Saturday, April 27, 2013

#112 April 27, 2013- Defending Public Educator Unions

If our public educators suffer from significant misrepresentation in public forums and are often misunderstood by the general public, their unions are even more maligned.  Sayings like "I like my teacher, but hate their union" and "If you can read thank a teacher.  If you can't thank a teacher's union" appear on bumper stickers.  At the same time the message delivered by education "reformers" and anti-educator advocates clearly attempt to pin the blame for problems like the Achievement Gaps and school district budget woes on the shoulders of educator unions. 

What anti-educator union activists and school "reformers" have done is confuse the public and create the idea that educators and their unions are completely separate entities.  The fact is that educator unions are made up of educators and to attack the labor organizations that represent educators is equivalent to attacking the educators themselves.  The anti-union forces have been somewhat reluctant to directly attack educators, but have not shied away from attacking the unions that educators belong to. 

The image of unions as standing in the way of progress, protecting incompetent educators and crippling school district budgets while intimidating and dominating local politicians is one that doesn't match the reality of present day Wisconsin.  A present where unions have seen their ability to negotiate and represent membership decimated.  It doesn't even come close to the reality of Wisconsin in pre-Act 10 days.  Times when the QEO was passed, school budgets were slashed and the effects of NCLB and RttT were beginning to be felt.         

Even though the reality doesn't match the fictional imagery of the anti-union movement, the public has had a hard time discerning the difference between the two.  This is in part due to the masterful rhetoric of the Right as it works to undermine Worker's Rights in all sectors and industries.  It is also a result of the economic struggles and the ability of conservative politicians to "divide and conquer" the working and middle classes.  These efforts have put unions on the defensive and set the tone for debates in public forums.

At the same time, unions haven't done a good job of representing themselves and challenging the rhetoric of the conservatives with a positive and aggressive message of their own.  Public employee unions, and public educator unions specifically, have done great things in representing their members.  When it comes to communicating with the public they have been much less effective.  In some ways they have relied on the good will and general support of the public based on the belief that there is support for the efforts of public employees.  As the recent conservative political leadership has demonstrated, this assumption is a false one.  There are many powerful conservatives who don't value public services, and who seek to dismantle and privatize them.  We clearly can't assume the support of those in power when it comes to public education. 

Even among those who support our public schools, there is some question as to whether collective bargaining is necessary and whether public educator unions are a positive feature in the landscape of public education.  As educators we need to be ready to articulate our reasons for continuing to belong to, and support our unions.  The reasons that public educators need unions are many, but our message isn't reaching the majority of citizens.  In fact, the importance of unions is sometimes lost on the members themselves. 

What is it that makes a union so valuable to our public educators (and to society as a whole)?

The most obvious reason is the continuing decline in worker's wages and benefits, workplace safety and ever increasing workloads and workdays that is occurring in workplaces around the nation.  Without public educator unions we will see this decline accelerate exponentially under new rules that put all decision making power in the hands of administrators and school boards.  We've already seen this begin as school districts move to handbooks instead of contracts across Wisconsin.  Here in Madison we are fortunate to still be under contract, and need to use this to our advantage and press the issues that educators value. 

A union's primary purpose is to promote the "general welfare" of its membership.  However, by doing so, unions also raise the conditions of all workers.  This has been demonstrated clearly through our history.  As union membership and activism rises we see noticeable gains for all workers.     

Unions provide an organizational structure for educators to access in order to defend their profession and promote public education.  The massive protests and subsequent recall process couldn't have happened without the organizing efforts of unions.  These political actions brought many issues to light here in Wisconsin that wouldn't have been noticed by the general public otherwise.  In a democracy, accurate information is vital, and unions have been actively filling an informational void on important issues.

Union representation and collectively bargained contracts give educators a voice in the decision making processes around not only contractual issues, but also policy and other topics.  We are facing "reforms" that are being forced on educators from outside our profession and that frequently have questionable educational merit.  As public educators we have an obligation to speak against injustice and unethical actions promoted by these "reformers".  We know the reality of our schools and our students on a personal and professional level.  Too often we see "reform" efforts that impact our poorest and most disenfranchised students.  Unions have become a voice for members of the community as well.       

With all of the recent turmoil in Wisconsin and the constant attacks on unions, we have seen many of the responses be defensive in nature.  These responses also tend to emphasize the potential, or actual negatives that come from losing union representation.  In short, we are operating out of fear and clinging to what remains of our collective bargaining rights.  While the present situation clearly is dire when it comes to issues around worker's rights and social justice, the message of impending doom isn't one that promotes optimism, or activism among supporters of public education and public educators. 

