Sunday, December 9, 2012

Issue #91 December 9, 2012- Unions, Education and Politics

Union Power…
The assault on unions and labor rights continues to accelerate.  We've seen the pattern that Scott Walker started being used again in Michigan this week.  Rushed legislation and heated rhetoric are being used to attempt to destroy organized labor and return sole control of the workplace to management.  This reality is all the more troubling for Wisconsinites who can safely assume that we will see legislation of this type introduced in the near future.   

What is also frustrating is that the rhetoric used by anti-labor forces seems to be relatively effective in convincing many citizens that unions are an "evil" that needs to be curtailed and/or eliminated.  According to the existing reasoning there are enough protections in the existing laws that make unions and collective bargaining redundant and unnecessary.  The Wisconsin State Journal's used this reasoning in a recent editorial about public educators and their unions.  The argument states that if local school boards and administrations (management) treat their employees fairly then unions aren't necessary.  Of course, if people were honest we wouldn't need judges, police officers, jails and all the other apparatus that goes with the reality that there will always be those who break the rules.  

There is no doubt, but that organized labor is in many ways "on the ropes".  Membership is declining.  It is difficult to see much in the way of significant political power being wielded by labor.  Now, there are increased legislative measures being taken to limit the ability of workers to organize.  Many conservatives are gleefully predicting the end of organized labor.    

Yet, unions continue to fight back and work to defend the hard won rights and processes that have served to create a period of relative stability in American labor history.  As is the case during any period of struggle, groups must work to defend themselves from external attacks, while reassessing their own organizations and ways of doing things.   

I, along with almost 1,000 other educators spent last Saturday debating the direction that our statewide educators union (WEAC) will take in the near future.  The debate was spirited and positive with many different opinions offered.  In the end there was widespread support for the initiatives that were approved. 

At the same time, the discussion that took place last weekend, and that has been going on in Wisconsin for some time brought out a few major issues that unions will need to deal with in the immediate future. 

-The larger the organization, the more bureaucratic and top-heavy it usually becomes.  This may be an effective way to organize some groups, but in labor organizations the power comes directly from local groups and individuals.  The model of top-down, large groups doesn't attract as much support as a locally run and easily accessible one.  One thing that was said over and over again by WEAC members was that they had tremendous loyalty to their local organizations.  WEAC or other larger entities provide needed support, but can't provide the personal attention that members require.

-We need to make sure that we are fighting to protect the goals and members of the organization, not the organization itself.  Unions arose because of the needs of workers and can not survive if they are anything but focused on their membership.  If members see that their union is working for them, they will support it, if not then membership will suffer.   

-It was troubling to me that there was some applause given when a speaker at the WEAC meeting spoke about trusting our elected representatives to make decisions without needing to always ask membership for guidance.  This type of thinking is part of what has gotten us in the trouble we are in.  Too many members have removed themselves from the discussions around issues of importance.  Union members must remember that any form of representative government doesn't abdicate the people's responsibility to be part of the decision making process. 

-We have power, and we must not shy away from using it.  Conservatives would have us return to a time when labor served at the complete mercy of management.  Over the years, and with no small amount of blood, sweat and tears, labor gained rights in the workplace.  If we allow the current wave of anti-labor sentiment to succeed we will find ourselves needing to refight battles that previous generations already won.  Defending labor rights is good for our nation and a huge majority of the people who live here.  We can't allow a small minority to shape the future for the rest of us.  

Education- Speaking the Language…
Every profession, specialty, hobby or other subgroup of people has their own language that only the devotees of that particular interest speak.  In many cases this is a relatively harmless and sometimes humorous truth.  Who hasn't sat through an event/gathering with friends at some point in their lives and wondered what exactly was being discussed.  Words that mean one thing in one context can mean something totally different in another one. 

However, this terminology and context can be problematic when the topic being discussed is of importance to those who are outside of the core group speaking the "language".  Obvious examples of this are found in health care and the legal system.  Often we find people looking for clarification of information that they are given, while at the same time they are struggling with a challenging situation.  In cases like this the "language" that is used is a barrier to accessing information and causes anxiety and potentially unnecessary conflict.

