Sunday, August 11, 2013

Issue #125- Crises in Democracy and Education

Crisis, What Crisis?!?…
We have had a couple of extremely turbulent and volatile years politically, socially and economically in Wisconsin (and across America).  Very few people who have been paying attention to the many different events would argue this fact.  Yet, underneath all of the hype and hyperbole around the conflicts there still exists, for many people, a certain amount of indifference and a lackadaisical attitude about the significance of what has been happening.  Whether intentional or not, the effect has been that the ongoing clashes between ideologically opposed groups have been minimized, and to a certain extent trivialized, for those who are not directly involved.

Whether this is done by comparing our situations to other places around the world, as was done in 2011 by saying Wisconsin was not Egypt, or by trying to paint those protesting as fringe elements of society, the effect is the same.  Many citizens and much of the media are willing to accept what they consider "lesser" infringements on the rights and privileges of citizens in exchange for a sense of order and stability.  We have become so complacent in our society that we are more comfortable blindly criticizing those who would speak out than we are with actually hearing what they have to say.

What is terrifying to hear are comments from people implying that, unless you are facing flying bullets and armed soldiers/police ready to use deadly force, then your protests are less valid than others around the world.  Equally terrifying to me is the concept that a citizenry armed with guns is preferable to a citizenry armed with free speech.  It would appear that many citizens have decided to emphasize only the parts of our founding documents that agree with their philosophy forgetting that the First Amendment comes ahead of the Second, and that they put "Life" and "Liberty" ahead of "The pursuit of happiness" and "Property".

This same effort to marginalize the protests of the Solidarity Singers and to put policy and "order" ahead of Freedom of Speech has continued at the Wisconsin State Capitol for another week.  We are hearing calls for those protesting to give up and leave the capitol.  Yet, many of the so called arguments for ending the Sing focus, not on the merits of their argument, but rather on either a simple desire to put the conflict behind us, or a vindictive glee at seeing those with opposing viewpoints arrested and belittled by those in authority.  If you don't believe me, just read the comments after any article about the Solidarity Sing.     

I have not been a regular Singer, nor have I been able to be at a Sing since the Capitol Police crackdowns have been going on.  I have many friends and colleagues who have been present, and arrested at the Sing.  I appreciate their persistent efforts to continue to draw attention to the injustices that have become common and acceptable here in Wisconsin.  Each Singer, and observer, probably has their own, somewhat unique reason for participating in the Sing.  After all, the Wisconsin Uprising has never been a monolithic political, or ideological movement.  Instead, the Progressive resistance to the current Conservative movement is as diverse as the membership of the movement. 

Yet, this diversity of demographics, ideologies and philosophies is united in their opposition to what seems, to so many of us, to be a rejection of the values that our nation was established under.  The principles of "Freedom", "Justice" and "Equality for All" have evolved over the years and, while we still have a long way to go, have become much more encompassing of the wealth of diversity that our nation benefits from.  However, the current Conservative movement is threatening to undo any and all of the progress that we have made as a nation over the past centuries. 

For me, it is for this reason that the Solidarity Sing is an important continuing protest.  Without their voices, and those of the many other dissenters around the state who continually express their views publically, the debate about the direction our state will take would become a purely political or economic discourse, ignored by many, or evaluated solely on the basis of the most recent economic projections.  By singing every weekday these individuals, collectively, personalize the issues and keep the problems we face in the public's eye.

Despite the desire to ignore them, the problems that currently exist in our society are real and very threatening.  The current conflicts in statehouses around the nation are more than just a minor political dispute.  They represent drastically different views of the way our society should operate.  The current crop of Conservative politicians are seeking to legislate, institutionalize and mandate their way of thinking into policies that will be in place for years to come.  Whether you agree or disagree with the policies, the direction that our society is moving in economically, socially and politically isn't a positive one. 

As our economic stratification intensifies we will see more and more stress being placed on individuals and families.  We become two separate and unequal Americas that struggle to peacefully coexist.  We've seen the pain and suffering that racial and ethnic divisions cause both here in America and across the globe.  Financial divisions can be just as problematic for the continued success of any society or nation.  That these economic classes are combined with other demographic classifications only increases the intensity of the class conflicts.  The current policies being promoted by many Conservatives only widen the existing gaps and cement the barriers that we currently have in place.   
The confrontational nature of our political struggles, and the winner take all mentality, only serves to increase the potential for more bitter conflicts in the future.  We are seeing more one-party domination of state and local governments which is eliminating the need for compromise and moderation in policy making.