By responding to the attacks and attempting to defend our values we allow the debate to be shaped by those who assail us.  Our arguments have less credibility with the general public when we are defensive.  Instead of touting the positives of public schools, people see headlines like this one.  Casual readers don't see much more than a headline that reinforces their beliefs that schools are failing.    

Many of the articles in this post feature actions from Chicago or Milwaukee.  Two communities that have significant differences from Madison.  One could argue that we aren't closing schools in Madison.  We don't currently have voucher schools here either.  Yet, there are common themes and clear connections between what is happening in larger cities around us and what we see beginning to happen in Madison.  Education debates and education "reform" are based on similar issues no matter what community they occur in.      

In the end "community" becomes a key component in our efforts to preserve public education.  No matter what your political persuasion, philosophy or beliefs every citizen is part of a larger whole.  In order for individuals to succeed, they must have a strong community around them.  The current conservative movement is based on individual rights and self interests.  Unions represent a different view of what society can, and should, be.  A collective effort that raises all members of society to greater heights.  That is a message that union members need to share.  We are all in this together.  Public educator unions are one voice, a voice that is necessary and that should never be silenced.       

#111 April 27, 2013- The View from One School

There is a lot of discussion about our public schools these days.  Most of the public conversations are centered around the ideas put forward by school "reformers".  These focus on test scores, accountability for educators/schools and school budgets.  As a result they usually seem to miss the human element of our schools.  Yet, the fact of the matter is that this missing element in the discussions is the key component to our efforts to educate the youth in our communities.  Education is not done in an assembly line manner, but rather is shaped by the individual involved in ways that many outside of our schools fail to understand.   

Over the past couple of years I've been able to be a part of many informal discussions about public education and what is important in our schools.  These face to face conversations between people from different parts of the educational community show a very different reality than the one that is presented in many public forums and the media.  What emerges from these discussions is a sense of shared purpose and commitment to making our public schools work.  Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our schools, they often look for ways of improving schools by adding to what is working, and supporting the educators who work on a daily basis with students and families.

Another thing missing from the public discussions about public education are the voices of the educators in the schools.  When these voices are heard they are too frequently responding to attacks and criticisms.  Instead of voicing the positives and offering hope for the future of public education, educator's comments often are defensive in nature.  The tone of the debate has been established by those who seek to dismantle our public education system.  The result is that many educators feel attacked, powerless and voiceless.  The good things that happen in schools are washed away by a tide of negative press, vicious attacks and data designed to damage the credibility of educators.

Public educators and those who support public education need to change the debate.  We need to engage the community in discussions, not based on the assumption that our schools are "bad", "broken" or "failing", but on the premise that we have the ability and dedication to help public education fulfill its tremendous potential.  Public schools are unique in their mandate to educate all children and to bring entire communities together.  In order for this to happen we must establish open, honest communication between the different parts of our community and break down the barriers that exist between groups.  Groups who view themselves as separate, but which in reality could be united through dialog around education. 

In the conversations that I've been a part of, one thing consistently comes to the surface as an issue of concern.  Communication between schools, families and the community is inconsistent and confusing.  People don't understand what is going on in schools, and they don't know where to turn to in order to get clear, accurate information.  The media parrots test scores and quotes from the same sources.  School district communications often are confusing due to "eduspeak" and frequently changing numbers and initiatives.  Educators struggle to share information with families for many different reasons as well.  The end results are confusion and divisions where clarity and solidarity are needed. 

I'm often asked, "What do the educators think?" or, "What do educators need/want from us (parents, community, etc.)"  These are difficult questions because of the wide diversity in schools, classrooms, students, families and educators.  There are as many answers to these questions as there are educators.  Yet, there are some consistent themes that emerge as one continues to have conversations with educators.

It was a little over a year ago that I completed a series of conversations with every staff member in my school.  I sat down and listened to what they had to say and shared this information in a couple of posts.  The stories that I heard were uplifting and troubling at the same time.  They painted a picture of a school staff that was struggling to stay afloat in a sea of negativity.  The struggles and challenges were offset by a sense of commitment and hope as educators did their best in a difficult environment.  The staff in my building spoke about many issues that I summarized under these general headings:

-Concern about the political situation in Wisconsin.
-Concern about the future of public education in Madison, and across the state/nation.
-We support and need our union to protect our voices in the education debate.
-We feel stretched, overworked, over-managed, and disrespected.
-Education "reforms" aren't what's best for our students.
-We are challenged by the increasingly diverse student body and the increasing needs of our students and families.
-Educator needs and student needs are intertwined.
-We care for our fellow educators.

