Sunday, July 28, 2013

Issue #123- The Struggle Continues

The Struggle Continues…
. . . Everywhere for Everyone

What eventually was named the "Wisconsin Uprising" started in February, 2011 with the massive protests against Act 10.  What began as a response by organized labor to a direct attack on one of their last remaining strongholds, public sector employees, quickly became a more widespread movement that encompassed not only labor, but a wide range of other progressive causes.  This movement gained momentum and much of the energy shifted to the political realm with the unsuccessful recall of Governor Walker and the somewhat successful recall of multiple state senators.  The political energy from the recalls spilled over into the 2012 General Elections and helped President Obama and Tammy Baldwin win Wisconsin in a convincing fashion.  At the same time a number of important legal battles involving Voter ID, labor laws and the constitutionality of other pieces of legislation were also being waged.   

While the political and legal actions surrounding the Uprising got most of the press coverage and national attention, a number of frequently overlooked, but no less important movements involving civil disobedience and continuing efforts to put pressure on legislators and law enforcement was ongoing.  These smaller scale, lower profile efforts by small groups and individual citizens have kept the public aware of the fact that the issues that spawned the protests and the movement that arose from the conflict have not disappeared.  In many ways the continuing efforts of these protestors has galvanized support and provided inspiration for many to continue the fight against the extreme conservatism of the Wisconsin Republican Party.  These are things that anyone can participate in whether it's wearing a shirt or button, expressing opinions in the media, simply going to the capitol, or any other action.  They don't require huge amounts of money, extensive dedication of time or any other large commitment of resources (although many individuals have devoted substantial resources to the effort, above and beyond expectations). 

One of the most visible and consistent resistance efforts has been the Solidarity Sing that has been held in the state capitol building every week day for well over two years.  The Sing is simply what it sounds like, a group of people gathering at noon to sing songs of protest, solidarity and hope.  There are as many reasons to sing as there are individuals who participate, but one of the major goals of the Sing is to remind anyone at the capitol that the resistance is still alive and a part of the political and social fabric of Wisconsin. 

At various times the Solidarity Sing has been going on with little fanfare, but at other times the Sing bursts into the news.  It has always been an irritant to Republican legislators and conservative spokespeople.  They have tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the Singers and make the Sing illegal.  Now, fresh on the heels of a recent court ruling the Department of Administration is cracking down on the Solidarity Sing with renewed vigor.      

Along with the official actions against the Sing comes the usual attacks on members of the uprising through the media and directly in person.  Comments after news articles about the arrests this week brought back the angry emotions and vitriolic attacks from the protests and recalls of 2011 and 2012.    

"I wonder who can afford to keep showing up and protesting? Are they all welfare people? Out of work city employees? Maybe they are all union people who have someone covering for them at work? Regardless, A nice way to show some respect for our capitol building. Tried to visit the capitol bldg a few weeks past....protestors spoiled it all for me. Many needed a bath and haircut. Some smelled pretty bad. Guess that answers my first question eh!"

"I wish I had the free time to waste that these libtards do gathering at the capitol all day long."

"How come there are NO RICH or so called RICH REPUBLICANS at the CAPITOL singing.....Oh that's right they are working......MY BAD..........................​"

Unfortunately these emotional responses are not simply confined to words and online comments.  The climate that exists when people are exposed to such uninformed and inflammatory remarks spawns even more extreme actions.  

While some would argue that Singers and other protesters should give in and either comply with the regulations or even stop their efforts, the hateful and excessive responses to their protests make their efforts even more important.  It is only by continuing to highlight the restrictions on Civil Rights and the inequitable policies that are being implemented in Wisconsin that the general public will be aware of what is happening.  They not only inform, but they inspire others to continue in the long standing Wisconsin and American tradition of standing up for our rights.  As Zeb Page, visiting Madison from Ohio, said, "When we were in town for a family reunion, we really felt it was important to bring our kids here and show them, you know, what it is to be an American."  They have even helped inspire others around the United States to engage in peaceful civil disobedience.     

Those who oppose the Sing forget that the rights that the Singers espouse are the ones that allow them to live, work and express their opinions in modern America.  Most of us don't need to look too far back on our family trees to see some ancestors who were part of a group that was "undesirable" and excluded from power.  Whatever your ethnicity or race each successive wave of immigrants to our nation was considered less than those who were already established here.  While too many people are forced to continue to fight for acceptance into the upper echelons of American society, it is only through the promotion of equal rights and just policies that any of us (outside of a relatively small number of existing elites) can entertain hopes of achieving political or economic success.    

