Sunday, December 30, 2012

Issue #94 December 30, 2012- New Year's Resolutions, Guns, Money, Socialism and More

New Year's Resolutions…
It's the time of year when we reflect on the past, but look ahead to a new year with a combination of hope and trepidation.  This past year gave us a mixture of successes and defeats, joys and tragedy.  Given the realities we face in Wisconsin and across the nation, 2013 is sure to bring us more of the same.  In many ways that is simply the way life is, we face all of the challenges as best we can and work to make positive changes where we are able to.  We can't dwell on the challenges that we face any more than we can rest on our "laurels". 

There was a certain amount of irony involved in my reading choice for the past weekend.  I'd been wanting to reread The Shining by Stephen King for a while and with the two snow days we had, finally got my chance.  For those of you who have read this book you can see why reading it during a blizzard might be a little disturbing, but when I reached the end of the book a few lines seemed to jump out at me.  They seemed to tie in with the emotions and thoughts I'd been having as we continue to deal with the Sandy Hook tragedy as well as other issues.  King wrote:

 "There's some things no six-year-old boy in the world should have to be told, but the way things should be and the way things are hardly ever get together.  The world's a hard place,… It don't care.  It don't hate you and me, but it don't love us either.  Terrible things happen in the world and they're things no one can explain.  Good people die in bad painful ways and leave the folks that love them all alone….But see that you get on.  That's your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what.  Pull your act together and just go on."

As a society we face many significant challenges, but they really aren't new ones.  They are the same issues that have faced us all throughout history.  We need to continue our struggle to try and make our part of the world better for all.  It is a simple thing, but often so difficult to achieve.  I believe that our nation as a whole would benefit from trying to keep a few of these resolutions in mind as we "go on" in 2013…

-Listen to all sides, really listen.  As we continue to polarize politically and socially we lose the strengths that our nation's diversity offers.  Politics has become a "winner take all" endeavor and it shouldn't be.  Democracy thrives when many perspectives are considered and multiple voices are heard in debate. 

-Keep everyone accountable in meaningful ways.  In our efforts to make our society better we are all accountable to each other and to ourselves.  We keep ourselves accountable when we participate in our society and its institutions.  Everyone has a stake in the process and needs to be sure to hold up their part of the "social contract" that we have all entered into. 

-Show empathy for others.  Too much of what has been happening seems to be vindictive or selfish.  Capitalism may call for individualism, but democracy calls for collective action.  These two may seem mutually exclusive, but we as a nation are engaged in a struggle to try and blend them.  We need to "walk a mile in anothers' shoes" as we try to determine the best course of action for our society as a whole. 

-Have patience with the process.  True democracy isn't about quick fixes.  Its strength rests on debate and incremental change.  Too often we look for the easy, fast legislative or policy fix and are left with a bitter taste in our collective mouths and no lasting results.  The more drastic the act, the more intense the pushback.  Our system doesn't function well when it is used as a "winner take all" system.  Compromise and discussion need to emerge as the driving force in making the changes necessary in our society.

-Recognize that actions and words have consequences, sometimes unintended ones.  We need leadership that looks ahead and recognizes that policies implemented now will have repercussions in the future.  However, it isn't enough to place responsibility for the future on our leaders, we as citizens need to look beyond the immediacy of our current situation and support true leaders instead of voting for the one who promises the most expedient solutions. 

If we could keep these five resolutions at the center of our public debate in 2013 we just might see some real progress made, who knows?     

Arms Race Revisited…
We continue to struggle with the tragedy in Connecticut.  Everyone wants answers, solutions and promises that something like this will never happen again.  Yet, we should recognize the reality, that promises of complete safety are at their best false and at their worst, efforts to manipulate a terrible situation.  We need to have a reasoned debate and come up with long term policies that will help our society come to grips with the widespread violence that grips our nation.

Enter into the debate the NRA.  The group that would have every "qualified" citizen armed to the teeth with the weapon of their choice.  They have used this tragedy as a springboard to inject their rhetoric into the national debate on guns.  The solution to the problem of mass shootings in schools, armed guards and armed staff members.  Their justification…other countries (like Israel) do this successfully.  But, more importantly to them, only the individual can protect themselves and potential (or actual violence) can only be met by more weapons.

