Sunday, September 23, 2012

Issue #80 September 23, 2012- Suits vs. Dungarees, Fighting for Public Education

What This Is…
Issue #80- September 23, 2012
In this issue: Suits vs. Dungarees- Class Warfare Continues, Public Educators Fight Back

The Suits vs. The Dungarees
We are in the middle of the latest confrontation between social classes in the United States.  It isn't surprising that those who have wealth and power would want to maintain their control of the system.  This is a trademark of almost every civilization in human history.  In many societies, the powerful were able to maintain their status through brute force and physical control of the rest of the population (Feudalism for example).  Here in the United States, like other democracies, they have to play the game by a different set of rules or else forfeit their claims of controlling power through legitimate means. 

In America success is defined by your material possessions and other types of wealth.  The "American Dream" revolves around the accumulation of "stuff" and the size of your economic portfolio.  While many can argue that there are other ways that we measure success, the reality is that most people who are considered "successful" are also wealthy.  We also can't ignore the fact that with the existing rules regarding campaign financing and lobbying, wealth also equals political power. 

This relationship between wealth and power means that our democracy is being dragged away from its core philosophical roots and becoming more of an oligarchy.  There is a reasonable argument that we have always had a semblance of a ruling class, but our current laws, policies and economic conditions are widening the gap between those who have power and those who are on the outside looking in.  This has been made abundantly clear in places like Wisconsin where the voice of many citizens has been ignored while the opinions of a few are clearly heard. 

There is a significant amount of data that shows that Republican policies do little to benefit any groups except for those with the top incomes in America and that they actually harm the rest of us.  Obviously there are only a relatively small number of voters who can reside in the top economic tiers of our society, and a much larger percentage of citizens who fall in the middle, working and lower classes.  It would seem that this would make it virtually impossible for the economic elite to maintain their political power, unless they can somehow use their wealth and power to influence the electoral process.

That is the question that so many of us are asking, why do so many people vote against their own interests and support a party that doesn't get results for them?  One of the answers is the, often successful, efforts to divide and conquer the electorate through a barrage of issues, rhetoric and propaganda that sets different groups against each other.  This is done through the GOP as well as by "private" citizens acting on behalf of the Republican Party.

In the end, the net effect is to create an atmosphere of us vs. them.  A society where the "other" is always trying to take something away from you.  WKRP, one of my all time favorite TV shows, nailed this phenomena in the "Suits vs. Dungarees" conversation between Les and Herb.

By dividing the population the GOP is able to reduce conversation and cooperation between groups who share common needs and interests.  They create a climate that makes people suspicious of those who are different from each other, or who are strangers to one another.  In doing so they undermine trust in our public services and deliver propaganda that leads people away from solutions.

I teach 4th and 5th graders, children who are a time in their lives where friends become a huge influence on their lives.  We spend a significant amount of time talking about what makes someone a good friend.  One of the criteria that we have students consider in a good friend is that the person helps you become a better person.  A good friend doesn't lead you towards bad choices and supports your efforts to do your best in positive activities.  Voters need to think along these lines and realize that the current GOP rhetoric is leading us toward a society that doesn't value education, doesn't respect diversity and advocates using any method possible to accumulate personal wealth, even at the expense of others.  In other words, I wouldn't want to be "friends" with most of the current Republican candidates.  Their policies don't appear to be about making America a better nation for all citizens, just a select few.

Are the GOP's efforts to divide us succeeding?  That is a difficult question to answer.  In some ways it appears that we are a truly divided nation, one where part of the population sees the other part as the cause of all the problems we face.  However, it is somewhat difficult to see if this is a widespread problem, or if it is just the "public" face of America today.  When we are home, among people we know, do we truly believe the hype and hyperbole about each other?  Whatever the answer to this question is, the reality is that when it comes to casting a ballot citizens are forced to choose and too many are choosing to vote against their own interests. 

As the current election cycles heats up we are seeing signs of hope.  Signs that more and more people are "getting it" and realizing, not only that they need to cast a ballot with thought and care, but also that there are other ways to stand up for their rights and interests.  People are seeing the need to stand up against the wave of "reforms" and the efforts of a wealthy minority to control the lives of all Americans.  By educating themselves and participating in democracy, not just observing it, citizens are able to make their voice heard and their collective power felt.