So, what is the status of educators in my school building a year later?  Educators approach our jobs with the understanding that education is a work in progress.  We look for growth and positive change as we evaluate and assess our students, our professional growth and our school climate.  Educators are eternal optimists, always believing in the power of education and the promise that our students have, not matter what the challenges. 

However, the constant struggle and perpetual criticism of our schools and our profession is clearly taking a toll on morale in our schools.  The reality is that many of the same feelings and challenges from a year ago are still with us, and the concerns about these issues has increased.  This becomes clear when one looks at the concerns, hopes and goals that staff at my school offered this year. 

Our personal financial situations are becoming more challenging.  Educators are feeling the pinch as our contributions to our pensions have increased and wages have stagnated.  I know that there are those who still harbor jealousy towards the "extravagant" contracts and "luxurious" benefits that educators receive.  When the prospect of educator wage increases of 1.5% was suggested, the outcry from anti-educator forces was immediate and misleading.  The argument that educators shouldn't get raises because of the "built in raises" that are part of our salary schedule was raised.  Yet, part of our "raises" are based on continuing education credits that we must pay for.  My wife and I recently shelled out a significant sum of money for university credits needed to keep our certification.  The "raise" that we receive for this payment will not cover the costs incurred for a significant amount of time. 

The reality is that many educators are barely scraping by.  As a union representative in my building I've had several interactions with educators who are facing difficult financial circumstances as a result of the recent changes brought on by Act 10.  We do what we can to help these individuals and their families, but it is heartbreaking to see hard-working educators facing financial disaster because of legislation passed to directly harm a specific group of employees.

Educators pay and benefits reflect the status of education in Wisconsin today.  Politicians and other leaders give it lip-service, but don't put their money where their mouths are.  Children and families in our public schools suffer as well, as educators can no longer afford to purchase supplies and other items for families in need.  This is especially troubling because Act 10 was supposed to eliminate the budget woes of our local schools, and yet we are seeing more and more districts across the state continue to struggle financially even after the "tools" to correct the problems became available.  

We are also concerned about future costs of health insurance.  Over the past two years we've seen changes in our insurance plans and a decrease in the coverage that many of us need.  Thanks to Act 10 and the state's reduction in aid to school districts, health insurance costs could be a potentially devastating new cost that may drive some quality educators out of the profession.      

Our workload is increasing.  Class sizes, caseloads and additional duties are another concern of teachers at my school.  It isn't enough that we are required to develop, learn and implement new curriculum, but we are also required to complete additional paperwork and perform additional duties during the school day.  These changes in our workload limit the time that we have to communicate with families, develop relationships with students and prepare engaging and innovative lessons.

Few people realize just what an educator's day looks like.  Because of the nature of our jobs we are often required to be actively engaged with students for more than 3 hours at a time.  This means no bathroom breaks, no time to check/send emails or communicate information to families or other staff, and no time to prepare our classroom for new activities.  Our classrooms are not just places for reading, writing and math, but are also science labs, conflict resolution centers, cafeterias, recreation centers, computer labs and countless other things. 

We face more demands on our time from many sources.  The time that we have to plan and communicate with fellow educators is taken up by mandated professional development.  Often these sessions are geared towards promoting a new initiative that we may have serious questions about.  We are also seeing an increase in the number of committees that seek to involve educators in the discussion about our goals and objectives.  However, we sometimes find that these committees are designed to get "buy in" for policies and not to increase dialog or shape the path of our schools.

The public is given information collected from educators, but this is not always accurate information that represents a majority of educator's opinions.  Take "Ready Set Goal" Conferences for example.  These conferences are held at the beginning of a school year and are designed to open the door for communication between schools and families.  Over the years the school district has tried to change the format and has even created forms that we are mandated to use.  There is nothing less inviting to many families than to sit down with their child's educator for the first time and see a form, in triplicate no less, ready to be filled in and signed.  Now, these conferences become a bargaining chip in negotiations that make it seem like educator's raises and benefits will prevent them from occurring.  A very divisive situation for our school communities.       

