Sunday, November 13, 2011

Issue #33 November 13, 2011- Recalls, History and Building Unions

Issue #33- November 13, 2011
In this issue: Recalls, History 101, Why we need public educator unions and how to build them.

Recall Information and Other Positive Actions to Take…
We are getting closer to the big day, November 15th.  Be sure to check for ways that you can get involved in your area.  Don't forget the rally on November 19th.

Recall efforts won't be just for Walker.

For those who think that the protest movement is isolated and only involves public workers, the young uninformed college types and disenfranchised groups.

History 101- The Disuniting of America…
History provides many things for a society.  It provides a link to the past, a remembrance of where we've come from.  It provides a uniting background that defines a sense of purpose.  It also provides a guide for current events, a sense of what has been done before and the results of those actions.  While history can unite a group of people, it can also have the opposite effect.  History is rarely simple and straightforward with easily defined "good guys" and linear progress towards a clear goal.  History is as complex as the people who make up the story being told.

Americans don't really know or understand their history.  However, that doesn't stop them from using historical references to support their social and political ideologies.  The battle rages on and on over which group gets to wave the flag higher and has the backing of our Founding Fathers.  I was in a bookstore yesterday and was amazed to see the number of books that touted a political view and/or used a historical event, person or document to support their view.  It seemed like a majority of the books on the shelf were conservative in nature and spoke about impending doom and loss of American values if a progressive or liberal agenda was advanced. 

In referencing history it is very easy to take something/someone and use the information without putting it in context.  The Constitution and other important documents have been used to support a wide variety of arguments.  Quotes from famous historical figures are used in much the same way.  In many cases there are important details that give more meaning to the information used, but frequently these details are ignored or are modified to fit a specific political ideology.  It is natural to look to history and historical figures for validation of our actions and beliefs. 

In some ways the original intent of our nation's founders is not particularly relevant to our current political debates.  Our original leaders were involved in revolutionary change during a specific moment in time.  Their experiences and education along with the events that occurred during their lives shaped their writings and actions.  The result was a system of government that was geared towards achieving their social, economic and political goals.  Over time our country has grown, technology has influenced our lives and social norms have changed.  We must recognize how our historical leaders were influenced by their existing situations.

Those were troubled times and our leaders were frequently divided over the issues of the day.  However, when we look back at history, the path seems clear.  For example, when I teach 4th and 5th graders about the American Revolution very few of them can see any reason to be a Tory.  They all say that they would be active supporters of rebellion.  Along the same lines, when learning about the Civil War all of my students support the North.  They look at these time periods and either use the knowledge that our rebellion was successful, or look at a single issue, slavery, and form their opinion. 

Adults are no different in their perception of our history.  They look at events in isolation, based on the outcome or based on single issues of the time.  Yet we know that everything that involves human interactions is so much more complicated than this.  Events are influenced by the past, the present situation and the goals for the future.  These events are viewed in multiple ways by different people and as a result, no one view of history will ever be complete.  We can never fully appreciate or understand the perspective of another person, and this is further complicated by the differences in historical time periods. 

This is why it is dangerous to use the intent of our founders as our guide for today's actions.  Our modern view of history is frequently simplified beyond usefulness.  We quote a document or cite a specific action and use it to support our own beliefs and objectives.  We look to the past not only to validate what we believe now, but also to make other viewpoints appear "un-American" or otherwise invalid.  History is used as a "club" to batter down opposition viewpoints.  History is used as a sound-bite and complicated events are narrowed to simple, straight-forward and obvious actions.

Because of the importance of "current" events in shaping individual's political, social and economic ideas we can find contradicting thoughts from the same individual.  One historical document or figure can be used to support both sides of an argument.  If our historical icons are in any way thoughtful, rational people, their views will change and develop over time.  The documents they create will reflect these changes.

