08 March 2011

The Big Lies (Part Three)

Core of Knowledge." These are, of course, not policies but advertising slogans designed to convince you that those in power have your best intentions in mind. I'm here, again, to remind you, that maybe they don't. Part One  Part Two 

Unions make no sense for "Professional" teachers

In 1962 the doctors in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan went on strike for over three weeks in an attempt to block the introduction of Universal Health Insurance. Though the strike failed when the government held firm and brought in doctors from Britain to staff clinics and hospitals, the threat of this type of labor action was used repeatedly by the American Medical Association over the next 30+ years to derail attempts to bring a contemporary single-payer health system to the United States.

U.S. Republicans always point out that associations of lawyers make massive campaign contributions in order to preserve rights to legal actions on behalf of medical patients.

This is just to point out that teachers are not the only organized group of professionals in the United States. This is because, in a democracy, people have a right to association, and a right to organized action. According to the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights (a treaty ratified by the United States of America), this includes "the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Andrew Jackson's Spoils System, undone by
Chester A. Arthur, reinstated by New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie?
Unions, whether for private employees or public employees, and the collective bargaining which is the heart of union rights, exist to balance out power inequalities. In private business unions balance a few things - first, the legal "fiction" of the corporation - which allows "capitalist" investors to hide their actions from personal responsibility. Because corporations are created by governments to protect owners, unions exist - in most industrialized nations with similar government protections - in order to protect workers. In private business unions also balance the power of trade associations. Whether Chambers of Commerce or industry groups or purchasing co-ops such as American hardware and drug stores belong to, businesses are allowed to organize, so workers must as well.

In public service unions provide another kind of balance. To begin, public service unions provide protection for the civil service system which, however flawed it might seem, is far superior to the political graft system of public employment which dominated life in America before the Chester A. Arthur administration. In the "spoils system" all government jobs were dependent on who got elected, and most importantly, who had contributed to who got elected. Elections would turn over all public office holders, with political loyalty and out-and-out bribery replacing judgments of competence.

But more importantly public service unions provide the only possible balance for workers with both very limited employer choice and very limited strike opportunities. And they protect employees from the kind of political wrath being unleashed by bullies like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who would legislate working conditions and compensation for political revenge.

But let's talk teachers' unions specifically. And as we do so, let me state that I don't begin from a neutral point-of-view. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, my mother was an organizer of the AFT local in her school district. I am old enough to remember her being paid minimum wage with few benefits in the "minimally unionized" early days of her career.

That is not to admit that I think, at times, certain teachers' unions, especially some components the National Education Association, have been agents of professional conservatism. And yet I understand that unions - and how they operate - are always a response to an environment. If a teachers' union acts as if its members are industrial line workers this is really no surprise, since teachers are often treated by school boards - and today by the United States Government - as industrial line workers.

Still, most often, I see teachers' unions doing the hard work of professionalism. It is only because of unionization that teachers' salaries have become middle class salaries. Still far below lawyers and doctors and others with equivalent educational expectations, but middle class. Beginning at about $25,000 in most states and topping out a bit under $50,000. It is only because of unionization that teachers are working on their jobs at night instead of working second jobs (as I see most non-unionized private and charter teachers doing). It is only because of unionization that teachers have planning time and professional development days. It is only because of unionization - and the tenure it has brought - that great teachers are willing to take chances to move their students and the profession forward.

No union, no tenure
In my experience, just as a student, I watched unions fight for educational re-design, for open classrooms and alternative schools. I watched them fight for the jobs of great teachers who otherwise might have been fired for "rocking the organizational boat." I watched them insist on ongoing professional development. And I watched them keep great teachers in schools by paying them decently. At the same time I've watched school boards and governments change educational policy by whim and by election. I've seen school administrative and political vendettas. I've seen curriculum and practice politicized.

So, in my mind, unions are essential, and the evidence seems to show that unions make education more successful: "Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows: South Carolina – 50th, North Carolina – 49th, Georgia – 48th, Texas – 47th, Virginia – 44th. If you are wondering, Wisconsin, with its collective bargaining for teachers, is ranked 2nd in the country." Yes, that's only one measure, but it backs up much other data, from the US and elsewhere, that by the measures prized by "educational reformers," unionized teaching staffs produce better results.