Educator expertise and knowledge isn't respected or heard.  We are directed to implement numerous new initiatives given to us from "above".  Yet, many of us question the effectiveness or educational validity of these "reforms". We find ourselves losing control of out curriculum and our methods of teaching.  Standardized curricula, assessments and rigid pedagogy are replacing flexible teaching methods geared towards specific learners and using resources particular to an individual school.  That this is being done in order to improve student achievement troubles us and makes us wonder if we are teaching for the purpose of collecting data, or to truly educate creative thinkers for the future.

We are held accountable in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons.  Staff at my school is very concerned about issues of educator evaluations and merit pay that are closely tied to student standardized test scores.  We find ourselves forced to implement untested and potentially damaging Common Core Standards in order to protect our jobs, not because we believe they are best for student learning.  In many ways our school district is governed as much by fear as by educational goals, or hope for the future.  We find ourselves dreading the next press release slamming our district while ignoring positive efforts being made to address student achievement and engagement. 

What do we want?  The biggest thing we want is to have a voice in all aspects of our educational system.  This means that we can continue to have the ability to bargain new contracts and to have a say in how and what we teach our students.  We want to hold on to our retirement benefits and the seniority system.  As system that, while not perfect, provides stability to our workplaces and has as much merit as any other proposed system.  We enjoy the protection and stability that our contracts and grievance procedures give us.  These systems allow for us to express our opinions and at the same time hold us accountable to a high standard of performance.   

We want to create a collaborative atmosphere where educators, families, and community members can dialog openly and honestly about important issues.  We need time to create the trust necessary for these conversations to occur.  These conversations must include all staff and members of all the different groups that have a stake in our public schools.  Communication between all members of the educational community is vital to creating an environment where all students have the opportunity to succeed and all voices are valued. 

This is especially true in our schools where the quick pace of change has left educators confused and frustrated.  We find ourselves lost in a maze of new policies and initiatives that serve to increase our stress and make the families we work with anxious about the quality of their child's education.  We need time as professionals to digest what has been fed to us and decide what morsels have educational "nutritional" value and what ones need to be removed from our "diet".  Many of us feel like we are losing our way and need time to reassess where we are and where we are headed as educational communities.   

We continue to care deeply about each other, our students, their families and our community.  Not a day goes by, but that some evidence of the incredible depth of caring is displayed by the educators I work with.  Whether this is making meals for colleagues experiencing life changes, or helping a student's family move into a new apartment, the real commitment of our staff to all members of the community are readily found.  While the media and education "reformers" may try and label us "lazy" and "uncaring" those who encounter an educator know the real truth about the devotion of educators to their profession and their community.

What needs to happen is for the rest of the community and the political leadership of our state to recognize the merits of our professional public educators and the value of our public education system.  We must work together to make sure that our system isn't too damaged before the pendulum swings back in a more positive direction.      

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Issue #110 April 21, 2013- Countering Education Reform

The Problems With Education "Reform", and What to do About Them…
Public education and education "reform" are much discussed topics in recent days.  It could be argued that this is a good thing, after all, isn't a quality education for every student a worthwhile goal to pursue?  Isn't public discussion about finding ways to make this happen something to be encouraged and valued? 
Of course public educators and those who value education want public schools to be an important part of any public dialog that goes on as we continually seek to improve all aspects of our society.  Why then are we seeing so much concern raised by supporters of public education about the conversations currently happening regarding our public schools?

Education "Reform" is a political power tool, not a real effort to support or improve public education.  Public education has become a target for those who would seek to increase their hold on political and economic power.  Public educator unions are one of the last bastions of organized labor and the elimination of their power by any means necessary is a clear goal for conservative political leaders.  Education is one of the largest items in many state and municipal budgets and there are those who see the schools and their students as line items to be exploited, not people to be educated.
Information shared by "reformers" is misleading and designed to harm public schools.  In order to change the landscape of education from one dominated by public schools to one where for-profit privatized schools are the norm, there is a concerted effort to undermine public confidence in our school systems.  One example of this is the recently developed "Report Cards" that evaluate public schools in Wisconsin.  It has become clear that there was a "hidden agenda" behind the development of the report cards and that they were intended to be wielded as a weapon of destruction not an instrument of change.     

Organizations opposed to public education look for any way to discredit educators and harm public school systems.