Public education has its own set of terms, acronyms and organizational barriers that exclude people from participating in an equal and effective manner.  This institutional "language" creates obstacles that block information and communication between the people who need to effectively communicate the most. 

As part of the "system" I often forget just how complex and confusing we have made our public schools to those who don't have access to the terms and don't use the "language" on a daily basis.  To be honest, it is tough enough for public school employees to keep up with the terms and procedures and I shouldn't be surprised that parents, families and community members are frequently confused and/or frustrated as they try to navigate the system.  It seems like it's human nature to try and complicate our endeavors in the name of simplifying them. 

It doesn't help that there are so many layers of bureaucracy and so many different agencies/organizations involved in educating students in our public schools.  Each group brings its own "language" to the discussions and we often sound like a meeting at the UN when we discuss educational issues.  Added in are the political pressures and the rapid pace of change that is currently the state of public education.  It's no wonder that it often appears everyone is talking, but no one is saying anything.

This was made clear to me when we held our second educator/family/community meeting about public education last week.  I've mentioned this group before and am very excited about the potential for open discussion about issues in public education that this group has.  During our meeting many issues were raised, but some that struck me as being of significance were the issues of communication, transparency and how to clarify what the challenges facing public education really are. 

The group that gathered consisted of a wide range of individuals with significant experience in the public school system.  There were several educators, and all the other participants had students who have (or had) been in public schools for a number of years.  It was a highly educated and very involved group, yet there were many questions raised that showed just how "user-unfriendly" our public school system has become. 

The system is unfriendly to families and concerned citizens in many important ways.  There is a lack of clear and easy access to information about what is happening.  For example, our group expressed an interest in making an effort to attend more school board meetings, yet many in the group talked about their frustration in trying to navigate the district's website to find out what is being discussed and when.  This inaccessibility to basic "core" information is a key problem in shaping public opinion and trust in our public schools as they work to educate all students in a challenging economic and political environment.  

Once information is located it is often difficult to translate exactly what is being said from "eduspeak" into a more understandable language.  "Eduspeak" is a language that is used not only in official district communication (website, press releases, report cards, letters to families), but is also used widely in the political realm as well.  In the end this "language" serves to further distance the efforts of individual educators from the discussion about education that is held in public forums. 

In the end we are left with a public perception that is shaped by the language we use.  Unfortunately, this language is one that is easily co-opted by "reformers" who spin the message to make it appear like they have the best interests of students at heart.  Yet the language used in education policy debate often does as much to obscure the "facts" as it does to illuminate them.  The terms and phrases used are often similar to political or bureaucratic language that serves to alienate those outside of the "inner workings".  

Here's a recent press release from Governor Walker that contains plenty of  "jargon" and no real substance.  This is what the public is getting from all sides nearly every time education is discussed in a public forum. 

Wisconsin was awarded $22.7 million in education grants through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge education program for at-risk youth. Governor Walker said, “These funds will support innovative initiatives that will improve quality and outcomes for children as well as create efficiency and accountability within the system.”

If we have difficulty with the language of education we should at least be able to find accurate information and data from research and testing, right?  There certainly is enough data about schools and education available to give us guidance as we try to find the best solutions to the challenges we face.  However, the data we have is just as difficult to use in shaping policies and practice as the "language" is.  Almost every imaginable position or policy is supported by some study or by "common sense" (a horribly overused term that often is used to defend educational innovations).  

When using data on education it is important to look at the source of the information and to uncover all the connections that different groups have to each other.  Many of the supposedly most ardent "advocates" of parental and student rights are firmly attached to for-profit organizations that have frequently failed the very people they supposedly advocate for.  

With all the confusing language, political doublespeak and misleading information, it's no wonder that many families are frustrated and confused.  It appears that these are exactly the emotions that the "reformers" want to encourage.  This allows them to push for "reforms" that will improve the system.  There is also a concerted effort made to divide and conquer by highlighting the failures of a large percentage of students from specific groups (African-Americans, English Language Learners and more) in our public schools.  Then the "reformers" can sweep in and "save the day", all the while obscuring the reality that most of their ideas haven't significantly improved student achievement on a consistent and long term basis.   