We are seeing tensions escalate and the potential for tragic violence increasing as well.  As people feel like their voices aren't being heard, they resort to other means of expressing their dissent.  This leads to an increasingly volatile environment and even more breakdowns in positive, productive communication.

The only way to peacefully avert the crises we are facing is to increase the dialog and promote understanding between groups.  It is virtually impossible to legislate tolerance and respect for other's opinions.  It is also impossible to mandate the way that others think and act.  We can arrest, fine and even kill those who disagree with us, but in the end, humans have shown an incredible willingness to sacrifice for what they believe in.

Here in America we have a system that could really work, if the people involved in the process are willing to be statespeople and not politicians, and if the citizens are willing to accept their responsibilities as guardians of democracy.  We have multiple layers of protection for our rights, and an ability to make necessary changes as time goes by.  Remember that our Constitution, so revered by many, didn't resolve national disgraces like slavery or address equal rights for many groups of citizens.  However, it allowed for a process whereby we could amend the document and "improve" it as our society changed. 

The philosophy our founders espoused was one where dissent was valued when it was directed at promoting Liberty and Justice.  The movement that drove their actions in the 1700's is alive and well in modern Wisconsin.        

We also see other places where hope springs from communities who have faced terrible tragedy.  That this hope comes from an adherence to peaceful and positive thinking should come as no surprise.  Violence and force only create an atmosphere where more violence and force are needed.  We need to draw our strength from those who would move our society forward as a unified community and work to defeat those who would divide us.    

Education Values…
As the new school year approaches, the attacks on public education continue to escalate.  It continues to amaze, and disappoint, many of us involved in public education the direction that those in power are trying to move our educational systems.  It is clear that  we are seeing a coordinated effort to undermine our public schools and to promote a for profit system. 

What are less clear to many citizens are the reasons that this is problematic for our society, and not just issues of educators trying to protect their own turf and their own livelihood. 

The Republican Party of Wisconsin has recently adopted resolutions about education that clearly demonstrate not only their philosophy about education, but also some places where I (and many professional public educators) would question their logic.  I'm including my thoughts and responses in red. 

Republican Party of Wisconsin 2013 State Convention Resolutions as Adopted

2013-1 – Education
WHEREAS, we believe in limited government, individual freedom and personal responsibility; and
WHEREAS, parents have the right to spend their money on the school or method of schooling they deem appropriate for their children; and
WHEREAS, virtual schools have come under attack by the leadership of the state teacher’s union (Why call unions out specifically, lots of people opposed these schools?); and
WHEREAS, parents have the fundamental right and responsibility to educate their children and provide for their moral guidance; and
WHEREAS, parents should have as much choice as possible in selecting the right school for their children (As well as accurate information, not designed to mislead, misinform and scare families away from public schools); and
WHEREAS, vigorous competition from independent schools (More thoughts on this later) will stimulate government (Interesting that they are not called public)  schools to strive for and achieve excellence; now,
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Republican Party of Wisconsin, in convention assembled:
  • Urges that parents of school-age children be given vouchers or tax credits designed to give all parents equal freedom of choice in education (No voucher system that I know of has done this for all parents, this is simple rhetoric designed to mislead and motivate a specific audience) without regard to their financial means; and
  • Urges that religiously oriented schools not be discriminated against for exercising their freedom of religion (They shouldn't be discriminated against, but they also shouldn't be publically funded according to the 1st Amendment.  I believe that giving tax dollars to religious schools for religious teaching amounts to promoting a religion.); and
  • Strongly urges that the right to home school shall not be abridged; and
  • Urges our state legislators and local school boards to push for curriculum changes that place greater emphasis on the basics (Return to a system that is outdated and unequal), and eliminate all programs whose objectives are social engineering or advocacy of special interests (Such as religion?); and
  • Calls for the state legislature to eliminate funding of 4-year-old kindergarten (The benefits of which are supported by data); and
  • Urges Congress to pass legislation that prohibits schools from forcing or coercing parents to put their children on drugs (Where did this come from, in my 16 years of teaching I have never seen educators suggest medication without support from doctors and families) and eliminates all funding for government-mandated mental health screening of all children; and
  • Supports academic efforts that ensure that the presentation of our history and founding Judeo-Christian principles in our educational institutions, including those of higher learning, is objective, truthful and complete (Are they willing to recognize that the original colonists had many differing views about religion, or are they trying to teach a modified, Puritanical, version of American religious history?); and
  • Urges legislation adopting alternative standards for teacher licensing that do not require a degree in education or student-teaching experience (Total disrespect for the profession, what if they suggested the same for doctors?); and
  • Urges that if political issues are discussed, that multiple opinions be presented to represent a more fair discussion and to allow for debate (Already part of most districts' policies, including Madison's); and
  • Opposes the adoption and implementation of Common Core Standards (Fine with a large number of educators too) as well as the International Baccalaureate Curriculum in the Wisconsin school system; and
  • Supports allowing properly trained adult staff to be armed in public schools (Horrible idea for many reasons).
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we support legislation to make it easier to fire unsatisfactory (unionized) teachers in the public schools and to encourage performance pay for the best teachers; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we support local school districts’ decisions to set up virtual schools and parents right to participate in their children’s education and to choose virtual schools for their children’s education; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we urge libraries in all publicly-funded schools have a balance of reading materials that reflect conservative values as well as liberal values (How will this be determined and enforced, are conservative and liberal values really so easily defined); and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we endorse that the U. S. Department of Education should be abolished and all federal mandates and funding (such as Common Core Curriculum), leaving education decision making at the state (We've seen what types of funding decisions that our current state government makes for public schools) , local or personal level; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that we support school districts having the right to choose from multiple vendors for their statewide school information system (SSIS) on the grounds that multiple vendors will lower costs to the taxpayers and promote free market principles (Just like Infinite Campus?).