The comments by their spokesman about armed guards in schools has been met by significant resistance.  Personally, I don't see how an armed guard can really prevent another tragedy.  Most schools have multiple entrances and so much going on that an armed guard would be rendered useless in a majority of buildings.  The argument that a shooter can go on a rampage on a U.S. military base seems the most telling when it comes to putting armed security in our schools.           

The call has also gone out to allow school staff to carry weapons in school buildings.  That is such a bad idea that it seems almost silly to even discuss, but I know that some politicians will try and make it sound palatable.  They will paint the picture of an educator fending off an attacker and saving lives, while ignoring some realities of a school building.

The primary problem with guns in schools is the problem of gun safety on a daily basis.  When I look at my classroom, and think of the many classrooms I've been in over my 15+ year career, I can't think of any place that a gun would be safe from students hands.  Of course, I could carry it on my person, but anyone who has taught in an elementary school knows that educators spend their day with children all around them in close proximity.  Carrying a weapon would put a barrier between educators and their students.  I can't imagine how I would carry a gun and still do my job.  Since it seems like a significant amount of damage guns do is often accidental, putting weapons in schools seems like an accident waiting for a place to happen.  Storing guns safely would make them virtually inaccessible in the event of an intrusion that would merit their use.  

In the event of a shooting or a dangerous intruder, armed educators wouldn't be free to use their weapons anyway.  Think about it, would you want your child's teacher worrying about using their weapon, or protecting your child by giving them their full attention.  When we do our "Code-Red Drills" I have a lot on my mind, and adding a gun to the equation won't make my students any safer.     

Politics, An Ugly Busine$$…
One of the problems that our nation faces is the reality that our best and brightest are frequently not drawn to public service.  Instead they find their calling in places where they can make significantly more money, and be treated with significantly more respect.

There are many reasons why the political system is such an unfriendly place.  The media constantly is searching for a "scoop" and seeks out controversy.  We've also added another aspect to the media with radio and cable TV shows spewing out rhetoric designed to heat up debate and draw ratings.  No matter what, there will be a significant number of citizens who disagree with any position taken by a candidate or elected official.  Often there are no easy, mutually agreed upon solutions to the difficult problems that our government must deal with.  Put all of these things together and you can see the reasons why many people avoid careers in politics.

However, the biggest reason that our political landscape is such a difficult one to navigate safely is money.  Between the huge amounts of money funneled through different outside organizations and the equally large budget handled by our government the potential for influence, corruption and conflict is magnified exponentially.  Factor in campaign financing and every aspect of politics is significantly influenced by money.          

This isn't a new aspect of U.S. politics, or politics in general, but a couple of things happened recently that drew my attention back to the issue of money in politics. 

First was the announcement that Jim DeMint will leave the senate to head the Heritage Foundation.  His reasoning is that he will be able to have more of an impact in promoting conservative ideals as an "outsider" than as a member of the U.S. Senate.  That this thinking may well be correct is deeply troubling to those of us who believe in the power of democracy and not oligarchy. 

This type of thinking was reinforced by a potential senate candidate with more liberal leanings.  There were conflicting reports as to whether Ben Affleck would run for a senate seat.  Without judging the merits of his candidacy, his words around the prospect of running for office were telling.  Affleck used words like "toxic", and "poisonous" when talking about American politics.  He also stated that his political ambitious and beliefs have, "Been sublimated into a tremendous disillusionment with the political process, which as it turns out is almost entirely about raising money."  Other quotes include, " If you are a rich man, your voice matters more than the poor man" and "I don't even like working in partisan politics. People get so wound up and so ugly now. I find that doing things that are independent where you can really actually make a difference, where you can affect policy, you can affect change, means more than doing the partisan political thing".  Not exactly a ringing endorsement for American politics, is it?

