Sunday, March 25, 2012

Corporations, Governments, Public Schools, Unions are People

With the Republican/Tea Party presidential campaigns pandering to conservatives in Wisconsin this week, it is a tough time to try to shake loose from the entanglements of Governor Scott Walker’s dichotomous design. Nonetheless, the beautiful spring weather continues to soften my soul. Light and dark converge, once again, landing me in the twilight zone.

To the chagrin of my progressive friends—who continue to dog the dark-side’s presidential frontrunner for his most famous campaign comment--I concur with Mitt Romney’s remark that “corporations are people.”  However, as another Steve logically explains, if corporations are people, then “governments are people, too.” In the same vein, public schools are people, too.

When you put a face to them, hating corporations is hard.  While the dodging of taxes by many corporations has a dark-side quality, these organizations are comprised often of our neighbors, friends, and relatives. 

Recently, a good friend of mine’s workplace was occupied. While I support the Occupy movement’s exposure of the growing income inequality in America, my relationship with my friend personalized this occupy incident. Associating my friend’s corporation with the dark side is tough, when I am forced to think of her wonderful qualities. Like most my friends, she is an all-around great person, charitable, social-minded, and progressive. The corporation for which she works is notably large and powerful; however, her progressive-minded presence and interconnectedness with other like-minded workers at her workplace makes this corporation less scary to those of us on the outside.

While the previous two paragraphs might sound like I am prepping for a Romney rally this week, I would surely be hauled off by the Republican/Tea Party supporters if I applied this same organizations-are-people logic to governments, public schools, and public workers unions.

For those of us who have spent our lives in schools, we understand public schools are people. We embrace public schools as Professional Learning Communities of developing learners, sincere social workers, compassionate counselors, caring parents, dedicated professional educators, invaluable support staff, and well-meaning administrators.

Public schools are social constructs as aptly described by my local superintendent. "We aren't a factory model where we're dealing with things…We're not only dealing with people, but also people's most precious commodity—their children,” said Dr. Karen Schulte, in the face of a potential school closing made possible by a Walker-worsened school budget deficit.

The public educators sanctioned to guard these precious little people are your neighbors, friends, and relatives. Wisconsin public educators are willing members of vital teachers unions. These unions are people, too.

The Republican/Tea Party friends politicking in Wisconsin this week will continue to espouse the Walker myth of unions as scary institutions controlled by heartless bosses. Sadly, they will ignore that the public supports public workers and their right to collectively bargain. Wisconsin parents know that teachers unions are comprised of dedicated educators, like recently-recognized Hall of Fame teacher, Deb Tackmann from Eau Claire,  who deeply care for their children. Public school supporters know education is personal.

For Wisconsin to truly move forward, we must recognize the humanity of corporations, governments, public schools, and unions. We cannot build a state by dividing it. We must see the interconnectedness of all organizations and the people who make up these establishments (as a fellow educator fittingly explains). 

Our capitalist system must have a soul. We must value public schools and their educators, who nurture and develop job creators and the people who will service the job creator’s creations. We must not balance state budgets solely on the backs of public workers, which is proven to hurt us all.  We must also recognize the value of the corporations where our friends, relatives, and neighbors work.

Corporations, governments, public schools, unions are people. We, the People, in order to form a more perfect union, must embrace this egalitarian worldview.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Collective Bargaining is Vital to Public Education

Before February 11, 2011, I rarely discussed with my Wisconsin non-union friends and neighbors the merits or demerits of union rights. However, as noted in last week’s post, Governor Walker’s dichotomous creation leaves no room, short of his recall, for safeguarding public educators’ union rights. Securing the recall of defective governorship in Wisconsin requires public educators to garner support for their unions from non-union workers.

Admittedly, defending teachers’ collective bargaining rights is a challenge when the vast majority of private sector workers are currently not union members. I do not claim to know what is best for non-union laborers in their own lines of work. However, I unapologetically believe that protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.

A year ago, I made this very point to my local school board members in urging local opposition to Walker’s union-busting repair bill. In response, one commissioner wrote,

We are going to have to agree to disagree on your statement – “...protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.” I understand your fears of losing that document that makes you feel safe. What I don't understand is how that document is vital to a good education. We have excellent teachers in this district that would do a great job teaching and molding our children whether those teachers have a union contract or not.

This commissioner raises the essential question in the call to recall Walker and his union-busting supporters. Public educators must help Wisconsinites understand why our unions are vital to quality public education. We must teach.

Essential Question: How is the protection of union rights vital to the long-term future of quality public education?

Historical Background:

Walker’s pitch to demolish collective bargaining smacks of radical regressivism rather than moving Wisconsin forward, as he contends.

