Sunday, December 16, 2012

Issue #92 December 16, 2012- Tragedy, The Educational Staus Quo, Right To Work and Politics

Like most Americans I was stunned as the news of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded.  The idea that anyone, no matter what the situation, could enter a room of children and open fire goes beyond anyone's ability to understand.  It strikes at the core of our humanity and reminds us all, just how vulnerable we are at any given moment.  As a nation we must find a way to cope with Friday's events and struggle to move ahead in our efforts to create a safer society.  Nothing can be done to remove the pain and suffering that the students, families and the community of Sandy Hook Elementary School are experiencing.  All we as a nation can do is offer our thoughts, prayers and support.   
No amount of rationalizing, or any words of reassurance can lessen the impact that this event has on our national psyche.  We can make plans for lockdowns, increase security and talk about any number of other "remedies" to insure that nothing like this will ever happen again.  Yet, we also must recognize that preventing horrific actions like this is an impossible task in so many ways.  All the preventative measures in the world can be undone by the actions of a disturbed individual acting without concern for the safety of others. 

It is inevitable that this event will gain a political life of its own with many different viewpoints vying to use the tragedy to advance their ideological beliefs.  This happens after every tragic event and is understandable, but not acceptable.  What we need to have happen is a longer focus on issues like gun rights and mental health care.  A focus that doesn't fade after the initial pain lessens, but rather one that keeps these issues as a high priority in our political discourse.  Political solutions won't solve every problem, and they won't eliminate violence in our society, but they can provide a basis for progress to be made. 

We have a real problem with gun violence in America.  We can't ignore the fact that our nation is prone to using firearms to "resolve" conflict at an alarming rate.  When you look at the data, America is head and shoulders above other nations in our crime rates involving guns.  It seems obvious that just continuing to do what we've been doing isn't going to resolve our issues.  Instead we find ourselves suffering with families in Connecticut and bracing for the next attack, hoping that it won't be closer to home. 

Send thoughts, prayers and support to the families of Newtown, Connecticut and then follow those with words to your legislators, governors, the President, and anyone else who has a say in what direction our nation will move in.  We can't forget those students and educators killed in Connecticut and we can't sit idly by and let it happen again.
Defending the Status Quo?…
Public educators often find themselves in an interesting, frustrating and confusing position.  On one hand we are frequently on the front lines in the fight for social justice in America.  We work to educate all students in our communities and try to advocate for the families we serve.  We speak out about the wrongs that we see and do our best to address inequities in our society.  At the same time, and no matter how much we frequently wish it wasn't the case, we are part of an establishment that has perpetuated divisions in our society based on race, class and other demographic criteria.

While we often tout education as a vehicle for achieving equality of opportunity in America, the reality is that our educational system's end results are strikingly similar to those out in the "real world".  That is to say, demographic groups that are hardest hit by poverty, lack of healthcare, crime and other social problems are the same groups that are not achieving widespread success in our schools.  In other words, our schools are a microcosm of our society despite the desire of many educators to initiate change and provide opportunity for all. 

The reasons behind this "failure" of our public schools to be the "great equalizer" are as simple to identify as they are complex to solve.  Our nation's schools are not educating all students equally because our nation is unwilling to recognize that we have a social system that is not based on equal opportunity for all.  We pay lip service to the idea, and our founding documents, legislation and political rhetoric all underscore the concept of "liberty and justice for all."  Yet, it is difficult to make the argument that the same groups of citizens could occupy the lowest political, social and economic rungs of our societal ladder for hundreds of years without some forces other than the "free market" acting on our society. 

Many educators recognize this reality, yet at the same time find themselves immersed in a system that enables this hierarchy of opportunity to continue.  In fact, for many years a significant number of educators did their jobs without considering the "big picture" of what was happening in education.  We focused on serving the students and families in our classrooms and schools and let the politicians and administrators handle the "other stuff".  This trust that we placed in the system turned out to be misplaced in very major ways.

Over the past decades we have seen drastic changes to our public school system and a significant decline in the power that educators have over the way we educate our students.  In addition we have seen the social and economic status of educators decline along with our political influence.  Whether it is No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the QEO, privatization of education, or Act 10 there has been little that educators have been able to find positive in the legislation and policy created to impact public education.

The result of these "reforms" to our public education system and the working conditions of employees who work in it have been the opposite of what "reformers" claimed their purpose to be.  Our schools have fewer resources to work with.  Our Achievement Gaps have not gone away and in many cases have widened.  We haven't seen overall achievement (as measured by test scores) close the gap in international circles.  Racial segregation is increasing and in some areas worse than it was in the mid-1900's.  Graduation rates and college/career readiness are still being touted as a major concern by "reformers".  All this even though educators have been forced to change their practice and curriculums to address the concerns and to prepare students for an educational system based on testing instead of learning.   

Along the way, public educators have seen their rights to organize attacked.  The professional organizations that represent educators have been vilified and portrayed as greedy and self-serving.  These attacks on public educator unions have served a dual purpose of undermining the strength of a political opponent while at the same time politicizing the debates around educational policy.  When education is debated it no longer is as much about educating students as it is about promoting a political, social and economic ideology.  The students, their families and the purpose of educating our citizens have been forgotten in the struggle to score political points.

