Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wisconsin's Public Schools Under Siege

This week’s guest perspective comes from Trygve Danielson—a school teacher at Parker High School in Janesville, Wisconsin for almost 40 years. Danielson gave the following speech at The State of Rock County Rally on January 26, 2012 as an educator's response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s State of the State Address.

I was raised on a small farm in southeastern Wisconsin. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, but they believed in the American Dream that if you got a good education your life would be better.

As a result, all of my brothers and sisters, all seven of us, went on to college. One retired as the principal oboist of the Seattle Symphony, another was a pilot for United Airlines, one was a nurse, one a steamfitter, and three of us are teachers. All products of two, decent, hardworking Wisconsin farmers whose kids were given the opportunity to attend Wisconsin’s public schools, one of the finest school systems in the country, even in the world.

But today that school system is under siege. I have been asked to speak today about the damage done to my school by the ill-conceived budget cuts made by the Governor and the Wisconsin State Legislature. The most obvious impact has resulted from those things most of you already know about. I’m sure you all know the story of the freeze on basic supplies when teachers returned to work last fall. We at Parker were left to scramble to find materials to get the year started. Thankfully, a makeshift plan was established to get by, but there is no doubt it affected planning at the start of the year.

Parker has also been affected by the reduction of support people and guidance counselors in our building. Grade checks, credit checks, and simple emotional counseling have been reduced. More students who need guidance will fall through the cracks because fewer counselors are available.

Most significant, of course, is the loss of quality teachers. If you lay off teachers, programs are affected. Parker has one of the finest choir programs in the state. Eliminate one of the two choir instructors—as happened at Parker—and you have damaged the education students will receive. If you raise class sizes or eliminate sections, student learning is diminished. Dozens of teacher’s were laid off in Janesville. You do the math.

That does not include the number of excellent young teachers who saw what was coming and now give the experience and expertise they learned at Parker to another school district. Nor the excellent veteran teachers—two in my own department—who decided that they had seen enough and retired. To suggest that our schools will be the same is a lie. If you believe that excellent teachers make a difference then you must know that Parker High School has been damaged by the Governor’s budget cuts.

I should also point out that my wife Jeanette is a teacher in the Orfordville-Parkview District. Her salary—along with all the teachers in her district—has been cut and her payments for health care and retirement have gone up. Has this helped Parkview solve its education problems and keep quality teachers in the classroom? Read the paper and you know it has not

The Governor’s budget cuts have put the Parkview School Board in an impossible situation and split the community. Why? The Governor believes it is more important to give tax breaks to the wealthy – including the money taken from hard working teachers – than it is to support quality schools and education. As my Dad used to say, “You can call a jackass a race horse, but everybody knows it's still a jackass.” The Governor can say he is improving schools, but everybody knows that is a lie.

The worse part about this whole mess is the damage it has done to the morale of our young teachers. They are losing faith in the promise that Janesville has made to teachers and to students in the past. The Governor will try to convince you that collective bargaining is the reason for the problem, but common sense and long experience tells us that Wisconsin schools are excellent BECAUSE collective bargaining gives a voice to the teachers and students of our state.

After listening to Governor Walker last night, it is clear his vision of  Wisconsin and its schools are a long way from the vision offered to my mother and father not so long ago. You know that Janesville has one of the finest school systems in the state simply by looking at the citizens who are graduates of Parker and Craig. You know that everyday children in this community are finding their way with the help of the skilled people who make up our schools. You know the very future of our children depends on the quality of their education. 

Our Governor is willing to sacrifice our public schools because he does not understand what education provides. Please stand with those of us who have committed our lives to the Janesville Schools to resist this misguided plan and keep the Wisconsin promise of excellent schools for our children a reality.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

'Tis a Shame, the Mastication of Education

In his 2006 memoir Teacher Man, the late, great Frank McCourt tersely wrote, “Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions.”

Just six years later, McCourt’s proposition is already in need of a rewrite. In Walker’s Wisconsin, teaching has been relegated from professional status to political fodder. I fear what will be excreted when the free-market reformers are done masticating education.
Professional distrust reigns in the wake of Gov. Walker’s union-busting legislation created without consideration of professional educators’ input. Too many state and local business-focused politicians and their supporters have promoted unjust resentment for teachers, their unions, their compensation packages, their work conditions, and their professional standing.

Just this past week, the leaked documents related to “Operation Angry Badger” show how this mastication of public education is deliberate, coordinated with groups outside Wisconsin, and aggressively funded. Understandably, many teachers fear what further awaits public educators in Gov. Walker’s Wisconsin.

