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Savaged: GOP Leaders Teach That Educators Are Costly Parasites. Are Americans Really Uneducated Enough To Believe It?

by Chris Savage

To say that Republicans are on a mission to destroy unions in this country is not an understatement. Across the country, and particularly in the Midwest, newly-elected Republican legislators and governors have spent the past nine months passing laws that strip away collective bargaining rights, reverse collective bargaining agreements and which weaken unions. This not only gives advantages to employers and governments that employ unionized workers, it diminishes a group that is a major contributor to their Democratic opponents.

In Michigan, no other group has been in the GOP’s bull’s-eye more than teachers. Though they educate our children, literally the future leaders of and contributors to our society, teachers are characterized as parasites; leeches on society that care only for their own self-interest. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville characterized teachers as “more than greedy” and described their union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) as being about “big-paid, high-honcho people.” One of his colleagues, Senator Phil Pavlov, is introducing legislation that will allow school districts to privatize teaching, the first such move in the country. Recent changes to the tenure system make it much easier for teachers to be fired, allowing higher-paid teachers with higher salaries to be replaced with lower-paid new teachers. In Northville, the school board threatened to turn the school system over to an Emergency Manager (who could do away with the teachers’ contract) if they didn’t agree to pay and benefit cuts. In district after district across the state, teachers are paying the price for the cuts to schools in the governor Rick Snyder’s budget, cuts which are, in part, helping to pay for an astounding 86 percent tax cut for businesses.

The next potential shoe to drop is to make a Michigan a so-called “Right to Work” state. “Right to Work” (RTW) is a euphemism used to describe making it unnecessary to join a union if a union represents the workers of a particular employer. The result is that many workers would benefit from the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the union but would not have to contribute the union itself. It also weakens the union by reducing their membership & funding. This is why opponents refer to RTW as “Right to Work for Less” or “Right to Freeload.”

Senator Richardville has made it clear that he won’t pursue RTW this year. Won’t pursue it, that is, except for one group: teachers. According the GONGWER News Service, he has directed Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof to introduce “Right to Teach” (RTT) legislation. If passed, teachers would no longer be able to even discuss the union at work, much less recruit teachers to join the union. Meerkof told CAPCON, the news outlet for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy that this is “an opportunity to let teachers get farther away from union goons.” According to GONGWER, Richardville believes the MEA is using union dues “for other things than collective bargaining” such as assembling “anti-Republican lists” through their support of various recall efforts against Republican lawmakers, suggesting that this is revenge-motivated. Governor Snyder is on record as being against any RTW efforts because they are too divisive, though he has not said he would veto any related bills that cross his desk.

This week, yet another bill was introduced, this one prohibiting school districts from having automatic deductions from teachers’ paychecks for to pay their union dues. Because this doesn’t allow schools the option to do this if they choose to and because it has nothing to do with education, it is hard to see it as anything more than another attack on the union itself.

Forced to become politically active, teachers are certainly fighting back. But, to their credit, they are also working to help financially strapped school districts. I spoke with MEA president Steve Cook this week. He told me that, over the last 18 months, Michigan teachers have given up close to a half billion dollars in benefits; this doesn’t even take into account wage and salary concessions many have made. Across the state, teachers are working with their school administrators and school boards to find solutions to their shrinking budgets. In August, for example, Brighton teachers agreed to a new contract that cuts their pay by 7 percent and has them paying significantly more for medical insurance. They did this despite the fact that school administrators and department heads did not do the same.

Teachers unions are also working to help poorly-performing districts improve their programs. Last year, the National Education Association (NEA) started the Priority Schools Campaign. This campaign aims to bring all education stakeholders together to help failing schools.

Through our Priority Schools Campaign, we’re promoting increased professionalism and systemic education reform in some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools; what we call priority schools. Partnerships between schools, school districts and educators are a largely untold story, especially to many people exposed to a steady diet of attacks on unions. But across the country, in community after community, collective bargaining and other forms of consensus and collaboration are transforming public education…[participants include] National Education Association members working in lower-performing schools, NEA staff, state affiliates and locals, parents, community leaders, education advocates, policy makers, and businesses.