Simply criticizing the Singers and their supporters with unfounded attacks on their job status, intelligence and using insulting rhetoric is one thing.  In fact, while members of the Uprising certainly don't condone or appreciate the negative comments, we also recognize that the First Amendment is a statement that gives voice to all sides.  However, the use of force by the state is something much more sinister.  It is an example of exactly what many so called conservatives would argue against, excessive regulation of individual rights.  Instead of attacking protesters and hiding behind the very government power that they speak against it would be great if people from all political persuasions could look at facts and find common ground.     

If all of the uproar over the singing in the capitol can start the discussion moving in a positive direction then I'm sure that many Singers would feel like their efforts have been worthwhile. 

. . .For Worker's Rights
We keep having the same arguments around other topics as well.  Among the most prominent of these is Worker's Rights.  In modern America one of the most important aspects of an individual's life is their occupation and all the issues that surround it.  We rely on our jobs for income, important benefits and social status.  Having a voice in your employment conditions would seem to be a non-issue, or even "common-sense".  Yet, a significant number of conservatives and other anti-labor groups continue to wage war against unions and organized labor.

The Walker administration and GOP led legislature have taken the attacks to a new level over the past couple of years.  They have made a special effort to target public sector unions, but have not hidden their dislike of any organized labor.  The conflict has been bitter, divisive and costly.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin isn't the only state that has been enacting strong anti-labor measures, and the efforts are clearly visible at the national level.  

Anti-union rhetoric follows a few basic lines of thinking.  One is that since the economy is struggling and many people are suffering in the private sector it is only fair that public employees lose their rights, wages and benefits as well.  Another tries to paint unions as anti-freedom and anti-American.  They use language to portray their "reforms" as in the best interest of individual workers.  Or, as Scott Walker said about his policies, "We were trying to empower workers and give them a choice.  If workers saw value out of their union, then they have every right to stay put. But if they didn't, they could make that choice." 

Yet, while expressing ideals of "Freedom" and "Choice", the anti-labor policies of our political leaders actually promote outcomes that are exactly the opposite of the words they use.  They create an unequal and biased playing field where union membership becomes a punishment and not a choice.    

This anti-union thinking is parroted by everyday citizens who voice their resentment, bitterness and misguided thinking in attacks on those fortunate to enjoy the benefits and protections of a union.  Unions provide a great deal for all workers, not just those who they represent directly.

There is a certain amount of irony and a sense of inevitability that looms over the current anti-union legislative and policy fights.  While modern conservatives fight to eliminate union from the workplace, it is clear that they will ultimately fail in their efforts.  The irony is that, by undermining decades of labor law and a relatively peaceful labor climate the conservatives are giving life to a movement that was faltering.  They are also increasing the intensity of the movement and the actions that are supported by workers.  Had Governor Walker taken more time and slowly implemented his "reforms" would there have been 100,000+ people on The Square in 2011?  Would there have been a record number of recalls in 2011-12?  Just like the crackdowns on the Solidarity Singers increase the dedication of those involved, so too, attacks on organized labor cause many workers to see the value of organizing in their workplaces. 

The sense of inevitability comes from the recognition that history is often cyclical in nature.  No single idea or philosophy is able to achieve complete domination for very long.  We see movements and ideals rise and fall throughout history.  Organized labor is a thread that can be traced throughout our history and it is one that continually resurfaces as workers struggle for their rights in the workplace.  It is a battle between the small number of wealthy elite who seek to maintain their hold on power and the larger number of workers who seek fair compensation, safe working conditions and a voice in their place of employment.

Organized labor promotes policies that are good for our entire economy.  It makes no sense to concentrate a vast majority of our wealth in the hands of a small number of people and corporations.  Economic policies that promote this type of concentration of wealth are doomed to failure.

Not only do we see conservatives using rhetoric against progressive ideals, but they also use numbers to justify their resistance to progressive policies.  However, just like the rhetoric that says one thing and accomplishes another, the data that is used is often manipulated and questionable.  

The impact that unions have on the workplace can be clearly seen in the differences between public and private educational employment opportunities.  The predominantly non-union private school educators make almost $15,000 a year less on average than their more unionized public educators.  They also typically have fewer protections and less of a voice in their school's curriculum and policies.  Eliminating educator unions won't make the educational job marketplace more competitive, it will simply lower the standards for employment in the field.   