However, none of these arguments in any way diminishes the importance of knowing about historical figures and events.  I believe that history is one of the most important subjects we can study and that our current trend towards using education only for reading, writing and math hurts our growth as a nation.  We need to be intelligent in the ways that we use our knowledge of our past.  What happened before does impact our present and our future.  Because of changes in the world the impacts may be felt in many ways, but there still exists a record of what previous people have done.  History can be another instrument to guide our thinking, it just needs to be used carefully and thoughtfully.  History becomes a travel guide laden with possibilities and potential opportunities, it is not a precise map with directions to follow exactly. 

This Is NOT Democracy…
Our nation and our political system is a relatively young one that is constantly changing and modifying itself.  Ideas contained in our Bill of Rights, the Constitution and other documents were revolutionary at the time.  Now, modern Americans can't imagine not living with these protections and in this system of government.  Yet it isn't a monolithic political view and a simple, easily identified process.  In many ways we are still involved in the revolution that started in the late 1700's.  Because of the structures set up in the Constitution and other documents we must perpetually redefine and refine our political systems.  With any revolution/evolution there are growing pains, contradictions and conflicts.

One of the strengths of the Constitution and the system of government that was originally developed is its ability to change as needed over time.  However, in order for the system to work effectively there are several things that must remain in place.  These are the things that are being undermined and challenged in Wisconsin and around the United States.

-Voting rights and the validity of elections must be maintained. 
This is clearly under attack in many ways.  There are people and organizations who are actively working to undermine our electoral process.  Voter rights are being restricted and people are genuinely confused about the whole process.  Money has clearly contaminated our elections.  These things, combined with public concern about potential tampering with voting machines and overall lack of trust in the process makes for a dangerous mix.

-Loyalty must be to the good of the nation and not any single party or other organization.  I've always wondered how the pledge that many of our legislators have signed is legal.  Didn't these representatives of the people swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution?  It seems like any other oaths that are sworn or pledges given would directly contradict their responsibility and result in a conflict of interest that would seem impeachable.

-Power must not be centralized in any single individual or governing body.  Our governor in Wisconsin continues to try and make the executive branch the ultimate authority in all areas. 

After all that we've been through we recognize the importance of non-partisan oversight.  However, will an elected official truly be non-partisan or should the civil service take over.  Of course, given the current state of affairs, we need to worry about the possibility of the appointments being made for political advantage.  Clearly the damage done to our trust in government is deep and will be difficult to undo.

-Leaders must be honest and work for the public good.  This means being as transparent as possible and using a wide variety of sources to support decisions made.  We all know that data can be used to support a wide variety of opinions, but our leaders must do their best to sort through the layers and get to the best possible information.  Thereby producing the best possible result for the majority of people affected. 

The Wisconsin Idea-Education…
Wisconsin has been a leader in the development of ideas that have been designed to implement the goals that our Constitution established.  As mentioned in my previous post these efforts grew substantially during the late 1800's and early 1900's.  Many initiatives were put in place that improved the quality of life for many Wisconsin citizens. 

One of the charges put forward in the Wisconsin Idea was that government should work to improve public morality.  I would argue that among the most powerful ways a government can influence public morality is through access to education.  A well educated population is not by definition more superior in morality (we can all think of some well educated individuals who are not at all examples of morality), but education has a positive impact in this area in many ways.  Education can also impact a person's economic status, although I would argue that is not the foremost goal of getting an education.

The question is, how does cutting school funding, restricting access to higher education and otherwise limiting public access to education help improve our state? 

The idea that an educated population is necessary for a successful democracy has been supported throughout history.  What exactly it means to be educated has changed over time as well.  For much of our nation's history, a well educated person received instruction in a wide range of topics.  Learning was considered a noble process and one that an individual was lucky to obtain.  It seems that recently the focus has changed from learning to more training for the future.  Students are expected to get knowledge that will help them in a specific career or profession.  Simply going to school to learn is not enough unless that knowledge can somehow show a "profit" later on.  This is a significant change in education and a great loss for our culture.    

More Reasons to Recall (As though we needed more)…

The attacks on the middle class continue.  I always have mixed feelings about these articles.  On one hand, the more people negatively affected by Walker the more support we have for his recall.  On the other hand, it isn't right for any person to have to struggle because of the actions of this administration.  Too many people are being hurt and too severely.  Change needs to happen now.

