Friday, September 11, 2015

Where The Real Blame Belongs

On Wednesday, I made a bicycle "solidarity tour" of the picket lines of striking Seattle teachers in front of an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school. At each stop, I found teachers I know as well as former students who were out with their parents in support of the strike. No one wants this strike. The teachers sure don't, the parents sure don't, the district sure doesn't, and the children definitely don't: every one of them with whom I have spoken is eager for school to start.

From where I sit, there seems to be widespread support for this strike, although I've learned to avoid the comments sections of the articles I read. Whatever is going on in my world, there are still some very vocal knee-jerk teacher haters out there. I don't know if there are lot of them because, when polled, Americans tend to think highly of public school teachers, at least compared to members of other professions, but the haters are loud, mean, and dismally uninformed. Of course, much of the bile is directed at the idea of a union more than the teachers themselves, which shouldn't be surprising given the relentless campaign against working Americans that has been waged by economic elites for the past three decades, an effort that has even succeeded in convincing many working people to oppose unions. (Yes, economic elites have always been engaged in class warfare against the rest of us, but it has really ramped up since the 1970's, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan whose first order to business was to bust the air traffic controller's union.)

On Labor Day, I posted here about why we should all support unions. There is nothing more American. Corporations are dictatorships set up within our democracy: unions seek to bring democracy into the workplace where it belongs. And as I wrote on Monday, I cannot think of anything more "capitalistic" than for professionals with a skill to sell banding together to get the best deal possible, both in terms of pay and working conditions. I cannot see how that is any different than what corporate lawyers do when they negotiate their contracts. In fact, their stockholders would sue them if they didn't strive to get the best deal possible.

The difference here, of course, is that Seattle's teachers are striking for more than a pay raise, something they have foregone for going on six years without even a cost of living adjustment in this city where prices (especially for rent) are skyrocketing. At the core of the teachers' demands is nothing less than the beginnings of a unified pushback against the billionaire-funded corporate-style education reform agenda that has been wrecking havoc on our public schools, starting in 2001 with the unfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind act right up to the current federal drill-and-kill testing curriculum known as Common Core.

Right across the country, despite mountains of evidence that ample time to play outdoors leads to cognitive gains in children, recess has been disappearing. In some Seattle schools, especially those serving lower income populations, recess time is down to an abusive 15 minutes per day. Seattle teachers are demanding a minimum of 30 minutes per day, still shockingly low, but like I said, this is the beginning of a pushback.

Right across the country, despite mountains of evidence that high stakes standardized testing is, at best, a waste of time, and at worst literally causing brain damage, the number of hours children spend being testing and in preparing for being tested continues to rise until it has become the core of what our children and teachers are doing with their time on the planet. Seattle teachers are demanding that standardized testing be reduced to only those that are federally mandated.

Right across the country, despite mountains of evidence that systemic institutional racism is built into public education, billionaire reformers continue to absurdly assert, without any supporting evidence, that their "tough love" focus on all-academics-all-the-time will magically solve our nation's race problems. Seattle teachers are demanding that all schools take concrete steps to directly address the racism that hurts the prospects of minority students.

Right across the country, vital student mental health support programs are being cut. Seattle teachers are demanding adequate funding and workload caps for school counselors and psychologists.

Sadly, this week, Seattle's school board voted 5-1 in favor of authorizing legal action against the teachers. The lone dissenter was our own Sue Peters who won her seat over a candidate who was lavishly supported by the same billionaires who are funding the corporate take-over of our schools nationally, unconstitutional charter school initiatives, and, in fact, are largely to blame for this very strike.

That's right, it's easy to point fingers the district for this mess, and indeed they share some of it. After all, they had all summer to negotiate in good faith, but instead waited until the week before school started to not only outright reject the teacher's proposal, but counter with longer school days, for which teachers would not be compensated. But the truth is that in many ways the district's hands are tied by a state legislature that is currently paying a court-ordered $100,000 per day in fines because of their unconstitutional refusal to fully fund education in our state.

Last May, thousands of teachers across more than 60 school districts walked out in a one-day protest against Olympia lawmakers' criminal inability to represent the people they were elected to represent. And it's a bi-partisan problem, with both Republicans and Democrats, as they are on a federal level, colluding against public schools in defiance of a clear public mandate. In 2000, state voters overwhelmingly approved annual cost of living pay adjustments for teachers, but the legislature has suspended it every year since 2008, which is why teacher pay has, in real dollars, actually declined dramatically over the past six years. Voters also voted to reduce class sizes across the state, but the legislature has refused to fund it. In 2012, the state Supreme Court held in that the legislature's chronic underfunding of public schools was unconstitutional and this year held the body in contempt of court, hence the $100,000 per day fine.

So why should we blame the billionaires? Because many of the very same billionaires who are funding the corporatization of our schools and who funded the unconstitutional charter school initiative in our state and who tried to buy a school board seat for one of their own, are also behind our state having the most regressive tax system in the country. We don't even have an income tax, which leaves our state without many options when it comes to funding such things as education, meaning the rich get richer while our kids stay at home and our teachers strike.

And so, largely because of the greed of the super wealthy, our teachers are forced to march on sidewalks instead of teaching our children. That is where the real blame belongs.

Update: This is an interesting article about where things might be headed if a solution is not found soon. In and nutshell, however, should the state legislature continue to drag its feet on public education, the court can order all schools closed across the state until funding is in place. There is precedent for this happening in other states, including New Jersey in the 1970's, where the upshot was the introduction of a state income tax. Another thing I learned from this article is that our state's constitution says that education is "the paramount duty" of the state -- not "a" paramount duty, but the paramount duty. That seems to suggest that, legally, nothing can be funded ahead of our schools. Go teachers! Solidarity!

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