In order to recruit and retain high quality educators some districts are realizing that they must include educators in discussions around wages, benefits and working conditions.  While some districts, usually in more conservative areas, continue to resist the inevitable, most districts recognize the need for their employees to be respected and listened to, at least to some degree.  While conditions in Wisconsin are still unfavorable to educators, there is always the hope that we are seeing a shift in the climate.  In order to continue the progress educators across Wisconsin need to continue their efforts to organize and speak out about important issues and concerns that they have.     

. . .For Public Education
The attacks on public educator unions are political in nature.  Unfortunately, one consequence of the efforts to destroy public educator unions and undermine public education is the inevitable harm that it does to students.  Eliminating teacher tenure ends the ability of educators to speak out against the "reforms" that hurt our students.  Voucher programs provide false promises of educational opportunity for too many.  These efforts are ongoing in many states across the nation. 

The end result is a segregated and unequal system of schools, and an educational system driven by political goals and profit margins, not educational opportunities. 

However, just like the attacks on organized labor provoked a strong response, we are seeing signs of "open rebellion" in many places.  More and more people are becoming aware of just what their public schools do for the communities they live in and how important it is to defend our schools.    

Here in Madison we are continuing to look for ways to improve the quality of our schools for all students, while still preserving the things that make our school valuable assets and places of opportunity.  I was part of the group that worked on this Framework, and while there is always room for improvement in any plan, the discussion around the Framework represented a very positive effort from my perspective.  The fact that so many voices were included in the discussion and that the tone of the discussion focused on optimistic, student and school centered changes means that we are headed in the right direction.  We can continue to move away from heavy handed "reforms" towards real a transformation of our schools that blends new knowledge and valuable experience into a cohesive whole.         

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Issue #122 Standing Strong for Education

What Do We Stand For?…
"A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything." Malcolm X
"A house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln
"Stand With (Walker or Wisconsin depending on your political persuasion)"

We've done a lot of standing with/for/against things in Wisconsin over the past couple of years.  The imagery associated with standing can be associated with strength, support, stability, or sometimes stagnation.  We can be seen as standing together to support a position or individual.  We can be standing strong against an outside force, but we can also be standing still and not moving forward.  This idea of solidarity vs. stagnation is an important one in the current political, social and economic climate.  It is an image with historical connotations and one that is a powerful motivator that unites supporters.  It gets at the heart and soul of our own individual beliefs and bonds us with others of a like mind. 

People may be familiar with the phrase, "My country, right or wrong."  This phrase has been used to describe unthinking support and could easily be extended to all areas of our lives.  It depicts a type of behavior that is automatic and based not on independent thought, but on a blind obedience or belief that we must stand behind all actions of a larger entity, even when we know that they are not proper.  This quote is actually the beginning part of a slightly longer quote attributed to Carl Schurz in 1872 that goes, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  Obviously, this longer quote has very different implications.  The idea that we should support our country (or any other organization, individual, philosophy or ideology), but should be willing to recognize the fallibility of any human activity and make necessary changes to it, is very different from blind acceptance and unquestioning loyalty.   

Because the current environment is so confrontational and antagonistic it becomes very important that we are choosing our positions carefully and defending (or standing with/for) the correct things.  We can't blindly stand with or against someone simply based on their political party, other associations or ideological viewpoints.  The more we base our allegiances on these types of characteristics the more divided our society becomes.  If our loyalty is based on a reflexive response and not from thoughtful, rational and well developed thinking we fall into the trap that has done so much harm throughout history.  We put ourselves on a path that has, too often, caused significant problems for so many.  Loyalty to a cause is a valuable trait; however, loyalty must be tempered with reason and a willingness to accept changes or to admit mistakes.

Along the process of discovering what we stand for we need to challenge ourselves to hear the opinions and beliefs of others who may disagree with us.  It is only through exposure to multiple ways of looking at an issue that we can identify the strengths and weaknesses of our own beliefs.  We live in a society that is diverse in so many ways.  This diversity is a strength, but one that isn't without challenges.  The positive aspects of our vast diversity can only be realized if as many voices as possible are truly heard in a meaningful way. 

Unfortunately, the hostile environment that currently exists in much of our public discourse makes it less likely that people will hear other viewpoints outside of their personal comfort zone.  We seem to spend more time looking for flaws in opposing opinions than we do looking for commonalities or positive aspects.  This causes us to miss opportunities to find compromises or even solutions to our problems and further divides groups in our society. 