Why We Need Teacher Unions…
Last week I wrote about why we need unions to represent public school teachers.  I talked about the need to represent educators in order to defend public schools.  If the educators don't defend public education we will be left with a disorganized and disjoined effort which will result ultimately in the privatization of education.  There is no doubt that this is the long-term goal of many so called education reformers.  Look at the strategy employed here in Wisconsin.  Scott Walker launched a coordinated attack on public education in several ways, but his first salvo was against the unions that represent public educators.

Once this legislation was in place the direct attacks on the educators could commence.  This effort aims to restrict the bargaining rights of educators and thereby reduce their ability to impact educational policy and working conditions.  Along with these restrictions came an increased push for accountability and evaluation of educators.

I wonder what would happen to this teacher as new rules are developed.

Combined with these efforts came the cuts in funding.    

Suddenly all public education employees (and employers as well) found themselves in uncharted territory.  Territory where the authority rests nearly exclusively in the hands of school boards and administrators.  These groups find themselves given virtually unchecked power unless educators find ways to exercise their power as a collective group.

Putting the whole picture together results in a bleak picture for public education.  However, educating people is an art and educators are artists.  We are artists who are looking at this canvas and seeing potential and opportunity.  Educators are at heart optimists.  We have to be because of the nature of our jobs.  If we didn't have an optimistic attitude we would have given up the profession long ago.  It is this positive attitude that serves us well in this fight against enormous odds. 

However, we can't succeed in this fight alone.  Individual educators don't have the influence or power necessary to make an impact in establishing educational policy.  Education is truly a profession where the most knowledgeable and effective members work diligently in smaller settings and that is as it should be.  We want our best educators working directly with children so that they can have the most impact. 

These educators must also have a voice in establishing guidelines, standards and determining best practices.  They get that voice by adding their thoughts to a collective whole, in other words, by participating in a union.  The union is able to give support, hope and protection to these educators as they try to utilize their skills in educating children. 

This is the time for all educators to step up and be a strong voice for our public schools and the people who work in them.  We need to advocate for true improvements that will have the best results for our students and their families.  It is a difficult time, but one filled with some real opportunities.  Many public educators who were unaware of the threats that existed to our profession are now awake and ready to defend our vocation. 

Union Building
As part of our efforts to organize we need to strengthen the unions that work to protect us.  Public sector unions in Wisconsin found themselves in widely differing situations after Walker's legislation took effect.  Some no longer exist as recognized unions while others are still working under the contracts that they had prior to the passing of the anti-union legislation.  No matter what the situation every public education employee still has the right to organize in their workplace.  We may not be able to negotiate directly with our employer, but that doesn't mean we are without a voice. 

In order to make that voice heard, it must be exercised collectively.  For that to happen, there must be some form of organization in place.  Without an existing organization any effort to impact new policies will be much reduced in effectiveness.  Once again, different school districts find themselves in very different situations.

One common thread that binds all public educators together is the desire to educate all their students in the best ways possible.  This desire is combined with a realistic view of what exactly that means.  We recognize the limitations imposed by forces that we often have little control over.  It is our job to try and limit the effects that outside influences like poverty have on our students.  We also need to recognize the human limits that educators have.  We have some of the same issues in our lives that many of our students are dealing with. 

In order to organize the first step is to find out what your resources are.  Where does the staff at your school or in your district stand?  What actions are they willing to take?  What is the climate in your school/district/community as it pertains to public education?  The most logical place to start is with the educators you work with.  Take the time to identify people who are willing to work together to advocate for public education.  At the same time it is important to recognize that the families that you work with also have an interest in making sure the school/district that their child attends is a positive and successful environment.

While talking with staff it is also important to take note of what issues matter most to the people in your school/district.  It does little good to organize for a struggle over something that few people view as important.  Sometimes a little education of educators may be necessary, but there is no doubt that people will put more effort into a struggle for an issue they find relevant to their own lives. 

Doing this information gathering takes time and personal attention.  However, this is time well spent that will improve morale and increase participation in any actions necessary to protect our public schools.

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