In the end educating any individual student is done in a personal and, to some degree, unique manner.  Each student is an individual who brings a variety of needs, backgrounds, personality traits and countless other variables to the education equation.  All of the public posturing and rhetoric about schools and how they should function does little to help any single student, or even larger demographic groups.  What helps one student/group may have the opposite effect on another. 

What is needed is an open and honest dialog about our educational system.  This is best done at the individual level, with conversations between families and educators about the best ways to meet the needs of students at the local, school level.  These discussions can start the implementation of true reforms as the needs of students are brought to the attention of local administrators and school boards.  There is a shared responsibility to communicate between home and school.  Too much blame is assigned without real dialog taking place.  Educators need to reach out to the families they serve to build trust in what is happening in the schools and families need to make sure that they are involved in and aware of what their child is doing at school.  Families and community members also have a responsibility to initiate and maintain communication with school staff.  No single group is solely responsible for the level of discourse that occurs.       

If we can achieve a high level of dialog between home and school, I strongly believe that we would see a corresponding rise in all student's achievement.  We would also see a significant increase in the support for public schools.  In our public school system we have an existing structure that is prepared and able to provide quality education for all students.  Drastic reform of our school system isn't as necessary as many would have us believe.  If we break down the barriers between the community and the schools so that both parties could effectively communicate with each other what a wonderful place schools would be.  At the very least we could avoid the "us vs. them" mentality that is currently undermining efforts to improve the educational outcomes for all students.         

Spend Your Money Wisely…
As the holiday shopping season continues on its merry way, keep looking for ways to support local and worker friendly businesses.  Labor in America needs our support to thrive.  Looking only for the cheapest product, or the latest fad usually means that you are shortchanging a worker here in America.  Who knows, that worker could be a family member, neighbor, friend, or even yourself!

The struggles of Walmart workers continues.

Coming soon to a state near you…

Walkergate and Other Political Shenanigans…
Before diving into the latest on the corruption and hypocrisy of the GOP here in Wisconsin I should note that Republicans don't have a monopoly on the unethical and irresponsible use of public office and political power.  No one can claim that there is a clear line between good and evil in our current political landscape.  In fact the partisanship that is found in many political discussions goes a long way towards damaging public confidence in all politicians and takes focus and credibility away from the outrage against the level of corruption that exists in our current Republican controlled government in Wisconsin. 

It appears that we have reached a point where almost anything can be forgiven and almost anything can be attacked, purely on a partisan level.  When a position can't be defended, then an attack is mounted.  An attack that usually ends up with the argument that "they did it too".  This is an argument that should only appear on playgrounds and shouldn't be used by any responsible or credible leader in a political discussion.  We've all heard this level of discourse too much recently here in Wisconsin.  Outrage over the redistricting done by the Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature…the Democrats did the same thing last time.  GOP legislators in the pocket of big business…so what, the Dems are controlled by the unions.  This level of "debate" gets us nowhere in solving the real problems that face our society.

When this type of reasoning is used, the level of discourse around important issues declines, political opinions are entrenched and those who are not politically involved become further disinterested and frustrated by the political gamesmanship.  This results in less citizen participation and more influence for special interest groups and donors.   

It's time to admit that no organization, political party or politician is perfect.  However, while not expecting perfection it is clear that we should be able to expect better from our current crop of elected officials and their sycophantic supporters.  Corruption and greed are never acceptable for any political party or individual.  We elect people to represent our needs, not to pad their own (or an associates) pockets.  It's time that we all start holding our political leaders accountable, no matter their party or political philosophy.

Citizens need to rise in support of proposals that will improve the quality of our electoral system.  Redistricting that is done solely for political gain doesn't serve the people, just the politicians.  If more people were aware of, and supported initiatives like this one then we might start to see our interests represented in the legislature.  Unfortunately, politicians won't do what is right just for the sake of doing what's right, they need a push from the citizens they "represent".  You can be sure that they are constantly hearing from a small number of people on a regular basis, now it is time they hear from all of us. 


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