Saturday, August 17, 2013

#126- Organizing to Defend Public Education and Workers

Attack Educators (and Unions), Attack Public Education…
Education is a labor intensive "industry".  Despite the efforts to utilize technology to educate students, most experts agree that students achieve more when they work with qualified, well trained professional educators.  This is confirmed in study after study, where the positive impact of educators is documented.  If we are looking to address student achievement in a real, meaningful way we need to have a large number of competent, motivated and prepared educators to help guide students academic, social and emotional progress.

Given the importance that so many influential individuals and groups are placing on improving or "reforming" our educational system, it would seem logical that significant emphasis would be put on attracting and retaining the best possible candidates to work with our students.  If the goal of "reformers" was truly to improve our schools it would be reasonable to assume that they would recognize the need to train, compensate and support the professionals that are employed to do the labor needed to educate our students.  After all, in a "market economy" people are free to find the best way to employ their skills, just like consumers are free to find the best way to spend their financial resources. 

If we put 2 and 2 together we can see that the real purpose of education "reform" isn't to improve education, but rather to improve the profit margin for a small number of education investors.  People or groups who have seen the potential for profiting from students and are trying to take full advantage of the opportunities.  Because the largest expense in education is in the labor needed, these investors are looking for ways to cut corners and change the demographics of the educators in schools (assuming that distance learning and on-line schools, where small numbers of educators can reach large numbers of students without costly facilities and materials, are not immediately practical ways to do this).

One way to cut labor costs is to de-professionalize the education work force.  This can be done by making majoring in education too costly and unattractive for students to choose as a career field.  Increasing costs of higher education while lowering educator salaries will eliminate many potential educators from choosing to study education.  If you combine this with the availability of alternative programs like Teach for America then you can alter the perception of educators as professionals and instead turn it into an occupation that requires only rudimentary training.  Educators will enter the profession without necessary skills, knowledge and experience thus increasing the, already high, attrition rate for new educators.  This means that most educators will be at the lowest rungs of the salary scale and won't stay in the profession long enough to advance in wages.  Education suddenly becomes a highly transitional occupation, not a career. 


This phenomena already exists in high-poverty urban and rural areas.  With the ongoing emphasis on cutting school district budgets and vilifying educators the trend will spread to other areas, making private schools and technological fixes seem more palatable to many families. 

One of the major barriers standing in the way of these efforts to de-professionalize the education labor force is the presence of educator unions.  These unions work to promote the interests of educators, but they also give power and protection to educators who fight to try and protect the needs of students and families.  The membership of these unions provides a potent force to resist the "reforms" that are being implemented for profit, not for sound educational reasons.  In order for educational "reformers" to have full access to the power and wealth that they seek, they must eliminate the educator unions.

In order to undermine the educator unions, "reformers" need to paint unions as barriers to improving education and remove the ability of the union to serve its membership.  "Reformers" have worked hard to try and portray their efforts as being in the "interests of the children" and to make it seem like unions only are looking out for lazy and incompetent educators who don't want to work hard to help students.  Act 10 is an excellent example of an effort to achieve the latter goal.  By eliminating the ability of unions to represent their members in virtually all matters relating to working conditions, benefits and wages, Governor Walker was able to put public educator unions on the defensive.  Act 10 combined a number of union busting tactics effectively under the guise of addressing budget concerns.     

Wis. schools firing more teachers after Act 10

Education "reformers" don't want their efforts to be carefully analyzed.  Instead they rely on sound bites and rhetoric that sounds logical, and that pays lip service to American ideals like freedom and equality of opportunity.  Most of these "reforms" rely on smoke and mirrors and don't adequately replace things that we know work for students.  By attacking on multiple fronts, "reformers" can keep unions and their professional membership, as well as other experts in education on the defensive.  This eliminates the need for "reformers" to really defend their proposals until after the changes they propose have become embedded in policy and practice.   


Defending Education…
The constant barrage of anti-education legislation and budgeting combined with  the efforts to "divide and conquer" our communities by trying to create tension between public educators and the families we serve has manufactured a climate of fear and mistrust.  A significant amount of effort has been devoted to isolating groups and to pitting them against each other.  That is the purpose of the negative portrayal of public schools, the "reformer's" support of things like Parent Trigger Laws and other efforts to supposedly "empower" families. 

These efforts rely on using data against public schools, and making claims about public schools using partial, misleading or carefully selected information.  The efforts to quantify student achievement and to grade schools based on specifically chosen statistics are another aspect of these attacks.   All of them contribute to the belief that our schools are "failing" and that we face a crisis in education.  In a climate like this it is no wonder that many families are fearful for their children's future and that they feel a need to act in what they believe to be their family's self-interest.

The lack of information and sense of crisis isn't confined to families or the community as a whole.  Educators themselves are feeling the stress and confusion because of the vast number of new initiatives and "reforms" that are being pushed in the schools we work in.  In addition, the efforts to undermine the ability of our unions and professional associations to act on our behalf has made many question the need to organize and act collectively.  The message that many new educators are receiving is very different from the one that educators got in the not so distant past.  This leads to a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness for professional educators.

