Sunday, May 5, 2013

Issue #113 May 5, 2013- Schools, Money, Organizing and Politics

Organizing Educators…
I attended the Representative Assembly for WEAC in LaCrosse last weekend.  While spending one of the first beautiful days of the spring inside a convention center just a stone's throw from the Mississippi River might not be anyone's idea of "fun" the experience was, as usual, eye opening and thought provoking.  A few thoughts…

--While driving to, and through LaCrosse I saw lots of evidence of different organizations that represent many different groups.  I found myself wondering, why is it perfectly acceptable for farmers to group together to form co-ops to help keep the costs of necessary supplies and other resources more manageable?  Why is it fine for businesses to organize into local Chamber of Commerce groups to better represent their interests?  Why is it unacceptable to some of the people who are part of these groups for educators to organize in order to represent our interests?   

--There was a lot of discussion and debate at the assembly around the need to change WEAC's organizational style and to put the focus back on local educator unions and organizations.  However, in the end the group elected the current vice president as president and the current secretary-treasurer as vice president.  Meaning no offense to the two new leaders of WEAC, but it was clear during the assembly that change is difficult for many of the unions that are part of WEAC.  For whatever reasons, large organizations like WEAC tend to be conservative in nature when it comes to redefining themselves and changing their methods of operation.

--To me it seems like this is the time to put all of our emphasis on building solidarity and engagement at the local level.  Larger organizations like WEAC and AFT have more resources and are able to get their message out to a wider audience, but they also face the challenges of representing districts that are very diverse in their strengths and needs.  Instead of trying to be the voice for all educators in Wisconsin, I believe that the state wide organizations should be using their resources to support the locals.  In my opinion, unions work best when the energy and ideas come from the individual members in their local organizations.  WEAC will survive and thrive when the individual unions that make up the membership are healthy and strong.   

--Everyone needs a voice in discussions and a place to air their ideas.  Larger districts tend to dominate discussions about education, but our smaller communities must be able to represent themselves as well.  In the current climate this is difficult for these smaller districts and the educators who work in them.  They may lack the membership and resources, but their efforts are no less valuable in the struggle to defend public education.    

--I was part of multiple conversations with individuals from smaller districts around the state and their stories were extremely distressing, yet at the same time uplifting.  The people I talked to told stories about abuses of power by administrators and school boards who are taking advantage of the power given to them by Act 10.  Yet they also told about the ways that the educators in their districts were continuing to fight for their rights and for public education. 

--Once again I found myself happy and proud of the ability of educators to have heated debates about difficult issues and still work to create a collectively decided course of action.  As with any organization, WEAC is not a single unified body, but rather a collection of diverse groups and ideas.  Instead of silencing opposing views, listening to the different opinions and modifying proposals creates more unity and stronger results. 

--Educators face many challenges in Wisconsin.  One of them is the constant balancing act between resisting changes that are bad for our students and our schools, while still maintaining a presence in the debates around educational issues.  The discussion about Educator Effectiveness and WEAC's position on this evaluative process for educators is an example of this problem.  On one hand, we must resist the continuing efforts to make standardized test scores a significant part of any evaluation of public educators (or schools/students/districts).  On the other hand, the current political climate and calls for accountability in education means that we can't simply reject this concept. 

How do educators resist these changes and still maintain any sort of power in the debate?  We need to make sure that we are working with the families and communities we serve to rebuild their trust in our public schools.  If we are able to show that our rejection of policies that call for massive testing efforts and quantifying student learning in narrow ways aren't simply an effort to dodge accountability then we can change the focus of the debate.  Educators don't fear accountability, we just fear being held accountable for inaccurate and misleading information that doesn't help our students achieve.        

The Economics of Public Education…
I find it troubling that almost every discussion about education seems to end with some sort of budget reference.  While it is obviously true that education has financial realities, it is my opinion that we put too much importance on the financial aspects of education.  The result of this misplaced emphasis is that we lose sight of what our purpose is when we seek to educate members of our population.  Education isn't about a bottom line, simply advancing a career or improving a business.  It isn't about balancing a budget.  Education is about hope, improving the future and making sure we have a citizenry that is prepared to make thoughtful and purposeful decisions for the benefit of our society.

What we are seeing as a consequence of the misplaced focus on finances is a trend towards weakening of educational opportunities and a transfer of power from educators to political and business leaders.  Far too many of our decisions regarding education are made by those outside of the profession.  Our educational policies are driven by those who would profit from implementing changes, not for the good of the students. 

Take for example the recent efforts of school superintendents to try and influence their elected representatives to increase state aid for our public schools.  In this article Representative Nygren epitomizes the problems supporters of public education face.  He ducks questions about consolidating smaller school districts by saying that he "didn't say that (consolidation was a "tool" for districts to use), but you should be looking at it."  He declined to be specific about the amount of state funding per student would be in the budget because there were reporters present.  He also claimed that those who cut funding for schools and seek to privatize our educational system have a valid argument when they say "it's about the kids".        

The problems for education caused by economics go beyond state budgets and bigger policy issues.  The increasing poverty that exists in our communities, especially among families with younger children, significantly increases the types services that our public schools must offer.  Communities that haven't had considerable numbers of families in poverty, now see a startling increase in families who are struggling financially.  Schools are being asked to provide services above and beyond simply providing educational opportunities to students.

Because schools themselves are increasingly facing "poverty" due to cuts in funding,  increasing costs of testing materials, purchased curriculum and other costs, the financial difficulties of the families we serve adds to the challenges of stretched school resources.  The headline of this article unfairly uses the word "burden" to represent these challenges.  Students are not a burden to a school system, they are the reason we exist.  However, students from poverty often have different learning needs and don't bring with them the financial resources of wealthier families.  This is especially true in an era of high stakes testing where we see a clear Achievement Gap between students of different economic classes.          

The initiatives that conservative "reformers" trumpet as positive and necessary are often exactly the opposite.  Their efforts are often in direct opposition to what professional educators know works for today's students.  All too frequently, the "reform" efforts don't even make financial sense.   

How about State Senator Mike Ellis' admission that, "Here's the bottom line: The voucher program stinks."

"Patriotism", Power and Politics…
One of the cornerstones of any society or group is trust.  No matter how independent we may think we are, in the end we all rely on others to help us survive and thrive.  This is especially true in our modern world where our work is often not directly related to our needs for basic survival.  The same holds true for all of us as we look to create a society that represents the values that we support.

Unfortunately, many of our public figures are operating in ways that undermine our trust in their actions.  They say the right words, but their motivations and loyalties are not always in line with their rhetoric.  While we hope that we are electing our leaders to represent us, far too often we get leaders who demonstrate the thinking Senator Ellis articulates when he says, "I know the rules and I know the budget.  He who has knowledge can really screw people up."


It is long past time for the people of the United States to put aside their lesser differences and work to guide our leaders in more positive, unifying directions. 
In order for this to happen we need thoughtful, well educated citizens who have the opportunity and information necessary to hold our leaders accountable for the policies they create in our name.  

There are many examples of groups, normally not seen as allies, working together for common goals.  We should be looking for more areas of agreement instead of continuing adversarial relationships that harm our entire society.  

There are also many individuals who are speaking out about issues and taking strong stands on topics that may not make them "popular", but that do move our society in a positive direction.  

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