This week, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel [pictured with crutches] visited Michigan as part of NEA’s “2011 Back-to-School Tour.” During his five-day, seven-city tour, Van Roekel is visiting a number “priority schools” and stopped by Romulus Middle School which had received a $5.3 million grant as part of the federal School Improvement Grant program. One of the efforts by the NEA’s Priority School Campaign was to help get a millage passed to support the Romulus school system, a millage that had been twice defeated prior to the NEA’s involvement.

While in Michigan, Van Roekel took time to meet with local administrators, teachers, parents, and other union & community leaders to discuss the benefits of collaboration. I spoke with him and Steve Cook by phone.

“It’s great to get out into these schools and meet face-to-face with the people working hard to improve them,” Van Roekel told me. “The minute you walk into these priority schools, you can feel the energy and you can see that things are getting better. You see the effect of what money can do when combined with cooperation & collaboration between administrators, teachers, students and parents.”

Teachers working with school administrations, parents and the community to improve schools. It’s not sexy. It’s not confrontational. But it’s making a difference. In Romulus, the new funding has allowed them to improve their technology program & equipment and to revamp their curriculum. But, that doesn’t make the news.

Despite the NEA’s effort to draw attention to the “Priority Schools” initiative and the fact that Van Roekel met with the editorial boards of both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, the only mention of it from either newspaper was a post on the News’ blog The Watercooler, where the focus is on the MEA’s Cook calling Right to Teach “revenge.” Sensationalism! Confrontation! [The picture above is from Van Roekel's meeting at the Free Press. Editorial Page Editor Brian Dickerson is the one reclining]

When I asked Cook about the effort to allow school districts to outsource/privatize teaching, he said we should “draw a distinction between Senator Pavlov’s bill and what actually works.”

Indeed, a study released this week by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) shows that billions of dollars every year are wasted in the USA through the hiring of contractors.

POGO’s study analyzed the total compensation paid to federal and private sector employees, and annual billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupational classifications covering over 550 service activities. Our findings were shocking—POGO estimates the government pays billions more annually in taxpayer dollars to hire contractors than it would to hire federal employees to perform comparable services. Specifically, POGO’s study shows that the federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

While this study looked specifically at federal employees, the results are reflected in other studies as well.

What most of us know, and what the NEA’s “Priority School” initiative shows, is that teachers are not greedy, self-interested people on the whole. They care about kids and they care that kids get the best education possible. Every one of us can point to a teacher in their past that motivated them to achieve more than they would have otherwise. We all have a teacher who inspired us to be better and pointed us in the right direction. They are a value to society, not parasites on it.

I’ll finish with an excerpt of something I wrote recently about this. It sums up my feelings on the effort to demonize teachers and how that hurts our kids and our country as a whole.

In any rational society, teachers are not considered “costs.” They are considered assets….Republicans have done an amazingly effective job of turning the public’s perception from seeing teachers as valuable assets to seeing them as parasitic leeches on the jugular vein of society. Rather than valuing them for the important role they play in our society — that of educating our children — they are now coming to be viewed as a “cost,” something to be cut when times get hard.

We have cut their pay, increased their healthcare co-pay amounts, reduced their retirement benefits and made it nearly impossible to bargain on their own behalf. And yet we expect them to effectively educate our children. We do this to help pay for massive tax cuts for businesses. And then we expect them to come to work each day, stand in front of the next generation of leaders and scientists and parents and doctors and trash collectors and make them ready to take their place in society.

Meanwhile, we scream collectively that our schools are failing our children.

I’m not sure how doing all of the things we are doing to our teachers constitutes “making our schools better,” to quote Speaker Bolger. What I do know is that a society that devalues its educators is destined to slowly circle the drain until it glugs down into an empty, fetid tub of ignorance and stupidity….