Achieving Financial Equality?…
Americans like to toss around words like "Socialism", "Communism", "Free-Market", and other political/social/economic ideas.  We constantly hear criticism of political candidates for their "Fascist" or "Marxist" views.  Yet few of us have any real understanding of what these terms and concepts mean.  In addition many of these ideas are philosophical in nature and don't exist in their "pure" form in the "real" world.  Thus the Communist nations of eastern Europe had only a peripheral connection to what Marx and others wrote about.  In the same way American "Capitalism" is a hybrid of many different ideas and the realities of a nation that is evolving over time. 

In many ways it is easier to argue that the different political, social and economic philosophies are only a veneer that covers the reality that power is controlled by those who have access to the sources of power.  The sources of power change over time, but in the end it boils down to who controls what society values.  Control may be exercised through force, economic control, legislation, or other methods, yet it is clear that in most societies a small number of the elite wield a majority of the power. 

Here in America many people operate under the misconception that it is the system that protects us, that by calling ourselves a democracy or a free-market or any other title we guarantee our rights as citizens.  These are the same people who bristle whenever an idea is advanced that is portrayed as "socialist", "liberal" or in some way "anti-American".  They criticize unions using the same language and balk at most of the protections that help protect workers and those in the middle, working and lower classes.     

What these citizens don't realize is that the system they are supporting is in reality a vehicle for the continuing dominance of a moneyed few.  In a market without regulation from an outside source, those who already have wealth and power will create policies, rules and procedures that guarantee their place at the top of the system.  We need government regulation, unions and other voices that can advocate for the majority of citizens and who can counter the power of the wealthy few.  We've seen what happens when deregulation occurs (most recently in the banking industry) and it isn't good for most of us. 

Unions are, once again, finding themselves a target of the established elite with Right to Work legislation being pushed as well as attacks on public sector unions.  Unfortunately, these efforts at eliminating worker's voices are supported by some of the people who would benefit most from the protections that unions can offer.  They don't see that our "Free Market" is really more of an effort to raise the profits for some, while bringing all others down to a lower standard of living.  It amounts to an equality of lesser opportunity and not a true free marketplace.  Equality of opportunity must exist for a "Free Market" to really be free.      

We must continue to work at getting this message out to all people so that they can see what is really happening and use their voice in an informed manner.  What is often portrayed as an extreme position or a radical idea is actually just a concept that would benefit the many and not the few.    

I write this at a time when the efforts of the elite to bring down the middle class is made clear to me.  I'm looking through my end of the year financial records and am seeing again the effect that Scott Walker's "reforms" have had on my family's financial situation.  I also am watching the lack of reasoned discussion surrounding the "Fiscal Cliff" and seeing more of my family's income potentially disappearing.  All of this while our elected leaders quibble over the harm that could occur if we changed our tax policies regarding those much wealthier.

The language used in the debate is similar to that which was used in Wisconsin during the "debate" around public sector employees and their benefits during 2011.  The discussion is carefully framed to divide the majority of Americans in the same way that Scott Walker tried to divide and conquer the workers of Wisconsin.  The results are such that some of those who will be harmed by the weakening of unions and the deregulation of corporate America stand and cheer as they see their neighbors' injured by the legislation and policy that results.  For them it is enough that someone else suffers too, not that we raise the standards of living for everyone.       

The words that have come from those who "Stand with Walker" and those who support Right to Work demonstrate the frustration with a system that doesn't work equally for all.  Instead of promoting ideas that would benefit a majority the supporters of anti-worker legislation stand behind vindictive and divisive rhetoric and legislation.  They cheer the idea that public sector workers and union members are finally facing the same troubles that private sector workers have been struggling with. 

They forget that public sector workers and union members and union members never cheered for policies and procedures that resulted in harm to private sector employees.  Our failing was in not speaking up strongly enough in defense of the rights of all workers.  This is a mistake that we can't afford to repeat.  Now is the time for all workers to forget their minor differences and unite to defend our status and rights.  If we don't we will be left with the "freedom" to move from low paying/low benefit job to others of similar nature.   

Local School Politics…
There are a couple of issues/events that are of significant interest to those of us with a stake in Madison's public schools (that would be everyone in the community).  The first are the upcoming school board races.  We all know that school boards have a significant amount of power under the current system and we need to make sure that we have responsible, pro-public education leaders on the board.

