Monday, February 11, 2019

Thank You, Teachers, For Fighting For Our Democracy

Los Angles public school teachers recently went on strike, demanding, among other things, pay increases and smaller class sizes. Despite the fact that the district pled poverty, the money was ultimately found to do both. There has been a wave of teacher strikes across the country of late, most of them more or less following the same pattern, with strikes in Denver and Oakland in the offing. For the most part these strikes have been successful because they have had the overwhelming support of parents whose children attend those pubic schools. According to a Loyola Marymount study, some 82 percent of parents supported the teachers in LA.

That said, public schools are genuinely in a financial bind in the US. No matter how much lip service elected representatives give to the importance of education, they have been reluctant to adequately fund pubic schools for years, which is why we continue to hear stories of classrooms with 40 kids and teachers being forced to work second and third jobs to make ends meet.

While pay and class size issues make the headlines, there are other important matters causing teachers to walk out. In the case of LA, they fought for nurses and librarians in every school, while fighting against random searches of students and the proliferation of high stakes standardized testing. In other words, they are fighting not just for themselves, but also the children they teach, which is, I reckon, why they have enjoyed such widespread support despite the millions being spent by anti-union billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Koch brothers to demonize them.

One of the most overlooked drivers of our current problems in public education are these billionaires. In state after state they have sought to introduce "free-market" style capitalism into the mix by promoting things like charter schools which are designed to siphon money away from traditional public schools. All charter schools do this "whether they're opportunistic and for-profit or presenting themselves as pubic, progressive and enlightened" (click the link for a full accounting of the damage charters are doing to public education). Economic competition may have it's place in our world, but when it comes to education it is destructive: our children should not be made to work in test score coal mines in order to provide profits to school owners. Across the country, the charter movement is slowly undermining public school systems with the state of Michigan being a prime example. The LA teachers, seeing the damage charters are doing to their schools and their students, won a commitment from the school board to call for a cap on new charters in their district and a statewide review of the role and impact charters are having on public education. From the Los Angeles Times:

The state's law authorizing the creation of charter schools has been around since 1992 and legislators have made it easier during the ensuing years for such schools to open. In L.A. Unified, their growth has been explosive: The district now has 277 charters, most of them independently run, though they receive pubic funding. Most are non-union. They enroll close to 140,000 students -- about one in five in the district. Their growth is responsible for about half of the declining enrollment in traditional pubic schools that has sapped the district's finances over the last 15 years.

This situation is not an accident: it is an intended consequence, as detailed by Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error. The plan is to create a crisis by starving schools in order to open the door to full-on privatization. A plan by billionaire education "reformer" Eli Broad was recently leaked in which he is proposing that half of LA students to be in charters within eight years. In Michigan, many school districts have already been completely privatized via charters which has lead to the state's schools to fall from the middle ranks nationally as a place to get an education to one of the worst. At least one school district was left entirely without public schools when the private charter operator shut down citing lack of profits.

Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by starving them. Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by making them less democratic. Our public schools are imperfect, but they will not be made better by subjecting our children and their teachers to the dog-eat-dog competition of corporate-style capitalism, through charters or vouchers or whatever they come up with next. I'm grateful to our nation's unionized teachers for bringing democracy into our schools and for standing up to the billionaire "reformers," not just for themselves, but for the children they teach. We must stop this insane practice of underfunding schools, then blaming them when they fail. Like all democratic institutions, our public schools must be guided by an open, fair, and transparently democratic process, not the mythological "invisible hand" of competition.

As the great John Dewey wrote: "Democracy must be born anew with each generation and education is its midwife." This is about the children, but it is also about all of us. Thank you, teachers, for fighting for our democracy.

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