Proposed "Reforms" are (ironically enough) untested and often without educational merit.  Many of the champions of education "reform" have been discredited after their policies and practices are analyzed by real education experts.  We have seen individuals rise to the top of the educational policy pyramid, not on merit, but on their willingness to promote an agenda supported by interests from outside the field of education.  The end result has been lasting harm for students and schools that have been under the control of these "reformers".   

The voucher program in Wisconsin is one example of these unproven "reforms" being treated as good educational practices for political purposes.  Expanding voucher schools in Wisconsin does little to improve the educational outcomes for most students, and actually harms more than it helps.  What it does do is cripple public schools and open the door for more privatization.    

Voucher schools are promoted as an alternative to a "one size fits all" public education, yet the reality is not what is promised.  In many cases voucher schools have less qualified (uncertified) staff that works more hours (for less pay), experience higher turnover rates in staffing.  Yet administrators and investors in these schools reap financial rewards denied to employees.  

The Common Core standards currently being touted as the next great advancement in education are another example.  These standards change the way that we deliver instruction in our schools and they increase the value that is placed on standardization of curriculum and testing.  Essentially, Common Core standards force our schools to limit the ability of educators to deliver instruction in ways that benefit the students they serve.  Even in districts like the Madison Public Schools we are seeing a move towards a top-down more restricted teaching environment.   

How can we resist the tide of "reform"?  There are many answers to this question, but all of them start with conversations about what we are defending.  It isn't enough to simply speak out against the "reforms" being touted.  Public opinion and dialog has been directed in ways that focus attention on the negative aspects of our schools.  To speak out against the "reforms" is seen as obstructing progress and defending a "failed" status quo.
Public educators and supporters of public education need to take control of the debate around what makes good educational policy and what our schools can do to meet the challenges that exist.  The idea that our public schools are "failing" and that drastic changes need to be made is a false one.  Ask most families who attend public schools and they will speak about the many positives that are happening in schools across our state.  Public educators are not comfortable with the "one-size fits all" model that is being forced upon us from outside our classrooms.   

What isn't happening is an effective counter message to the negative imagery delivered by supporters of educational "reform".  Public educators are being battered and flooded with constantly changing directives that eliminate their will and ability to counter the claims of the "reformers".  At my school we are seeing drastic changes in the climate and the sense of community as our curriculum is standardized.  Opportunities for creativity are limited as emphasis is placed on testing and making sure all students are meeting these new standards.  In essence we are fighting a battle on unfriendly ground and on terms decided by our opponents. 

By taking the initiative and changing the debate away from standards and testing we can begin to push back against the wave of "reform".  This must be done purposefully and with a recognition that assessment and standards are not the enemy.  It is the use of these educational necessities that is the problem, and educators can use these tools effectively to promote sound educational practices. 

In order to take control of the debate we must engage the public in real conversations about education.  As communities we must determine what we value in our public schools and look for ways to foster these things.  Educators, families and community members must truly commit to our public schools and work together to develop policies that will promote achievement and build support for our schools. 

People who work in, or who send their children to, public schools recognize the harm that is being done to children by the "reforms".  They see children's love of learning decrease while stress levels increase as students are pushed to achieve instead of learn.  Families whose children are part of the Achievement Gap see how testing and "rigorous" standards destroy the sense of community and eliminate a sense of community in a school building.  Instead of having time to build relationships with students, educators are forced to push students academically, even when those students need emotional support to engage in learning.

Educators in buildings are being asked to do things that they don't fully believe in.  By implementing top-down curriculum decisions and mandating policies designed to increase academic challenges without utilizing the strengths of specific schools we fail to meet the needs of our students.  Educators need to reach out to the communities they work in and promote the educational practices that they know will work for students.  

For example, at my school we have a beautiful wooded grounds, a pond within walking distance and a large public park (with ponds, prairie and woodlands) directly across the street.  If we allow our curriculum to be mandated by someone outside our building we will lose the ability to utilize the natural assets that we have.  Over the years we have developed a strong outdoor education program and a vibrant community garden outside our school.  Our students do soil testing, water testing, help monitor the health of our restored forest, track changes in climate and engage in countless other real-life learning opportunities.  This outdoor education program has the potential to unite staff, families and the community at large around our school in a way that a standardized reading program, or improved test scores never will.

