New teachers union chief known for speaking out

Delaware State Education Association President Mike Matthews. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Mike Matthews is not afraid to make waves.

Now, as president of one of the most powerful groups in Legislative Hall he’s got a chance to influence policy.

Mr. Matthews, who took the reins as head of the Delaware State Education Association — the teachers union — in July, represents about 13,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers and others throughout the state’s 200-plus schools.

The union’s positions carry considerable weight in the General Assembly — especially with the Democratic majority.

Mr. Matthews succeeds Frederika Jenner, who served as DSEA chief for six years. As president, his expressed duties are somewhat limited — overseeing the DSEA Representative Assembly and executive board — but he also plays an important role in coordinating the group’s goals.

The Red Clay Consolidated School District elementary teacher takes over at a somewhat tumultuous time for education.

Gov. John Carney, who was inaugurated in January, is reforming the Department of Education to make it more focused on supporting school districts rather than dictating policy, something for which former Gov. Jack Markell was criticized (including by Mr. Matthews).

Meanwhile, districts are dealing with budget crunches and funding cuts.

Although education is receiving more money this year than in the prior fiscal year, districts saw an $11 million reduction in the Sustainment Fund, as well as another cut of $15 million.

Schools “cannot afford” to have that happen again, Mr. Matthews insists.

“My main goal is to make sure we have a school funding system that meets the needs of an evolving population of students,” he said.

While he said DSEA is supportive of the unit count system, which allocates funding on a per student basis, Mr. Matthews wants to see more resources go to students most in need: those who come from high-poverty areas, have disabilities and or are English language learners.

“These are students who come to us with wider gaps in understanding and achievement and who require a greater deal of resources to fill those gaps,” he said.

One of the issues he hopes to spotlight is special education. The state has seen far more students with disabilities enroll in recent years, placing increasing strain on the school system and budget-writers.

It’s a topic especially close to Mr. Matthews’ heart: He has taught special ed for several years.

For the next three years, however, he’ll be out of the classroom, on leave with Red Clay while he serves full-time as DSEA president.

Willing to speak out

Mr. Matthews is no stranger to generating and receiving criticism.

He expressed frustration with lawmakers, particularly Republicans, for failing to raise more revenue this year, which would have minimized cuts.

Mr. Matthews, who admitted he can be “loud and rambunctious,” lambasted members of the GOP on Facebook during the last days of the session at the end of June and beginning of July, and he has been unafraid to speak out against Democrats as well.

He made a name for himself in the Delaware politics blogosphere and as president of the Red Clay Education Association from 2013 to 2016.

Heading RCEA, he sometimes clashed with former Gov. Markell. Many educators in the state were frustrated by Gov. Markell’s plans to close struggling schools and what they charged was an increasingly over-centralized, bureaucrat-heavy Department of Education.

Certain schools were “victims of Gov. Markell’s policies,” Mr. Matthews said, characterizing some of his policies on school and teacher evaluation as “draconian.”

While DSEA has not polled members on what they think of Gov. Carney’s vision for the Department of Education, Mr. Matthews said several local education leaders are optimistic.

“Early signs are showing that Gov. Carney is really keeping his word” on making the agency a support-centered one, he said.

A journalism major in college who worked as a substitute teacher after failing to find a media job following graduation, Mr. Matthews quickly found that he had a passion for teaching.

After obtaining a master’s degree from Wilmington University, he began working full-time in Red Clay in the 2009-2010 school year.

From there, he “got unwittingly roped” into joining the local teachers’ union, he said with a chuckle.

After serving as grievance chair of the Red Clay Education Association, he ran for and won the post of president of RCEA.

In March, Mr. Matthews was elected president of DSEA in a runoff election that was called because the January election ended in an unprecedented tie between Mr. Matthews and Lake Forest School District’s Karen Crouse.

He was emboldened to run after a conversation with Christina School District teacher Jackie Kook that started as a hypothetical and turned serious.

The two ran as a ticket, with Ms. Kook seeking the spot of vice president. (She did not win.)

“It’s not that we don’t want someone else to win, it’s just we saw ourselves as ‘Why don’t we do this? We have so many ideas. We think we have a pretty firm layer of support up here and even in some downstate districts.’ So, we did it,” Mr. Matthews recalled.

During his first year, he’s aiming to visit 100 schools throughout the state, speak at every district board meeting and talk regularly with union members.

Although he will be present in Legislative Hall at times, convincing lawmakers to vote one way or the other is not his primary job.

The union has a full-time lobbyist who relays its members’ positions to lawmakers, and its president is intent on, first and foremost, speaking with Delaware educators.

“While I know that there will be a role for me in the halls over there, my main goal is to make sure that I’m out and about with members and hearing what they have to say,” Mr. Matthews said.

According to the DSEA, the percentage of Delaware educators who are members is in the high 80s. DSEA officials say most state education associations have seen their numbers fall in recent years, but DSEA has not.

“I’ve heard from legislators who say we have a lot of power and I hear from legislators who say on education issues they trust us because we are speaking for our members and our members are speaking for our students,” Mr. Matthews said. “… I like to think that we have earned some authority in that realm considering our goals to ensure that all students have an education that meets their needs and will help them succeed in life.”

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