Saturday, August 24, 2013

Embrace Yesterday and Today for Tomorrow

Monday I “officially” report for my 11th year of teaching in Janesville’s public schools. This year, however, will be my first season of servicing Janesville without a negotiated contract between the district and my teachers union.

Janesville’s teachers union is one of the last holdouts in Wisconsin to be subjected to Gov. Walker’s discriminatory Act 10 legislation, which ends most collective bargaining rights for almost all public employees. Even though the constitutionality of Act 10 is still in question and now before the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, my district and union are forced to stumble together into uncharted territory this upcoming school year.

As we stagger forward, the historian in me finds value in looking back. History matters. I concur with Einstein, "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning." Better understanding the past allows us to move forward better.

Contrary to repeated misinformation out of the Governor’s office, the contract that Janesville teachers worked under up until this school season was, in good faith, collectively bargained and mutually agreed upon by the teachers’ union and the school district two months before Walker lied about his willingness to negotiate with unions, four months before his inauguration, and nearly six months before Walker dropped the bomb that has since divided our state.

By devious design, public workers were scapegoated and consequently falsely blamed for state budget troubles that were in actuality caused by a persistent recession. This recession and state budget woes were most directly connected to an unprecedented housing market crash caused mostly by the reckless actions of unscrupulous lenders and investors. State troubles had little to nothing to do with public worker benefits. Yet, the state budget discriminatorily targeted public workers as the sole solution to statewide economic woes. This brave divisive new world was brought to Wisconsin and Janesville by Gov. Walker’s and his Tea Party $upporter$.

Walker’s Act 10, a poorly designed and pure-partisan piece of legislation, brought out the worst in Wisconsin. Walker’s bomb sent several local school board members scurrying to stand-with-Walker or recall-Walker bunkers. The ideological barrage that followed was intense and further divided a community already at odds.

The local and state vitriol intensified as public workers refused to just lie down. Protesting persisted and canvassing began. Almost a million signatures were gathered to force an unprecedented recall election of Gov. Walker. In the midst of this chaos (originally concocted by the Koch Brothers), the anti-public education klan came to Janesville. The Michigan-based, Bradley Foundation-supported Education Action Group (EAG) crossed state lines to take some Tea Party pot shots at Janesville’s teachers. Even more offensive were the clandestine Walker supporters distributing bigoted, anti-public education propaganda pamphlets throughout Janesville.

The Wisconsin GOP’s new-fangled state budget added to my district's financial woes.  School programs, courses, support staff, and teachers were cut. Class sizes were raised. A good faith, but desperate attempt to save the local school district through charitable donations was made, but it was hard to raise money with Walker’s War raging.

The ambiguity of Act 10 created all kinds of uncertainty for teachers, like those in Janesville, still under contract. Partisan legislation was then passed in an attempt to remedy the ambiguity of Act 10 related to Janesville and other districts with existing labor contracts. Undemocratically, this legislation was crafted without any discussion with union members directly affected by its passage. Distrust and resentment grew between public workers and those supporting the scapegoating of public workers and teachers. A divided Wisconsin was Walker’s bed, yet we all had to lay in it.

Act 10’s destructive policies have persisted since the failed recall attempt. Public schools are not anymore efficient than before Act 10. The needs and costs of running quality public schools remain. As Bill Conway writes, it is the old waterbed effect. Expenses do not disappear just because you push down on one side. The alleged savings in the Act 10 legislation is actually made possible by shifting district expenses to employees’ family budgets. Consequently, public educators in Janesville and across Wisconsin are doing more, with less, and for less this upcoming school season.

So ready or not, here we go--into the unknown and beyond. Yeah, yeah--I know--we should not live in the past, embrace change, yada, yada, yada.  However, if Faulkner is right when he writes, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders”--then Wisconsin's divisive past joins us on our journey forward. No matter how conflicted, we best not ignore the past. Embrace yesterday and today for tomorrow.

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