Teachers should be paid less than Wall Street bankers or brokers (or Governors)

"[aveeno89] is not difficult to become a teacher, so why should they be paid so much? teaching is such a cake job.... it may be stressful but simply look at their hours and their education background"

That is a typical anonymous blog response to the question of teacher pay. It follows the line promoted by Bill Gates, by Wendy Kopp, and by Arne Duncan that teaching is both easy and relatively unimportant.

And that is the societal position. In the United States, where the power structure constantly argues that high pay is justified - not just justified but essential - to bring good workers to important jobs, teacher salaries remain among the lowest of all professionals.

Yes, we can laugh at Republican (US) - Tory/Lib Dem (UK) - Liberal (Australia) hypocrisy on this. CEOs won't work unless paid a billion. Brokers won't work unless paid millions. Teachers need "merit pay" to motivate them, but, teachers, police officers, firefighters don't really need to be paid well, but the fact is that these capitalist societies demonstrate "value" of a profession through pay. And by this measure, these societies see teachers, and education, as unimportant.

Now I think differently. I think teachers save more lives every year than doctors. I think teachers protect more people's rights every day than most lawyers will in their careers. I don't think that there is anything society does which is more important than moving our next generation forward. So, to me, teachers deserve to be among the best paid professionals in a society.

They also need to be among the best trained, with ongoing in-service training as a part of every schedule, just as it is for doctors. 

Chris Christie, $400,000 a year is "middle class"
What's well paid? Well, Republicans and right-wing Democrats claim that $250,000 per year in salary is "just middle class" and that group cannot pay more taxes. So, if that's true, $250,000 seems a fair annual salary for a veteran teacher (in New Jersey, according to Governor Chris Christie, this figure is $400,000).

This is really not a question of national resources. It is a question of distribution of national resources. Every time taxes on the wealthy are high, or are raised, and resources are shifted to public service and public works, the American economy improves as the health of the middle class improves and as opportunity improves because of better public services. So when Eisenhower was U.S. President and the top marginal tax rate was 91%, those funds built schools and universities, paid teachers and professors, and opened up professional careers to many. Research funds created computers and jet engines and nuclear power, cured polio, and made measles rare. When Bill Clinton raised taxes and invested in police protection for America's cities, it created a safer society in which entrepreneurship could flourish in urban areas. These two "high tax" eras represent the real growth moments for the post World War II United States economy.

So raising taxes on the rich in order to pay teachers salaries Republicans consider "middle class" makes sense all around.

corollary - Superintendents are overpaid

Chris Christie, home above,
thinks you are overpaid
From Gov. Christie in New Jersey to Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, and sure to come to a state near you soon, comes the idea that not just teachers are overpaid, but that school superintendents are particularly overpaid.

We must wake up to the new economic reality that government must be more efficient and cut the cost of the bureaucracy,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on Monday. “Reducing back office overhead, administration, consultants and encouraging consolidations are the best targets to find savings.”

Remember, these are the same governors who won't raise taxes because "talent" might leave their states if take home pay is in any way reduced.

Now superintendents are easy targets. They are the highest paid people in each school district (except maybe in Texas, where no pay limit has been suggested for high school football coaches), and superintendents tend to make enemies as they negotiate the competing interests pulling at their organizations.

But I always wonder why businesses must pay big bucks to get the best employees (see above) but government requires no incentives to attract talent? And I wonder why a CEO making 262 times the average worker's pay is 'appropriately compensated' but asuperintendent making, say, $250,000 in an organization with thousands of employees (averaging, say, $40,000) is 'grossly overpaid'?

- Ira Socol

next: parents, poverty, system change

1 comment:

Shelly Blake-Plock said...

This is one of the most perfect encapsulations of one of the most important yet misrepresented and neglected and maligned realities that I've ever read: "I think teachers save more lives every year than doctors. I think teachers protect more people's rights every day than most lawyers will in their careers. I don't think that there is anything society does which is more important than moving our next generation forward."