Talented educators are prematurely retiring. Would-be educators are choosing new careers. Teacher morale is low. As a middle-aged educator recently joked, “Every year since college I wished I was younger--until this past year. Now I suddenly wish I was older.” Certainly, there is truth in this jest. Many of us are too young to retire and too old to start a new (more respected) profession.

Many midstream educators, like me, feel stuck in Walker’s muck. I have been trying to fight my way through this political sewage, but without much success. Last July (2011), one of Gov. Walker’s staffers, Alan Colvin, agreed to meet with me to hear my professional concerns related to Gov. Walker’s reckless education agenda. Despite my differences in opinion with Mr. Colvin on the direction of Gov. Walker's policies, he was a true professional and admittedly a positive representative of the Governor's office. As recommended by Mr. Colvin, I then e-mailed my professional concerns to Governor Walker’s chief education policy advisor, Kimber Liedl.  

What was intended to be a professional exchange about education policies was then reduced to political dribble by assistant education policy advisor, Michael Brickmanwho was ostensibly tasked out by Ms. Liedl to address my educational insights. Young Mike—a twenty-something with zero education experience—dived right into a debate on my concerns. I played along with Mikey for a bit and pointed out how Gov. Walker’s vision to “Recruit, Retain, and Reward Great Teachers” was failing miserably. Young Mike began patronizing me and positioned that Walker’s plan appeals to lots of educators who get into "education for the right reasons."

According to Mikey B, the tens of thousands of Wisconsin educators fighting to retain our professional voice are simply in education for the wrong reasons. I called Mikey out on this false implication and pointed out how divisive this approach is to public education and our state. Michael then insultingly looped me in with apparent protestors who have threatened Governor Walker (something I would never condone). As noted, the conversation was reduced to dribble.

Recognizing the poli sci graduate's diversionary tactics, I decided I would take this matter up with Brickman's supervisor. I had to ask Mike for his name three times before he provided his full name. I then made multiple calls and e-mails to Ms. Liedl (who I later discovered is purportedly also a career political staffer with no teaching experience) to address Mike’s inability to recognize my professional standing as a veteran educator. My repeated calls and e-mails were never answered.

This incident, along with all the rest of the angst from this past year, has left me wondering—is teaching a profession? Would, for instance, politicians like Gov. Walker employ advisors without professional business experience to advise on business legislation? Why is it acceptable to place non-educators, like Liedl and Brickman, in high-ranking education positions? We do not need a teacher to explain the answers to these questions. In Walker’s Wisconsin, education is not a profession. Education is impersonal politics. 

In my 16 years of teaching, I have, like many teachers, unknowingly evangelized and overtly advised dozens of promising students to join my noble profession. When I previously sized up prospective students for education careers, I evaluated their empathy, ethics, fortitude, leadership, maturity, interpersonal skills, and eagerness to learn before nudging them toward teaching.

With the current attack on public education, however, our next generation of professional educators will have to be seasoned young, impervious, and politically active. Otherwise, future educators will be doing more political initiatives in education, for less than professional pay, and with less professional liberties.

‘Tis a shame,” McCourt might add.

Follow up links:
Modified publishing of this blog post in the Washington Post, Answer Sheet.
Interview with WTDY in response to this blog posting.
Fine critique of this posting by P.L. Thomas of Furman University.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Time for School Administrators to See the Forest

I commiserate with Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers and many other school administrators in the compromising position of having to work on educational initiatives and details with radical politicians, like Governor Walker—who overtly contrast with the values of Evers and the ideals of many other school officials.

Forest Surrounding Devil's Lake, WI
I appreciate the important role school and state administrators play in the lives of my children, my students, and public education. I also respect the work Evers has done in public education and consider him a friend to the noble cause of quality education for all children and young adults of Wisconsin.

Despite the divisiveness of the day, Evers has forged ahead in “finding common ground and working together to improve education for Wisconsin’s children wherever possible” and not letting “conflicts among adults rob our children of the educational opportunities they need to succeed.” Across the state and in my own school district, many school administrators have also continued to throw themselves into the important details of their work.

Contrary to the irate tone of my blog postings, most of my career I have endorsed a collaborative approach to education. In a previous life (before Governor Walker’s radical agenda), I had never canvassed for signatures, written a blog, challenged businesses about supporting political leaders I opposed,  donated any significant funds to political causes, took off school to defend public education,  or marched in a political rally. 

In earlier times, educators across Wisconsin have spent their entire careers collaborating with diverse parties for the common good of public education. However, these are rare times. Governor Walker’s extremism has pushed me (and a million others) to this extraordinary position. Gov. Walker’s radical education agenda is purely partisan, anti-union, founded on sensationalist research, and designed to give unjust favoritism to the private and charter school industry.  