It certainly isn't hard to see multiple examples of this phenomenon in modern America.  Here are a few from the last couple of weeks.  

One of the most vivid examples of our inability to communicate about challenging issues is the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. 
This case provides and example of just how complicated it is to have public discourse around a tragic and controversial incident.  Cases like this one serve as a lightning rod for people to score political points or to make sweeping commentary about issues of great importance.  However, lost in the hyperbole and rhetoric is the reality that we need to be able to move forward and work to escape our historical legacy of violence and inequality.

Unfortunately, it is too easy to take cases like this one and only hear one side of the equation.  Instead of uniting around the idea that no one should be killed, injured or feel unsafe in our society and working together to achieve a goal of peace and justice for all, we find too many people isolating themselves in a cocoon of fear and suspicion.  We worry more about "standing our ground" and defending our own personal space than we do about making changes that lead to a more unified and a stronger America.    

While there are many different ways to interpret this case and many issues involved, for me, in the end it boils down to a sense of community and belonging.  We will probably never know all of the details, or the full truth about why Zimmerman shot Martin.  That's the complex reality of human events.  However, it isn't difficult to see that the climate that exists in modern America lends itself to these types of violent incidents.  We have created a world where there is a clear sense of who belongs where.  Knowingly, or unknowingly we separate ourselves by age, race, gender, and countless other categories.  All of which are magnified in importance beyond an understanding of the basic humanity that should unite us.  Racial profiling by police, racial profiling in our daily interactions and an increasingly segregated society turn simple differences into potentially deadly divisions. 

George Zimmerman trial: Not guilty in shooting death of Trayvon Martin

Issues around race are very difficult to discuss and come to any sort of positive resolution on.  They permeate through our history and impact virtually every aspect of our society from economics to education and beyond.  We can try to fix them through public policy, however, legislation and regulation can only go so far in changing our society.  Real change occurs on a more personal level.  Each of us is constantly searching for acceptance and a sense of belonging.  Unfortunately, for many this necessitates a rejection of those different from us.
Winner take all politics makes us all losers.  Wisconsin is a divided state and nowhere is this clearer than when you mention Scott Walker's name in conversation.  Once again this reality provides and example of why those who oppose his policies need to articulate our thinking and make it clear that we oppose them, not just out of spite or vindictiveness for some imagined wrongs, but for real substantive reasons.  Walker's supporters would paint a picture of his opponents as unionized dinosaurs living in the past, while Wisconsin Republicans try to move the state forward into a fiscally safe future.  Yet, there are very real reasons for opposing the political, social and economic policies that have been enacted here in Wisconsin over the past few years. 

An accusation, realistic or not, is a powerful weapon to be wielded against opponents in public discourse.  We've been told that there are massive amounts of voter fraud going on across the country.  In order to fix the "problem" many states have been working to enact stricter rules around voting.  Yet, the accusations of fraud don't appear to have much substance and seem to be more of a political tool than a real concern for protecting the sanctity of our electoral process.

Voter ID laws and voter fraud have been portrayed as a racial issue.  I won't deny the racism that is implicit in many of the so called "reforms" that have been passed by Republican dominated legislatures.  At the same time, to simply look at the changes in our electoral process through a racial lens limits the full impact that they have on our society.  Any attempt to limit the voice of citizens, for any reason needs to be viewed as a serious threat to our republic.     

Extreme actions lead to extreme reactions, which lead to more extreme actions, which lead to more extreme reactions…  There will always be a fringe element in any society that is willing to take issues beyond what seems to be a logical extreme.  However, when pushed too far, even more moderate individuals begin to react in ways that are confrontational or outside the typical.  The protests of February, 2011 provide an example of this.  People who normally wouldn't take to the streets felt obligated to stand up for their values.  The exclusion of the people's voice from the decision making process made "rebels" out of moderates. 

Now we see an escalating pattern of violence and militarization in the northern part of Wisconsin due to the controversy over mining.   