Public Education, We Can't Be Victimized…
Much of what is said, printed and shared about public education today paints a bleak picture for its future.  We hear about the continuing efforts to privatize our schools, the efforts to destroy educator unions and eliminate the voice of educators from the debate, the reform efforts that work against educating most children and of course the attacks on the abilities of public educators to do their jobs.  Public educators are truly on the defensive in most public debates.

Fighting a defensive battle is exactly what we can no longer afford to do.  At best this will garner us support from those who are going to "look out for us" or who feel sorry for our plight.  We don't need to be pitied or felt sorry for.  Instead we need to realize that we are hardworking, very skilled individuals who do a demanding job in a dedicated, caring and professional manner.  We want the support of the public, but we also need to gain their respect by advocating for ourselves and turning the tables on those who want to eliminate public education in America. 

Educators across America need to look at the efforts of the Chicago teachers and realize that the fight for public education is a desperate one, but one that must be fought in an assertive and proactive manner.  Chicago educators have been building community support for their schools and their profession through a variety of methods.  Their efforts paid off as much of the public rallied with them during their recent strike.  The battle is won, not in the media, but on the streets and in the neighborhoods.  That is the strength that education reformers and politicians who support them don't want public educators to utilize.  We have connections and support in the communities we serve and if we mobilize, that support will manifest itself in powerful ways.  

Educators can't afford to wait for someone else to take care of the problems that public education faces.  We need to be the ones to address these problems and take control of our own futures.  By doing this we will move public education in a direction that is positive for all, not just those who stand to profit from "reforming" our schools. 

Of course this isn't easy.  Educators in Wisconsin face a hostile political and economic environment.  As I write this I have just finished reading an email from MMSD stating that we will be losing more take home pay due to additional "contributions" to our pensions.  We are facing an uncertain future for our union and for our ability to negotiate with our administration.  While we are hopeful that we will see our cause prevail in the courts, we can't be guaranteed success.  We are facing a school year that begins with us receiving a full page of assessments that we are required to subject our students to.  Assessments that in many ways don't give us meaningful information to help better educate the children we serve.  Assessments that are more a bureaucratic exercise than an educational one.

Through all of this it is difficult to maintain a steady, positive course.  We celebrate our victories, in labor relations, but more importantly in the classroom.  Yet at the same time we fear for the future and wonder if we can undo the damage done to our profession and our personal economic situations.  As a collective group we are hurting, anxious and angry about the tone of the debate and the attacks on the profession that we have dedicated our lives to.

Keeping a strong steady and positive path is exactly what we must do.  This means advocating for ourselves, the students we serve and our schools.  Now, more than ever it is vital that public educators make their voices heard by any means necessary.  We are at a tipping point and if we go over the edge it will be an incredibly long and difficult road to return public education to a meaningful place in American society.  There is no group better informed or better able to articulate the needs that schools and students have.  Without an educator voice at the bargaining table, in committees and in the public eye all efforts to advocate for us becomes paternalistic and demeaning.

We need to stop fighting the battles on unfriendly ground.  For too long we have allowed the "reformers" to shape the debate using test results or economic arguments.  Our schools need to be places of hope and growth for our students, not just another obstacle to them achieving their goals.  By excessively testing, categorizing and eliminating opportunities (cutting programs, arts, etc.) we allow "reformers" to make schools a part of the existing power structure.  Schools are not just places to create better employees and rule following citizens.  Schools are where we allow students to develop their strengths and learn to question the world around them in positive and powerful ways.  

Public educators across Wisconsin (and the nation) must rise up and make our voices heard in the debate over public schools.  Now is our time, and if we don't take it we may not get another chance for a very long time.  The rights and privileges that we enjoy now are the product of decades and centuries of fighting by our professional ancestors and they are hard won.  We have a responsibility that goes along with these rights to utilize them in defense of what we know is right.        

More Injustice In Wisconsin…
No one surrenders power without a fight.  Public workers have shown a willingness to stand up and fight back when our rights are under attack.  It should be no surprise that our opponents will do the same.   

We must continue to publicize the efforts of the Walker administration to undermine public safety for the profit of a small minority.  The continuation of the debate over the mining bill, restrictions on the rights of renters and countless other examples of this effort need to be brought into the open.  This is one way to reach voters and show them that their interests aren't represented by the current administration.    

Of course there's always the continuing saga of Walkergate.

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