A study of history reveals that the development of teachers unions in Wisconsin gave rise to professionalism in education and, consequently, improved the quality of public schools. Before union growth, sexism was rampant in public schools, pay inequity was common for female and elementary teachers, health insurance for most educators was non-existent or inadequate, and many Wisconsin teachers qualified for food stamps (see WEAC history). Teachers unions fought against these injustices to improve the work conditions and the standard of living of professional educators. The growth of teacher professionalism, made possible by educators unions, empowered Wisconsin’s teachers to greatly improve Wisconsin’s schools.

The aforementioned board commissioner’s recognition that our school district has excellent teachers, in the least, is acknowledgement that unionization does not impede teacher development. More optimistically, the professional development of educators, made possible by unions, gave rise to excellent educators enfranchised by collective bargaining through the decades. 

The commissioner might be correct that excellent teachers can keep the public education boat afloat for some time after collective bargaining, but the eroding of teacher morale and the Walker- induced mass exodus of our most experienced educators shows the detrimental, if not terminal effects of teacher disenfranchisement.   

Educators Unions Provide Constancy

Like a revolving door, students, parents, administrators, superintendents, board members, venture philanthropists, and venture politicians gyrate through our public school systems. Often, each layer and new generation capriciously propose new and old unproven ideas for achieving their latest ideals.

In the private sector world, board members are usually paid and united behind a common mission to improve profits. In contrast, the complicated world of public education has unpaid board members with varying loyalties and sometimes personal and political agendas that trump the mission of public education. School boards, also quite often attract well-meaning individuals not schooled in public school matters and business leaders who hope to inject their business worldview into our uniquely educational world.

Most often, it is professional educators, aided by their unions, who keep the merry-go-round of school reforms and leadership from careening the entire public school system out of control or into the control of entrepreneurs and politicalprenuers of many sorts. It is professional educators and their unions that provide steadiness, perspective, and common mission to an otherwise erratic organization that sees a constant turnover of board members, superintendents, administrators, parents, and students.

Our students need stability. Teachers and their unions deliver this.

Unions Protect the Professional Educator’s Voice:

Shamelessly, I contend the educator’s perspective is the most important in the complicated conversation of public education. Most parents and certainly politicians cannot match the experience and expertise of professional educators in managing the learning and development of students.

Unions protect the voice of the experts. Governor Walker likes to distort this point and fabricate that teachers unions provide unreasonable protections (even to the exploitation of a promising teacher). “[Teacher tenure] is not the same in K-12 education, even though critics confuse the public by saying so,” historian Diane Ravitch recently wrote. “Teachers in K-12 schools do not have a lifetime guarantee; what they have is a guarantee of due process if someone wants to fire them. The right to a hearing, the right to be presented with evidence against them.”

These union-fought-for protections allow for dissenting teachers’ perspectives to be spoken, written, aired, or published. This is what democracy looks like. Without union protections, many teachers’ valuable perspectives will be silenced. Without collective bargaining, public schools and its students will lose again in Walker’s Wisconsin.   

We must keep making our case: Protecting teacher union rights is vital to the long-term future of quality public education.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Public Education is What Democracy Should Look Like in Wisconsin

Wisconsin would benefit from Governor Scott Walker taking some walks in nature, doing a little soul searching, and engaging in some intense study of public schools as a model for democracy.

As I enjoy the twilight of this premature spring day, nature reminds me of the beauty between opposite worlds. Between the cold winter and hot summer, we relish spring’s warm beauty. Between the brightness of the day and the darkness of night, we find rest in the calmness of twilight.

Sadly, I find no twilight in Walker’s Wisconsin. You either stand with Walker or stand against Walker. The folksy feel of Wisconsin has been abruptly ripped apart by Walker’s culture of competition. Regrettably, Walker and his devote followers have pitted collective bargaining rights v. taxpayer rights, public service v. private enterprise, conservationists v. big business, charter/private schools v. public schools, and Republicans v. Democrats. Polls confirm it is Wisconsinite v. Wisconsinite under Walker management. Wisconsin is a house divided. This is Walker’s dichotomous creation. There is no beauty in this creation.

Disheartening, I too have been snared by Walker’s trap. This past year my world has become teacher Strieker v. preacher Walker. I was reared Catholic, but rarely tapped into the apocalyptic good-versus-evil theme sometimes taught by the preacher men. More appealing was the Catholic refrain of social justice nurtured at home by my parents. “He has a deep concern for the poor and hungry,” my dad wrote of my seven-year-old attitude, shortly before his death. “We must have three mission banks at home that he’s trying to fill up.” From a young age, I soaked up the social justice message ultimately sealed into my soul.

It is hard to understand what lies in Walker’s soul when he says one thing and does another. However, I suspect that Walker, as the son of a preacher man, was fed plenty of good-versus-evil doctrine growing up. We see evidence of his binary worldview in his recent sermon to the CPAC congregation, “Lord help us if we lose. If we lose, I believe it will set acts of courage in politics back at least a decade if not a generation.”