There is always hope.  None of these issues are unprecedented or unique.  We've been dealing with them for the entire scope of history and will continue to struggle with them into the foreseeable future.  What then is the motivation for us to continue to struggle for justice and equality for all citizens?  It would certainly seem easier to give up and simply try to protect our own personal interests.  The answer lies in discovering what we stand for and finding others of a like mind to work together with.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

 Standing Up for Public Schools…
The idea of standing for something is an important aspect of any individual's character.  We all want to believe that we are useful, contributing members of society and that what we do and value is important.  The attacks on public education have certainly challenged educators' self-esteem and core beliefs.  We have been told that we are not competent and are lazy.  We've been told that our methods of educating students are insensitive and outdated.  We've been told that our whole educational system is flawed and should be "reformed" or even eliminated.  Public educators truly feel like we've been blamed for much of what ails society, from budget woes, to the decline of the workforce, to racial divisions and inequities. 

Our public schools face attacks on many fronts.  Here in Wisconsin the most recent threat is the expansion of the voucher program.  

The attacks on public sector workers through Act 10 and the general disrespect for the education profession have affected the number of students looking to join the field. 

Of course these challenges aren't occurring only in Wisconsin.

Yet, even in the face of these assaults, we continue to fight to preserve, protect and promote our public schools.  There are many reasons why public educators work so hard to defend our profession.  For me it goes way beyond a simple desire to protect my livelihood.  It isn't about trying to justify the last 20 years of my life and the work that I've done as a public educator.  It's a real belief that our public schools and the work that goes on in them is a valuable, even vital, resource that our society needs in order to evolve and thrive. 

My fight also centers around the idea that we need to protect the interests of the children and families we serve.  Education for profit won't protect the "consumers".  We know that turning our schools into businesses will not serve those who need the "product" the most. 

In some ways this debate goes even deeper than just educational policy and developing the future of our society.  The struggle revolves around a constant tension between the real need to develop talent and to learn practical skills, and the innate drive to learn about the world around us.  The idea that everything in our society needs to have a practical application that produces measurable results is clearly demonstrated in many of the "reforms" that are currently attracting so much attention.  By quantifying and measuring the knowledge that our students achieve we are able to somehow make education more substantive and useful.  This is why, in many circles, a student pursuing an engineering major is held in higher esteem than one working towards an art history major.        

This is one reason that I continue to speak against the wave of testing and standardization of curriculum in our public schools.  It is not a desire to avoid accountability, nor is it a fear of trying new things.  Instead it is a reasoned reaction to the constant pressure to make the 9 and 10 year olds in my classroom "career and college ready".  I truly want what is best for my students, but if Margaret Mead (writing in the 1940's and 50's) felt that, "In the modern world we have invented ways of speeding up invention, and people's lives change so fast that a person is born into one kind of world, grows up in another, and by the time his children are growing up, lives in still a different world," then what are our children in the 2010's facing.  We have very little idea what the world will look like in almost a decade when these children will graduate from high school.  By limiting their opportunities to what a publisher who doesn't know them at all believes to be appropriate, and ignoring what those closest to them (families, educators, and community members) see daily we do our students a huge disservice.  

This is not a phenomena limited to the United States either.  The results can be disastrous for any individual.  One of the comments after this article sums up the potential damage well:
"Absurd. I sat the old 11-plus in 1946. My father had recently returned from the war a broken man and on the day of the exams I suffered both a hay fever attack and a migraine. For that I was categorized a failure. It took me over ten years to recoup and to follow a career in education to university level."

This constant drive to quantify the level of education and sort our students creates a real problem in many ways.  Testing and collecting data become a driving force in education instead of focusing on student learning.  We put as much, or more, energy into designing assessments and scheduling tests as we do on actually educating our students.  So much of a district's budget and resources are devoted to this data collection that we lose sight of what is really important.
This idea that education should be assigned a value carries beyond the school walls and into all aspects of discussions around education.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions about the school budgets that are created annually.  The headlines may blare “PROPERTY TAX INCREASE" but the reality is that these increases are due to the decisions made higher up the food chain at the state and national level.  These decisions are made, not to improve education, but to gain and hold on to political power.   What if the headline about the school budget mentioned the fact that it is decreasing by a half-percent from last year, or that the tax increases resulted from an $8.7 million cut in state funding to MMSD? 

What is just as clear in educational issues, as in any other societal concern, is that individuals working together can make a difference.  Many people spoke up about the need to continue holding conferences at the start of the school year in Madison's elementary schools.  These conferences help set goals for students and establish communication and a working relationship between educators and families.  School administration and the Madison School Board heard these concerns and worked to make sure that the conferences will be held again this school year.   

Small groups of thoughtful, committed people are working all over our city, state, nation and world to try and bring important educational issues into the public debate.  While the challenges are many, the potential results are well worth the struggle.