We are at a turning point in our society with regard to the education of our children. What is happening in Michigan and in Wisconsin to our teachers is going to be our nation’s future unless we act soon. We cannot continue to cast teachers as a “cost” to be cut whenever possible. We must turn around our country’s way of thinking about our educators and their value to society. Because, if we don’t, we will become a nation of uneducated fools. When that happens, our destiny will be controlled by the countries that do value education, not by us.

For more of Chris Savage’s writing, visit Eclectablog. 

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15 Comments for “Savaged: GOP Leaders Teach That Educators Are Costly Parasites. Are Americans Really Uneducated Enough To Believe It?”

  1. @Chris That’s my point, you call Michelle Rhee anti-teacher,
    anti-union yet she wants to pay good teachers $150K. If I were
    a public school teacher, I would love to earn $150K; But to do
    that she is opposed by the unions.

    The quote, discredited or not, fits!

  2. @Joe Hood: So you’re dragging out a discredited quote from a single individual over 20 years ago to justify the destruction of teachers unions today? Pretty weak argument, my friend. Also, I’m not sure how you can say that Michelle Rhee “is the product of a Democratic administration”. She never worked for the federal government. The closest she got to that was her stint as the Chancellor of D.C. public schools where she was appointed by a Democratic mayor. She left that position under a cloud of scandal related to jiggering test scores to make her resultls look better than they actually were. She is almost universally reviled by labor supporters including most Democrats across the country now, particularly those who value teachers and don’t characterize them as parasites, given her anti-teacher, anti-union and pro-privatization agenda today.

    This isn’t a “Republican war on women”, it’s a Republican war on labor unions. They aren’t trying to hide that fact so I’m surprised you are trying to defend them.

  3. Interesting to note that, though Dennis Van Roekel spoke to the editorial boards of both the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News this week, neither has bothered to publish anything about it or about the upbeat “Priority Schools” program. Not enough conflict to warrant an article or editorial, apparently. “If it ain’t bleedin’, it ain’t leadin’” as they say…

    • @Chris, I’d be remiss in not asking you when the last time the News or Freep even wrote about the Romulus School District. It’s a part of the world (educational and otherwise) that’s just not on their radar. Downriver is served by the fluffy Heritage newspapers. I wonder of they made mention of the visit and the program….

  4. Sorry Mr. Zimmerman, but research shows thattenure as manifested by keeping experienced teachers in the classroom is currently the best way to improve student performance

  5. It’s not just Republicans that care about reform education, just
    as many Democrats are looking to fix the system as well.
    Michelle Rhee is the product of a Democratic administration.
    The state of Illinois is run by Democrats. Mayor Rhaum has
    been getting an earful from the teachers’ unions.

    As much as you’d like to paint this as a Republican war on
    women, people care deeply about education.

    The NEA stands for the status quo against change. How does the
    teacher union president quote go: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

  6. [...] Clocking Out: Failblog Edition Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville calls teachers “more than greedy.” [...]

  7. [...] new piece at  A2Politico blogger Chris Savage looks at the Michigan Republicans attacks on teachers. He also looks at how [...]

  8. @Jon Awbrey: thanks for the heads-up. I have made the correction.

  9. ‎@Jeff is absolutely right about that. Nimble author David Brin has written very well on the attack on expertise as a major threat to our society. http://open.salon.com/blog/david_brin/2010/02/09/the_real_struggle_behind_climate_change_-_a_war_on_expertise

  10. ‎@Fred what always stops me is that at the NEA and AFT there are people with, maybe, a collective 1,000,000 years of higher education and they can’t figure out how to fairly evaluate teaching/teachers.

  11. Good public education threatens plutocracy.

  12. I agree, although the logical counter-argument is that teacher unions and teacher tenure are not demonstrably linked to student performance.

  13. This is what corporate AmeriKa and ALEC wants, Americans that can’t think for themselves so they can be guided to do whatever the powers want. I bet the low bidder for outsourced teachers will be offering cookie-cutter education which will produce citizens with the mentality of sheep. George Orwell’s 1984 is just coming a few decades late.

  14. (sp) leech, leeches

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