Every school in every community has some similar strengths that can be emphasized as we work to engage all citizens in promoting our system of public education.  People are motivated to support ideas, policies and programs for many different reasons.  "Reformers" are using fear and confusion to instill a sense of crisis in the public.  Schools have the obligation to counter these tactics with a sense of purpose and stability.  Public education has the potential to unify different aspects of a community in ways that are central to creating a united sense of purpose and strong common interests.  We can't allow our public school system to be replaced by a collection of separate schools that serve to further the separation and segregation of groups from each other.         

Working together we can fight back against the "reformers" and strengthen our public schools for the benefit of all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Issue #109 April 14, 2013- Organize for Education

Organize and Activate…
"May you live in interesting times", is a phrase of unknown origin that sounds like a blessing, but is actually considered more of a curse.  Interesting times are ones of danger, uncertainty and often are unpleasant.  Compare that to times of peace and there is no doubt that most of us would prefer to experience the relative "boredom" of the latter.  During less interesting times people experience stability and go about their daily lives untroubled by upheaval and controversy of a scale beyond the immediate and common.  Of course stress and trouble are a part of these times, but not at the same level and intensity of "interesting times". 

In many ways Wisconsin had been experiencing relatively uninteresting times for the past decades in most aspects of our society.  For the most part we enjoyed stability in our social, economic and political activities.  That isn't to say that there weren't significant problems in our state, but rather that we were not generally uncomfortable with the way things were.  While it is true that we should not have been as complacent in our attitudes in many areas, Wisconsinites weren't demonstrating much in the way of significant interest in making changes in the status quo. 

All of that changed with the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent events of early 2011.  It was as though a small wound had been ripped open, exposing a much more significant injury just beneath the surface.  The elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees was the spark that ignited a blaze of action.  Suddenly the eyes of many of us were opened to a whole host of issues as well as the potential connections that existed between groups that had previously viewed each other with, at the very least, indifference if not even some antipathy.

Public employees, quite frequently white, middle class citizens, saw just what it was like to be outsiders and disenfranchised.  They realized just how fragile our rights and privileges are when they are taken for granted and left undefended.  We also saw just how fragmented and easily "divided and conquered" our society was, as Walker and his supporters ran roughshod over issues of social justice, fairness and equal opportunity.     

Yet we also found that "interesting times", while fraught with peril on one hand, are also times of opportunity as well.  Groups and interests that had opposed each other found a common enemy in the Walker administration and its policies.  We discovered areas of common interest and unity that had existed all along, but that were ignored while we pursued our own separate interests.  While there were opportunities, there were also long standing barriers that existed.  Trust between groups has been eroded over years of slowly entrenching positions based on actions or inaction. 

An example of this is found in public education.  This is an area where many progressive interests come together.  It is also a place were all races, social classes, religions, and any other demographic distinction should find a place.  Yet, because of many different reasons, trust in the public school system has been undermined, and for many groups our public schools have become another symbol of oppression and lost opportunity.  Conservative interests have actively worked to foster the mistrust of our schools and supporters of public education haven't been able to, or done enough to, counter these actions.     

There was also a need to mobilize a base, that had relied on legal protections, bureaucratic procedures and a small number of organizational "experts" to promote our interests.  If we had a problem, there was someone who we could turn to, or a policy we could access that would help us overcome our obstacles.  Along the way we became observers and not participants in important aspects of our lives.  We didn't take personal action to defend our rights in the workplace, in economic terms, or in society as a whole. 

Now, we are seeing Scott Walker and other conservative GOP leaders stripping away the legal and procedural protections that we have come to rely on.  This has had a devastating effect on many of us.  We see a conscious effort to change the way our society operates and to put a significant amount of power in the hands of a small number of people.  There is no doubt that there is a deliberate and purposeful plan that is being implemented to gain control of our society from a political and economic standpoint. 

One example of this is the efforts to privatize our public schools.  Our public schools aren't perfect, but they are the institution that is most likely to give all students an opportunity to learn.  Our schools are accountable to the public in a way that privatized voucher schools are not, and never will be.  Our public schools are also a place that is legally bound to attempt to meet the needs of every child, no matter what their needs may be.  Yet, Walker has articulated his plan to destroy public educator unions and then to move to privatize our school system.    

Question -"Could you have taken on the politics of vouchers before taking on the teacher's union?" Walker - "No, we put in place the foundations necessary." 19:00 into the interview.

The effort to destroy the public schools isn't the only venue where radical conservatives are working to change the landscape of our society.  They are working to dismantle and privatize virtually all aspects of our public sector.  At the same time they are removing protections and weakening their potential opponents.  It would be one thing if it were only radical conservative Republicans who were doing this, but it is difficult to find a politician who is willing to take a stand for social justice on a consistent basis.  Remember, President Obama didn't remove the NCLB mentality, but rather refined it through his "Race to the Top" policies.    