The search for middle ground with Gov. Walker by the altruistic Evers and other school officials inadvertently gives credence to Gov. Walker’s larger radical agenda to slash public school funding and destroy educator unions. The well-meaning centrist positioning of too many school officials enables Gov. Walker’s bigger agenda and propaganda machine to move “forward.” Consequently, Gov. Walker’s recall election campaign is shrewdly designed to give the impression that education leaders are supporting Gov. Walker’s larger political agenda.

Standing up to extremism in public education does not make public educators radicals. Gov. Walker has already robbed our children of educational opportunities they need to succeed. This conflict is not our doing and noble-minded educators should not take any blame for what now lays before us. Our strong response to Gov. Walker’s drastic measures is appropriate, reasonable, and necessary for the future of quality education in Wisconsin.

Bill Conway, 2009-2010 state PTA Teacher of the Year, fittingly wrote local school officials, “The bigger picture is being ignored.  That is the long-term, if not terminal damage to the system. It is my hope that we can bring all sides to the table to discuss the benefits of working together to lobby hard for public education. This is where I am placing my time and energy.”

Hard-working public educators, like Conway, need Wisconsin school administrators to better focus their energies, walk beyond the trees to see the forest, and join teachers in reclaiming public education from extremism. I understand our school leaders are anxious to have Wisconsin lead the way in meaningful improvements to public education. This, however, is not the time to pretend Gov. Walker’s educational reforms are happening with educators for the children of Wisconsin. As we have seen in the past year and in the past week, Gov. Walker’s reforms will continue to happen to us, without us, and for larger political reasons.

My favorite people in history are those leaders who have uncompromisingly and courageously stood against extremism, discrimination, and injustice. It is time for all school leaders to walk unabashedly in this modern-day civil rights movement. Following Gov. Walker's recall, there will be time for school officials to once again work the details of meaningful initiatives and promote compromise among us. However, well-meaning school officials will then be working with teachers who share their passion and sincere interest in fostering quality public education. This is a walk in the forest worth waiting for.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

All of Wisconsin Profits from SB 257

“Education is not a private good,  it is a public good…we all profit and we all hurt depending on the quality of education other people’s kids get.”

Our nation’s premier educational researcher, Linda Darling-Hammond’s comment is spot on identifying the importance of equal, quality educational opportunities for all students. As Darling-Hammond points out in her new book, the World is Flat, all of America profits from appropriate and wise investments in public education that properly prepares American youth to be productive in the global economy.

Similarly, I suspect the progressive-minded Wisconsin legislators, who pushed for equalization in school aid in 1949, were fulfilling an American concept as old as the Declaration of Independence. “All…are created equal with unalienable rights.” In a modern society, we rightfully understand these unalienable rights to include quality public education for all. 

A couple months ago, Wisconsin State Senator Tim Cullen sponsored an important bill (SB 257) in the honorable and original spirit of the state aid formula for school districts. As Sen. Cullen reminded local school leaders at a recent school board-legislator meeting, the original intent of the state aid formula was to balance finances of rich and poor school districts. Sen. Cullen’s bill asks for a relatively modest shift in 2012-2013 school aid to the state’s neediest school districts—which includes the School District of Janesville (my children’s and students’ school district).

Some may narrow-mindedly argue that SB 257 gives unjust favor to districts—like the SDJ. A broader look at the additional aid request shows it to be a necessary and appropriate investment. Janesville is one of the hardest hit communities in Wisconsin by the recent recession with its General Motors plant closing in 2008. This has led to declining enrollment and revenues for the SDJ.

As the school board pointed out in its official petition to legislators, “Programs have been cut, class sizes increased, employees laid off, taxes raised, and reserve funds utilized to balance a budget deficit of over $10 million for the 2011-2012 school year. Adding to the despair, our district is facing another projected $8 million deficit for the 2012-2013 school year.”

Some historical perspective would also unveil how Janesville gave generously to state coffers during the heyday of Janesville’s GM plant. It is reasonable in a time of need for the SDJ to request a modest increase in its state aid package to equalize its services with other school districts around the state.   
State legislators and Governor Walker would be wise to recognize that “we all profit and we all hurt depending on the quality of education other people’s kids get.” Janesville’s hopes lie in continued investments in our children. Passage of SB 257 would be an investment in Janesville’s youth —who will shape a post-GM legacy for south central Wisconsin. All of Wisconsin benefits from this.