Our unions have become easy targets for those who want to "reform" the public schools.  They are attacked because they promote and protect the financial interests of educators.  The also are agents who seek to protect public educator's working conditions.  For example, this has meant that unions have said no to longer school days/years unless educators are paid more for their labor.  Clearly a concept that is revolutionary in a capitalist economy (more pay for more work, really?!?).  The reluctance of labor to work for free has allowed "reformers" to point out the greed and selfishness of public educators.  After all, any business owner would willingly take less profit in exchange for providing more product, right? 

The status quo that currently exists in public education isn't the one that most educators signed up to work in and isn't one that most of us can support.  Yet we face an uphill battle as we try to promote the system that we believe is best for a majority of our students.  One where educators are able to work with the families and community they serve to meet the needs of their students.  One where education is valued and students are encouraged to learn to think critically about the world they live in and the subjects they study.  One where there is flexibility to promote student growth in directions that will help prepare them for their future, not to prepare them to meet the needs of businesses who want "good" employees. 

The saying goes, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone", and those of us who are fighting to defend the ideals behind public education are struggling to make sure that we don't lose the things that we value.  Many of us never realized the significance of the struggles we engage in on a daily basis and simply went around doing our jobs as best we could.  We took the system we had for granted and trusted in the goodwill of those who make policy to protect public education and the students we serve.  At the same time we are aware that there are shortcomings in the way we've traditionally done business and want to embrace positive changes that will make us more effective in our endeavors.  Unfortunately, it's very difficult to know who to trust and to rely in those above us to give us the time and resources necessary to make changes that will improve our public schools.  In the current climate, public educators are reluctant to concede anything for fear of losing everything.

Now is the time for public educators to reach out to our "clientele" and work to demonstrate our willingness to make positive changes in the existing system.  There are many opportunities to "fix" the system.  Our public education system is just as broken as any other part of our public sector whether it is the legislative process, our electoral process or any other facet of our system.  In other words, there is always room for improvement and our guiding documents and principles provide for a system that can evolve and change over time.  "Reformers" would have us throw out the "baby with the bathwater" and offer few real and sustainable improvements over the existing system.

There is no doubt that the status quo has issues that need addressing.  Public schools mirror the society they exist in with all of the strengths and flaws inherent in any human endeavor.  Public education can be a bridge to help all citizens cross to a better future, or they can be a toll-booth on the bridge, exacting payment that some citizens simply can't afford.  The choice is ours and public educators need to seize the moment to enact change that will strengthen the existing structures and open the pathway to success for all students. 

In order to achieve our goals we must provide clear and direct answers to the challenges we face.  Opponents of public education have made their case very clear and their message is one that is tailored to appeal to a wide base.  After all, who doesn't want our schools to be accountable for providing quality educational opportunities to students?  Who doesn't want to see public funds spent responsibly?  Who doesn't want families, students and the community to have a voice in how education is provided to young people?  What is less clear in the "reformers" platform is how their ideas improve the existing system. 
Public educators and their advocates need to step into this void and refocus the debate on more equitable and sustainable solutions to our problems.  The opportunities are here, we just need to seize the initiative and take control of the process of improving public education in our communities. 
Right to Work…
While its importance is muted by the tragic events on Friday we can't ignore the passage of the Right to Work legislation in Michigan earlier in the week.  In actions taken right from the Scott Walker playbook the GOP in Michigan rushed legislation through without public debate and then locked down the state capital.

Right to Work legislation is another of the mislabeled Republican "reforms" that claim to increase individual freedom while in reality doing just the opposite.  Republican propagandists portray this legislation as one that allows workers to choose whether they want to give their hard earned money to unions which will then misuse their funds in actions that don't benefit workers.  The only part of the picture that they have correct is that RTW laws allow workers to work in a union-ship even if they don't pay any dues to the union. 

By focusing solely on the dues part of the equation the supporters of RTW legislation ignore all the benefits that unions provide their members.  They forget that unions have helped build the middle class by fighting for living wages, workplace safety, paid leaves, insurance and benefits, etc.  They forget that unions are often the only voice that represents the workers in an industry. 

Instead or recognizing the contributions of unions they create a system that will allow workers to benefit from a union without contributing to the organization.  Given the continuing slide in real wages for the middle and working class it is hard to imagine a scenario where many workers don't take a short-sighted approach and forgo joining their unions.  This is exactly what the GOP is counting on.  Remember, this isn't about workers or even about business, it's all about political power.  If the unions can't collect dues they lose their ability to represent workers and the balance of power in the workplace (and the political arena) shifts in favor of management.        

What is being made abundantly clear is that the struggle isn't over.  Workers won't surrender their union rights without a struggle.  Many workers recognize the importance of organized labor and are working to educate fellow employees.
Unfortunately, the GOP isn't willing to give up their efforts to return our nation to the labor situation we had in the late 1800's and through the early 1900's.  

Spend Your Money Wisely…
Only a few shopping days left this holiday season means you only have a few shopping days left to exercise the power of your pocketbook.  Buy local and support worker friendly stores.

Walkergate and Other Political Shenanigans …
The saga continues as we see the criminal investigation of the Governor's office persists.  At the same time we see the effects of the misguided GOP policies taking root and most of us will suffer because of them. 

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