Competition and the "Free Market" are values that Republicans continually put forward as they talk about improving education.  I have several significant problems with the idea of schools as a competitive "industry".  The first is that in our current marketplace, we are seeing the effects of deregulation and they aren't positive.  As regulation and monitoring of the financial industry was reduced, we saw catastrophic results that we are still recovering from.  Public schools have a level of accountability for providing services and accepting all students, that private schools don't.  

There is also a tendency for larger, better financed, entities to expand while smaller, not necessarily worse, businesses are driven out.  The Wal-Marting of many American communities provides us with examples of this phenomenon.  The success of a business in our current marketplace isn't necessarily tied to performance or to quality.  Do we want to open up our educational system to the potential for students to receive a cheap, mass-produced, but well packaged "product"?  Do we also want to see our children educated by trained professionals who are committed to public education, or underpaid, undervalued transient employees who face constant pressure from "above" to produce results?   

There are some services that should be provided publicly in order to best serve the population as a whole.  By privatizing certain services and products we create situations that are open to corruption and that are delivered inequitably.  Take garbage collection as an example.  In order to maximize profits it would be better for a private company to dump hazardous material without going through the expensive process of disposing of it safely.  Public sanitation services don't have the drive to create profit, but if managed well operate purely in the public interest.  

Education, when done well should not be a money making enterprise.  It is an investment in our children's future and the future of our society.  Our current efforts to privatize education focus on skimming the "profitable" students out of the general pool and leaving the rest out of the opportunities.  By keeping our education system public we remove the need to profit from our students, and instead turn our attention to allowing them to profit from the system.  

Finally, education as a "marketplace" invites secrecy and competition that doesn't benefit all students.  Here I turn to health care for an example.  A medical discovery that would cure a disease should be available to all people.  However, because of the competition involved in medical advances we see procedures, medication and other services distributed unequally based on income and not necessarily other criteria.  In the same way, new educational practices that work for students should be universally accessible and not the province of any specific "business" interest.  If I'm running a school and my students are all "college and career ready" no matter their demographic category then that is a positive thing.  I shouldn't hide my methods and should be able to share them without fear of losing the "profitability" of my "business".  Some goods and services are necessary for an individual's ability to thrive and shouldn't be controlled by private, for profit, interests.     

Buy Local…
Back-to-School shopping has begun in earnest.  Please remember to make the effort to support local businesses when shopping for necessary items.  By shopping at locally owned and operated businesses we not only keep our local economy healthy, but we also maximize the impact that our spending can have.    

1 comment:

  1. The part of the WI-GOP education platform that jumps out at me is the call to abolish all federal education mandates.

    I believe this would include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which if abolished would leave my child and so many others without the right to a public education.

    A horrifying platform in many, many ways.