The Republican-fueled assault on collective bargaining in Wisconsin has (rightfully) been THE topic in the political arena recently.
In defense of the collective bargaining rights for public employees, the teaching profession has often been invoked.
For much of my professional lifetime as a teacher, I would have wagered that invoking the plight of teachers as a reason to support or oppose opposition would have been a high-percentage move.
The level of verbal and legislative invective being hurled at the profession lately, however, has me wondering if the enemies of schoolteachers don't think they now have the upper hand with the voting public.
Just look at some of the items on the legislative agenda from coast-to-coast:
- Idaho: A series of bills are working their way through the GOP-dominated legislature which will hit most of the items on the right-wing anti-teacher wish list. A bill largely stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights is already headed to the Governor, while bills instituting merit pay practices (which also impacts salary negotiations, obviously) as well as ending seniority-based layoffs are still working their way through the lege.
- Florida: We don't think of it as a one-party state like Idaho, but the Sunshine State, with its heavily Republican legislature, may well be on the cusp of a more radical approach. The state legislature is preparing to pass legislation similar to that vetoed by Governor Charlie Crist last year. It will require school districts to base staffing decisions primarily on standardized test data. In addition, it also ends seniority protections. At the same time, a "merit pay" proposal is working its way towards the Governor's desk, as well.
- New York: So-called "LIFO" (Last In, First Out) reform has also come into vogue in New York City, where ending seniority-based dismissal processes has the support of GOP Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While nominally promoted as a way of "ensuring that no good teachers" are laid off in the types of budget crunches afflicting damned near every school district these days, it undoes a century of protections of veteran teachers by repealing civil service codes that had their genesis in the capricious hiring and firing practices of the big-city political machines of the late 1800s. It is also worth noting that, in these budgetary times, veteran teachers would almost certainly feel the ax before their less experienced (and also considerably less expensive) colleagues.
- Indiana: With the support of Governor (and much-hyped 2012 prospect) Mitch Daniels, the GOP-led state legislature is pushing legislation that will take subjects like teacher evaluation and dismissal procedures out of the collective bargaining process. The state is also mulling over a school vouchers initiative, resurrecting one of the favorite right-wing education initiatives of the 1990s.
Legislative assaults on teachers are nothing new (many of these proposals have been kicked around for decades), and could normally be chalked up merely to that tried-and-true cliche that "elections have consequences."
But what makes this, for the moment, seem different than before is that the GOP and their advocates aren't even bothering with the pretense of paying lip service to educators, even as they systematically strip them of professional rights. The rhetoric has vacillated between dismissive and downright hostile. To assist in making this rhetorical shift, we have heard less about teachers and more about "the unions", as Politico's Jennifer Epstein reported last month:
[Recent] events point to a convergence that is remaking the politics of education. Teachers unions, historically one of the most powerful interest groups in American politics, are being besieged like never before — under attack from conservative GOP governors with a zeal for budget-cutting even while taking fire from some Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who has suggested he agrees that unions can be an impediment to better schools.
The boldness with which the foes of teachers unions are surging forward seems to hint at the fact that they feel at, in this moment, they have the upper hand with the electorate. And they may well be right.
Consider an odd disconnect in a Gallup survey on education conducted late last summer:
Percent declaring they are satisfied with the quality of K-12 education in the United States (2004 results in parentheses)
Satisfied: 43 (53)
Dissatisfied: 54 (45)
Percent declaring they are satisfied with the quality of their own child's education (2004 results in parentheses)
Satisfied: 80 (79)
Dissatisfied: 19 (19)
What these results would seem to imply is that there has been some negative movement on the perceptions of K-12 education (admittedly, 2004 was a high-water mark, but it's worth noting that 2010 marked the lowest support on this question since 2001).
But the data also implies that parental observations of their own child's education have not diminished at all. Indeed, the 80% satisfaction level recorded in the 2010 survey was the strongest level of satisfaction since 1999.
One has to wonder, based on polling data like this, if the relentless alarmism promulgated by the vocal community of teacher bashers has painted an unrealistic picture of education that is not being squared with what parents are actually seeing in the classrooms of their children.
The assault on teachers unions bears many similarities to that on other facets of organized labor. It is fed, similarly, by huge dollops of misinformation. Whether it is numerical sleight of hand to paint public sector workers as wildly overcompensated (check out this outstanding example from Michigan), or allegations that said "overcompensation" is what is busting state budgets (there is scant difference between states with or without heavily-unionized workforces), foes of unions have painted a picture for the public at-large of a utopia that awaits, if only those pesky unions are kicked to the curb.
However, there are aspects of the assault on teachers unions that are unique. Because of the delicate role played by teachers (that whole "shaping the youth of the nation" thing), the existence of organized labor in the teaching profession can be blamed for the downfall of future civilization, as well.
Witness this face-meet-palm of an example, courtesy of every right-winger's favorite "Democratic" education reformer, Michelle Rhee. Rhee, speaking in Michigan this week, blamed the outsourcing epidemic on teachers unions. She argued that seniority-based hiring practices will eventually create workers so poorly skilled that "75 million jobs" will be outsourced to China and India. Leaving aside the almost absurdly obvious (that outsourcing has a hell of a lot more to do with cheap labor than it does high-skilled labor), one Rhee critic notes that she also seems to fudge the numbers on her estimates, as well.
Most of the stories told about teachers unions are less alarmist, but no more accurate. Whether it is Dick Morris claiming that unions in NYC are insisting that bad teachers stay on the payroll in "rubber rooms" that leave them sitting all day watching TV on the government dime (the facilities in question closed last year, a decision that came with the district working in concert with the unions), or a raft of critics claiming that unionization creates a work environment that hinders student progress (the actual data suggests otherwise), anti-labor alarmists can paint the threat of strong teachers unions in even graver terms than they can other facets of organized labor.
Without question, this litany of uproars and crises (some unquestionably legitimate, but many manufactured) have made the work of the Walkers, Scotts, and Christies of the world immeasurably easier. So has the fact that the "official" Democratic response to this assault on teachers unions has been decidedly muddled (consider that Michelle Rhee, who has cozied up to many of the most vociferous anti-teacher GOP Governors in America, nonetheless seems immune to criticism from Democratic politicos, including the one in the White House).
The question now becomes whether the GOP assault on teachers unions will be accepted by a voting public convinced of a crisis and willing to take dramatic measures in the name of a solution (whether the policies in question offer a solution is a topic for another day). In contrast, it may well be condemned as a drastic overreach for which the Republicans will pay a dear price politically down the line.
It is very much an open question. However, teachers have to be at least a little concerned, at least thus far, that only one side in the political arena seems to be doing the bulk of the talking.