We also can't forget the continuing search for a new superintendent here in the MMSD.  Concerned citizens need to stay informed on both of these issues as they develop. 

Improving Public Education Part 1…
There are so many different aspects of public education that need our attention as we work to improve our schools and to strengthen our connections with our communities and families.  I believe that if we communicate our message clearly and offer reasonable plans we will garner significant support for our public schools.  People tend to believe in their local school, even if they don't have faith in the system as a whole.  This leads to some problems as people cast ballots and support initiatives that actually are detrimental to their local schools.  What our families and communities need are some understandable and logical proposals to rally behind.     

One area that stands out in the Madison Public Schools is our relatively small number of "minority" educators.  There are about 1800 Caucasian teachers in the MMSD (according to the 2012 DPI data) and less than 200 Latino, African-American and Asian teachers combined.  Compare this to the student population which is about 50/50 (with 24% of the students identified as African-American).  Clearly this is an area of concern, but it is also one that has been a focus for improvement for many years. 

Why is it that a district like Madison can't seem to attract and retain a diverse teaching staff?  There are many factors involved and I don't pretend to be an expert on the hiring policies of the district or of the demographics of those applying to work here.  What I do know is that we have a highly experienced and highly educated group of educators and Madison is a very competitive job market for employment in our schools.  I also know that educators and their union have been blamed for some of the disparity in demographics and that as a group we need to provide some response to help change the reality and the perception of our role in the racial disparity in district employees.  
I believe that one significant reason that MMSD has such a stark disparity in educator demographics goes to the issues of college admission and college graduation rates for "minority" students and students of poverty.  The reality of our system of higher education is that students who are from families in poverty rarely succeed in college.  We also know that a significant percentage of African-American families in Madison live in poverty.  In order to teach in the MMSD you need a college degree and a teaching certification.  When you eliminate a significant percentage of a demographic group from achieving a 4 year degree you automatically reduce the number of potential applicants for teaching jobs.
I don't have data on the number of educators in Madison who were educated here in Wisconsin, or in neighboring states, but my personal experience is that many of MMSD's employees are local in origin.  Looking at the data for the UW-System schools it is clear that the demographics are mainly white, middle (or higher) class.  Once again this limits the potential teachers who are outside the majority demographic. 
Unfortunately, conservative policies and educational objectives seek to maintain this disparity in educational outcomes.  While they use buzzwords like "college and career ready" the reality is that their reforms don't have a good track record for advancing the opportunities of students outside the white, middle-upper class demographic.    

To be honest, I don't see any quick fixes or ways to change the current system in a way that will have a significant impact in the near future.  I also fear that, as "reforms" are implemented we will see more inequality in our educational outcomes.  This means that, without some other types of action, districts like MMSD will continue to struggle to attract and retain a diverse workforce.

Unions and their members need to recognize the value of a diverse workforce and work to expand their efforts to attract members from a wide range of backgrounds and groups.  We need to advocate for changes to the ways that educators are licensed while still maintaining the standards and quality that make MMSD's educators among the best.  Looking for alternative paths to licensing and "Grow Your Own" programs will help increase diversity and greatly benefit our students, our union and our district.

I'm no expert in this aspect of educational policy, but I do have significant practical experience with student teachers and the programs they are in at local colleges and universities.  I see a great need for more experiences in classrooms along with the coursework that students engage in.  In fact I believe that students would benefit from more classroom experience and less coursework.  I wonder if we could change the way we educate educators and move from the traditional 4 year college model to one that more resembles an apprenticeship.  By doing this I wonder if we would attract a more diverse group of prospective educators. 

Every year I have students tell me that they would like to become teachers, but I know that it will be challenging for them to gain entrance into a 4 year college, as well as extremely difficult for them to afford the costs associated with getting a degree.  It seems a shame that we lose prospective educators, not because they don't want to teach, but because they can't navigate the process to gain access to employment in education.  Unions could gain support from the community as well as strengthen their membership if they would support changes in the process of gaining licensure.     

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