Our political climate certainly hasn't helped educator morale or done much to support our public schools.  It is easy to point out the damage to our schools done by Wisconsin Republicans in recent years.  The massive cuts to school funding, the expansion of the voucher system, Act 10 and many other pieces of legislation and policy are obvious in their impact on public education.  However, even the supposed allies of public schools have done little to really help out the educators, administrators and school boards in our state and around the nation.  For example, Democrats replaced No Child Left Behind with Race to the Top.  In the not so distant past here in Wisconsin, Democrats had the same control of state government that the GOP currently enjoys.  Needless to say they didn't take as much advantage of their power as Governor Walker has.       

So, how do we counter these widespread, powerful and well financed attacks on our public schools and our public educators?  How do we create an environment where our political leaders are forced to listen to educators and families instead of lobbyists, publishers and others who seek to profit from schools?  How do we rebuild the sense of trust and community that should exist around our public schools?  How do we insure that all students and families are given a voice in making our schools places of equal opportunity?      

There are no easy answers or quick fixes to these questions.  In many ways the challenges involved seem insurmountable, especially given the reality that many educators operate under now and the political climate that exists.  We live in a divided state where people's opinions are often entrenched and real discussion about issues is difficult to have publicly.  To act politically or on a large scale invites push back and a constantly swinging pendulum of public opinion, legislation and policies. 

To me the real potential for making positive change happen lies in building personal connections and relationships with a wide range of individuals.  It is well documented that people mistrust individuals or groups that they don't have a personal connection to.  An obvious example of this is the fact that a huge majority of families think that their own public school is excellent, while these exact same families see other schools as unsatisfactory.  We trust what and who we know.  The question for supporters of public education is how to make these connections and speak our truth about our schools and our efforts to educate our students. 

One way is for educators to be a visible presence at events around the community.  When members of the community see educators helping at events or active in efforts to improve things in the community they are forced to look at us in a different way.  It becomes more difficult to see educators as lazy and greedy when they have stood next to you at an event.  It also gives educators an opportunity to have conversations with people who they might not be in contact with otherwise.  Most educators already contribute a lot of time and energy to their communities outside of their regular work duties.  It simply becomes a matter of making sure that those in the community know who we are and what we do for a living.

Another opportunity for educators to connect with their community is to make sure that we represent our profession at school related events and in groups that already exist in our school communities.  Attend local school board meetings and make it known that you are there as a professional educator.  Attend your school's PTA/O on a regular basis.  Be a presence at neighborhood association meetings or other similar organizations.  Often there isn't a need to speak out or do more than just be present in order to have an impact.  However, it is also good to be ready to counter potential misinformation that can be a part of the discussions. 

It is also possible to create your own groups or venues for discussion.  I'm very excited about a group of parents, educators and family members that has formed in my school community.  We call ourselves SCAPE (School Community Alliance for Public Education) and have been meeting for over a year to discuss topics around public education.  We have had members speak at school board meetings and have been vocal about some issues.  However, the strength of the group lies in its diversity of members and the discussions that we have.  Too often discussions about education happen in isolated, special interest groups.  Educators meet with educators, families with families, specific demographic groups within their own groups, and neighborhoods are divided.  Our group is working to try and break these barriers and have open, honest dialog about our schools.  

It is important to create connections within your professional community.  Many educators are feeling isolated and vulnerable and building strong support networks is important for individuals as well as our profession as a whole.  As the school year begins try to reach out to fellow educators, especially newer educators or people new to your building.  As we move farther into the Post Act 10 Era many educators are questioning the need for unions and collective action.  If each educator is connected to a wider network of peers then they will build educator power and a sense of commitment to each other that goes beyond contractual language and legal obligation.  Unions originated in a spirit of cooperation and a shared sense of purpose.  The challenges that organized labor faces in modern Wisconsin are vast, but they are also an opportunity for us to revitalize our organizations. 

Finally, we can't ignore the need to be active politically.  While we face an uphill battle here in Wisconsin it is important that every citizen we encounter is encouraged to participate in the process.  In many communities the end of the summer means lots of moving and changes in addresses.  Be sure that everyone you know has updated their voter registration information. 


All of these efforts will help to build connections and a network of individuals who listen to and who trust each other.  As I work to organize members of my school community I am often surprised at the links that are established between individuals and groups who might not have recognized the interests they have in common.  The more isolated we are, the more vulnerable we are to policies designed to fragment our society and to gain power from polarizing the public.  It's never too early or too late to reach out to others and to forge bonds of trust and support.

Flawed Economic Policies…
Of course public education isn't the only area where misinformation and rhetoric is used to undermine public confidence and to increase fear and mistrust.  These efforts are also very visible in the efforts to create economic policies that benefit a small portion of the population.  In order to achieve these goals it is important that the public develops a fear of government and a fear of regulations.  

The political and economic conflicts that result from these efforts to brand any attempt to improve working conditions are part of an ongoing battle that appears throughout our history.  The push to organize often comes from the most disenfranchised and undervalued workers.

Their efforts are very important and need our support.  After all, the current trends in employment are for more and more Americans to be employed at low wage jobs.  If we don't lend our support to the organizing efforts of these workers then we will see conditions for all workers continue to decline for the foreseeable future. 

This is very true in Wisconsin where we are seeing a significant change in the direction our state's economic policies are going.  This means that fewer jobs are being created that are family supporting.  Even new businesses that are being created are not benefitting most workers.   

Solidarity Sing…
Arrests in the capitol continue another week.  It begs the question, why is eliminating the Solidarity Sing such a priority for the Walker administration?  

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