What has been difficult for many opponents of the conservative agenda to come to grips with is the fact that despite the grim reality created by conservative policies and the facts that call conservative ideology into question, politicians like Walker continue to receive significant support from the general population.   
Obviously as sense of justice and a belief in the values we espouse isn't enough to change the political trends in Wisconsin, or across the nation.  As much as we may dislike it, acting politically is a necessity in defeating the agenda that is harming our state.  Many activists have a strong idealistic view of the world, and politics is anything but a place of idealism.  Politics is a competitive, cooperative, compromising world where ideals sometimes take a back seat to successfully navigating the maze of opposing interests.  Yet, despite our sometime reluctance to engage in politics, activists in Madison and surrounding communities have seen a tremendous amount of success in recent elections.   

The final results of the last Madison School Board race are in. 

Political success is only one part of the equation.  Political success is often unreliable and seldom lasting.  The sweeping successes of 2008 become the dismal defeats of 2010.  If we are to create lasting results we must work to change the "hearts and minds" of the people who make up the society we live in.  Otherwise we may change the veneer, but will be left with the same festering, divisive wounds that existed prior to the Walker election. 

We are seeing this work in many places around the United States.  I attended a conference on April 6th where organizers from places like Walmart and North Carolina spoke about building solidarity where the rights of workers are severely restricted or nonexistent.  We heard a speaker from Chicago Teachers' Union speak about organizing the community around their public schools.  It has been done in other places and it certainly can be done in a community like Madison, Wisconsin.      

We must continue to look for new ways to engage all citizens in the efforts to preserve and protect the public institutions that are the foundation of our society's labors to provide equal opportunities for all people.  Clearly we haven't done enough to garner the support of many sectors of the citizenry.  I'm excited to be a part of one of these efforts through a group called SCAPE (School Community Alliance for Public Education).  We are seeking to engage educators, families and community members in a dialog around public education and use this dialog to drive positive actions in defending our public schools. 

We held a meeting last week at the Boys and Girls Club in the Allied Drive neighborhood that was attended by a diverse group of people interested in talking about our schools.  Topics were many and varied and at times issues caused some discomfort for participants.  Yet, the fact that people of different demographic groups, professional backgrounds and experiences were able to converse about difficult topics like racial inequality in our schools was a significant step towards finding common ground.  Once we establish common ground it becomes possible to work towards finding solutions to the challenges we face.  

The Future of Public
Education in Wisconsin?…
What is it exactly that we are defending and what are the attacks that are being directed at public education in Wisconsin and across the nation?

Remember that public education is a human created institution and has its strengths and its flaws.  Part of defending something is recognizing these aspects that exist in all of our efforts to provide services to the people.  Unfortunately, most of what the public hears about our schools is the negative side of the equation.  We are flooded with data that describes our schools as money pits where students are not respected, educated or supported.  The educators who work in public education are as maligned as the institution itself.  Public educators are portrayed as leftist, lazy and incompetent.

These attacks have lead to a real problem with morale in our public schools.  Educators feel attacked from all sides and are unable to do their jobs in the manner that they would like.  Facing a lack of respect, loss of income and uncomfortable with their working environment many are leaving the profession, or moving to "greener pastures".    

By portraying our schools as failing and our system as broken, "reformers" seek to undermine public confidence in our schools.  They use this lack of support to promote budgets that harm our schools, and policies that make educating our young people even more difficult.  There are many vehicles that are used to carry out this agenda.  The may involve curriculum and standards, or they may involve budgets, but the purpose is clear. 

Once again, "interesting times" lead to opportunity, as administrators, educators and families from across the state find themselves united in a common condition.  Diverse interests from previously unconnected areas are finding common ground in opposition to the "reforms" offered by Walker.  This unity is what it will take to turn around the future of public education in Wisconsin.   

Another thing that we must do is share important information with parents and families.  Schools are only part of a child's educational development.  In fact, a significant amount of learning takes place long before a child enters the school system.  If we can help inform parents about the important role that they have in education they can see themselves as partners in the process, not as outsiders.  

While in some ways the future seems bleak, it is true that the economic and political pendulums tend to move back and forth as time passes.  It is our job to make sure that we do everything possible to move our society in a positive direction.