For his own sanity, the self-righteous Walker must see himself as a courageous savior (a resurrected Ronald Reagan, he might say) destined to bring down the evil educators’ unions, which props up the wicked Democratic Party, which promotes malevolent, liberal ways. How else could he justify alienating over a million of his constituents?  Walker sees it as his destiny to bring in an age of right-wing righteousness.

In Walker’s mind, if you elected him and still stand with him—you are part of the elect. The rest of us—the hundreds of thousands of public educators and servants, like me—wear a scarlet letter in Walker’s Wisconsin. We are not part of the elect. In his words, we are the entitled. In essence, we have no worth unless we acquiesce to his worldview. It is a binary world.  It is good v. evil. There is no middle ground in Walker’s Wisconsin

Of course, teacher Strieker does not accept preacher Walker’s Wisconsin view. I am a flawed man, but I am a man. I have worth in Wisconsin. I stand for public education. I stand with tens of thousands of levelheaded educators—who temper the erraticism heaped on our profession by politicians. I stand with those who shield our students’ education from free-market forces and bring continuity to our schools and student’s lives. I stand for professional educators being empowered to evaluate and implement essential reforms. I stand for quality funding for all of Wisconsin’s public schools. I stand with our unions that promote democracy and the professional educator’s voice being heard in the public school discussion.

Walker could learn a lot about better managing Wisconsin’s democracy from public schools. It is always twilight in public education. Opposing worlds successfully converge in public education on a daily basis. Rich and poor, black and white, first-generation immigrants and sixth-generation immigrants, Christians and atheists, conservatives and liberals, English speaking and Spanish speaking, urbanites and suburbanites, and many more diverse groups come together in the public education setting every single school day.

Public schools are a reflection of a democratic society. Public educators do not have Gov. Walker’s luxury to dismiss those who are different. In contrast, public educators embrace the challenge of bringing all together in working relationships.

Public schools are America’s best attempt at meeting our American ideals of equality and social justice. Public education gives voice to all. Making this convergence of often opposite worlds work in public schools is, sincerely, a thing of beauty. This is what democracy is supposed to look like in Wisconsin.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Public Challenge to Privatizing Schools

This week’s guest perspective comes from Bill Conway—Wisconsin’s 2009-2010 PTA Teacher of the Year. Conway is a veteran social studies teacher at Parker High School in Janesville, WI.

I read recently, with great concern, a Janesville Gazette article about a private organization from Florida offering to keep two rural Wisconsin elementary schools open at a fraction of the current operating costs.

It sent chills down my spine to read how this private organization came to a school board meeting with a plan that only required a vote to move public education to the private sector. With one simple argument—cutting the costs per student from $11,000 per student to $7,000—all other debates seemed lost.

Never mind the fact that the new schools would no longer be compelled to accept  and fully service students with disabilities, second language issues, or special needs. Never mind that charter schools can hire non-certified teachers and pay them what they want. Never mind that these publicly-funded, privately-run schools would be exempt from standardized testing and other levels of accountabilityNever mind that they would not be subject to the wishes, needs, and votes of the community. Cheaper is cheaper.

As teachers, board members, concerned parents, and community members—we should be concerned with this move toward the privatization of education in our state. With a move to the privatization direction, we all stand to lose our voice in the "education conversation" in our communities.

This push toward privatization of education is an orchestrated plan. The first step of this scheme has been to systematically attack the integrity and successes of the current system. Apparently, to get ahead, the free-market school reformers must first tear down the reputation of  public education with covert marketing plans, like "Operation Angry Badger," that seek to "document the shortcomings of public schools in education." I want to challenge all to challenge what has become accepted spin.

When you hear someone say public education is broken, CHALLENGE that. Education is not perfect and not without room for change, but it is definitely not broken.  

When you read about our broken system and over-paid employees, CHALLENGE that. Our salaries are public knowledge and our successes are celebrated. We have graduates from our systems attending the finest universities in the world. We have graduates from our public schools serving our country in some of the highest positions in the land. We have graduates that have gone on to professional sports, stage and screen, and some that have devoted themselves to a lifetime of service to their communities.

When you hear comparisons to past budgets that were smaller, CHALLENGE that. Today's schools are not the institutions they were in the seventies. We now serve a larger community with greater needs. We serve students with disabilities, students at risk, students with different languages, and students with poverty issues to a much greater degree than ever in the past.

When you hear complaints about our out-of -control kids and system, CHALLENGE that. Those of us who spend our working day in schools know that the vast majority of students, at any given time and in any given classroom, are actively engaged and learning. Television and movie classrooms are not reality.

The move toward privatization of our schools is driven by money. Almost all charter school programs could be run within the existing public school system. The channeling of public money away from public education to support the private education industry is wrong for Wisconsin’s students.

CHALLENGE  those who promote otherwise.