Jessica Tang poised to be next Boston Teachers Union president
Jessica Tang is poised to become president of the Boston Teachers Union when the current president steps down this summer. Tang has served as the BTU’s director of organizing since the position’s creation in 2013, where she led several policy campaigns and community organizing efforts. She was a union board member before that. Tang is the uncontested candidate to take over from President Richard Stutman when he resigns.
With Tang’s advancement, the BTU will join the ranks of several other major Boston local unions helmed by people of color. In the role she will represent approximately 7,000 actively-working union members and about 3,500 members who are retirees. The presidential term length is two years. May 3 closed the primary elections, which were held only for those races with more than two contenders. Final appointments will be decided via the general election this June 7. Tang is running with a slate of officers that includes music teacher Johnny McInnis as candidate for political director.
Tang says she intends to continue taking a holistic approach to improving outcomes for students. This includes not only advocating for more public education funding, but also weighing in on policies that impact students’ lives outside the classroom — and thus their ability to perform within it.
“We also are advocating against a lot of harmful policies that hurt our families that may not seem directly related to education, but impact our students’ abilities to have schooling,” Tang said in a Banner phone interview. “We are talking broadly about building a movement for social justice that includes economic justice … [and] racial justice. … The fight for public education goes hand in hand with these other fights.”
This philosophy has led the BTU to participate in immigrant rights demonstrations, including with the Cosecha movement and other groups on May 1; support the Fight for $15; hold teach-ins on the day of the People’s Climate March; join the Women’s March on D.C.; participate in affordable housing demonstrations; and advocate for diversity work. Within the BTU, Tang established internal organizing committees on topics such as LGBTQ inclusion, teacher diversity, restorative justice and immigrant rights, branding an “Unafraid Educators” campaign to create sanctuary schools that protect and serve students regardless of the way pupils self-identify, their abilities or their immigration statuses.
Tang says that in her current role, she has been working to foster more relationships with allies and stakeholders, build coalitions and grow a social justice movement. The active cross-sector collaboration also gives the BTU opportunities to show themselves as active part of the community and to fight anti-union narratives, which Tang says identifies among her goals.
“I think the union is oftentimes misunderstood,” Tang said, stating that many people seem unaware of the power and purpose of unions to address social equity problems. “Unions have made important contributions to addressing social inequalities. When unions have the lowest participation, we have the largest income inequality.”
Also high on Tang’s list of goals is the unsigned contract between the teacher’s union and the city, with negotiations entering their 16th month. Tang says the union is pushing for a contract that includes certain provisions around teaching conditions and serving high-need students.
Annissa Essaibi-George, vice chair of the city council’s Committee on Education and a former Boston Public Schools teacher, praised Tang’s focus on addressing issues in children’s communities that affect their abilities to be engaged in their academics. Essaibi-George said Tang, a former teacher with political experience, can effectively leverage both of these perspectives in the presidency role.
“Being a former teacher herself , she has a firm understanding of the issues teachers deal with in the classroom but also has a firm grasp of the political perspective as well, which is really important for the union president to have,” Essaibi-George said. “She’ll do an incredible job.”
McInnis praised Tang’s efforts to better engage union membership.
“[Tang also has been active] within the union, getting members more informed, getting opportunities for members to be more proactive within the union and inviting them to be part of different groups — whether that be teachers that participate in inclusion programs, art teachers, etc.” McInnis said in a Banner phone interview. “She provided us with a forum to come communicate and develop strategies that support students in our schools.”
Angelina Camacho, co-chair of the Citywide Parent Council, praised Tang for engaging a wide range of stakeholders. She said Tang has worked not only to address teachers’ needs but also actively works to engage parents — a practice that Camacho says the school department should focus more on. Camacho served on a parent advisory council that Tang launched and since then has collaborated with her on parent engagement and policy issues, such as the successful No on 2 ballot campaign, which opposed lifting the cap on charter schools.
“Jessica’s been doing hard work over the years to not only be an excellent teacher, but an excellent leader who looks at the full package of what makes education great,” Camacho told the Banner.
Camacho said while she regrets seeing any race in which a candidate runs unopposed, she believes one reason for the empty field is the strength of Tang’s candidacy. Camacho served on the parent advisory council launched by Tang.
McInnis has taught music in Boston for 22 years and has been the president of the Black Educators of Alliance of Massachusetts since 2011. If elected, he would be another person of color in BTU top leadership. In June, McInnis will face off against Colum Whyte, co-editor of the BTU monthly newspaper and a teacher at the Joseph Lee K-8.
Among McInnis’ top goals are amplifying educators’ voices in policy decisions, soliciting more member feedback and improving communication with membership over key issues regarding elected officials and education legislation.
“If you don’t hear anything, you assume everything’s fine,” McInnis said, emphasizing the need to provide policy and political information so members can rally.
He said the innovation partnership zone legislation is one concern on his radar. He regards the zone policy as an effort to expand charter schools despite the defeat of ballot Question 2. Under this system, should a district have one or more underperforming schools, the district or the state commissioner of education could seek to allow several schools to create and implement improvement plans with a greater level of budgetary, curriculum and management autonomy. McInnis also said current practices in turnaround schools and school slated for closure can be too disruptive and harmful to teachers and students. He said personal experience with this is one reason he is running.
Whyte states on his campaign website that he would strive to inform elected officials, the media and the general public on the importance of including teachers in developing education policy. He also opposes education privatization and will address neighborhood poverty and its impact on students.
Filling out Tang’s slate of officers are Erik Berg, running unopposed for vice president, and Betsy Drinan, for secretary treasurer. Drinan drew top tallies over three competitors in the May primary, and will advance to face in June the candidate who garnered the second-highest votes, Karen Cross.