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