union leadership is less determined to play the spoiler.

Rarely have the stakes been higher. Students, teachers and the entire city will pay a high price if this matter isn't resolved quickly. Not only does the district stand to lose millions of dollars in federal funding, but now, Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools says it will back out of plans to help improve student achievement at two struggling schools if the evaluation fight isn't resolved by May 1 -- less than two weeks away.

The arrival of Johns Hopkins to help turn around Lafayette and East high schools was one of the most promising developments in Buffalo education in years. An organization that is internationally known for its turnaround efforts now may have to abandon its plans because the union can't get its head on straight.

The problem, Johns Hopkins said, is that the dispute is holding up approvals for its turnaround plans. Unless the May 1 deadline is met, it won't have time to plan its operations for the start of the next school year. It's a legitimate problem, but surely another factor is that it doesn't want to end up just spinning its wheels. When resources are limited, why waste your time with a system that refuses to help itself when plenty of other school districts also need help?

It has become hard to believe that the union even cares about this crisis, and perhaps that's not too surprising. The union doesn't teach children, after all. It exists only to protect and bolster the presumed interests of its members. Maybe it's just too much to expect the union or Rumore to have much interest in the quality of education afforded to Buffalo's students.

But teachers have shown time and again that they do care. They pay for supplies out of their own pockets. They start early and work late. They have reason to want to see the performance of their students improve and, not insignificantly, to protect the jobs that may be lost along with the $5.6 million in federal funding. The union says it will sue the state over that money, but that will take months or years and it's the wrong approach, anyway. The teachers need to start speaking up.

Some of them worry about the structure of the evaluation system and its inclusion of the achievement level of students who are chronically absent. But the system also provides built-in protections against over-emphasizing the influence of those students.

And, let's be honest, teachers really do play some role in the matter of absenteeism. They don't control it, plainly, but they have an influence. It's not unreasonable in some way to factor in the performance of all the students a district is charged with educating. If other teacher unions in New York can see that connection, there's no good reason that Buffalo's can't, as well.

Even more alarmingly, other shoes can drop here. Say Yes to Education has committed its considerable efforts to helping turn around education in Buffalo. Will it stay if it becomes obvious that the district, including the union, is self-sabotaging? Why would it?

This is a critical moment for the city's schools and its students. There is a fork in the road and, if the matter is left to Rumore, it is clear that nothing will change. Only the teachers themselves can exert the pressure needed to set off in a new and better direction. It is, after all, their union, their profession and their students. If Buffalo is going to take advantage of this moment, it will be because the teachers insisted on it.