In an extraordinary photo essay, USA Today profiled a day in the life of 15 teachers who work in public schools across the United States. As we approach election day next week, here is how that report concludes: “Teachers hold our hands and wipe our noses, tell us we can be more than we are, maybe more then we think we can be. In return, we tell pollsters that they’re underpaid, without being sure what they actually make; that we endorse collective bargaining, yet often resist higher taxes, that we even support their right to strike, preferably in someone else’s district. A day with American public school teachers ends with this irony: These people, whom opinion polls show to be among the nation’s most respected, feel disrespected. This year, that dichotomy led to revolt. Where it leads next is a matter for speculation….”
One indicator of what to watch is how teachers running for office fare in next Tuesday’s election. A week ago, Huffington Post‘s Travis Waldron updated figures released from the National Education Association: “The widespread teacher protests that swept through states like Kentucky and West Virginia this spring have given way to an unprecedented wave of educators pursuing political office in November’s election…. Nearly 1,500 current or former teachers and other education professionals are running for elected offices across the country…. The new figure includes at least 1,455 teachers and educators who are seeking state legislative seats, and counts current and former teachers from K-12 and higher education, as well as administrative and support staff… The bulk of teachers seeking office are doing so in the states that experienced protests….”
Whether or not educators win in specific races, their spontaneous, mass walkouts last spring to protest the unspeakable conditions in their schools and their rock-bottom salaries have changed the political debate in a number of states and elevated public education higher on the list of voters’ concerns. Last week in Arizona, the NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein noticed that: “The teachers’ protest movement, which calls itself #RedforEd, has transformed the political battleground. The movement remains so popular in Arizona that candidates and causes across the ideological spectrum are competing to identify with it–including conservatives who, in the past, might have been more likely to criticize teachers or unions than associate with activist educators. This has left some Democrats—teachers’ traditional allies—scrambling to differentiate themselves… In Arizona, which has some of the lowest school funding in the nation, nowhere are these issues more prominent than in the governor’s race. Both candidates have claimed the mantle of education champion.”
There is also a ballot issue in Arizona. Because of massive organizing by public school advocates, Arizona’s citizens have the opportunity to vote on Proposition 305, which would lift the cap and exponentially expand a very controversial Education Savings Account voucher program—whose expansion would drain millions out of the state’s public school budget. Proponents of the vouchers, hoping to win support from voters who might confuse their campaign with the public school teachers’ #RedforEd campaign, have dubbed their pro-voucher campaign #YesForEd. A primary task right now for public education supporters is educating voters to wade through the skewed rhetoric.
Wisconsin voters are, in the same way, being barraged with pro-education rhetoric by incumbent Republican Scott Walker—who since his 2010 election has attacked teachers unions and cut taxes, but who now claims to be the education governor. Walkers record is under attack from Tony Evers, his Democratic opponent and, since 2009, the state superintendent of public instruction. Writing for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant explains: “The race between Walker, who was elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave that swept Wisconsin, and his opponent, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers, has become especially focused on education… Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools. Under his leadership, the state enacted Act 10—a crackdown on teachers’ job protections and collective bargaining rights—which has resulted in widespread teacher shortages and inexperienced staff… Yet astonishingly Walker claims he is the ‘education candidate’ in the election, pointing to recent funding increases he signed, that despite their impressive sticker price, still provide less per pupil than in 2011, in inflation-adjusted dollars.”
Bryant continues: “In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending, a repeal of Act 10, limits on the state’s voucher programs, and increased financial transparency of private schools that receive voucher money.” Bryant interviews Julie Underwood, former Dean and now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Underwood thinks Wisconsin’s voters will be able to cut through the rhetoric:: “Clearly Tony Evers has the best grasp on the issues. He has been a teacher, administrator, and state superintendent. He understands that public education is at the heart of a community and critical for our democracy.”
There are prominent battles over school funding and local school levies and school privatization in other states, but the issues in Arizona and Wisconsin poignantly symbolize something larger. Voters in these two states are testing what happened in the 2010, Tea Party-driven election. In his fine book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations are Remaking America One State at a Time, Gordon Lafer reminds us of a trend that began in 2011: “For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power and the size of government… Starting in 2011, the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at eliminating public employee unions, or where they remain, strictly limiting their right to bargain. At the same time, the overall size of government has been significantly reduced…. The number of public jobs eliminated in 2011 was the highest ever recorded, and budgets for essential public services were dramatically scaled back in dozens of states… Furthermore, cuts in public services were not made reluctantly—as a temporary calamity to be mitigated wherever possible—but were embraced by legislators as an affirmative policy choice. Many of the states that enforced the most draconian cuts simultaneously adopted new tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.” (pp. 44-46) Lafer continues: “Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system.” (p. 129)
Of course, well before 2011, Arizona had been experimenting with the kind of anti-tax, anti-public service agenda Lafer describes. This agenda, already dominant in southwest states like Arizona and Oklahoma, was expanded in 2011 from the southwest to the northeast industrial heartland, including Wisconsin. And central to the corporate agenda—besides tax cutting and attacks on the public sector—is the concurrent expansion of privatization.
What teachers have been trying to teach us all this year—in wildcat walkouts last spring and a wave of teachers running for office this fall— is that we need emphatically to reject Red-wave, anti-tax, anti-public policy. If we value quality public schools, we cannot keep cutting taxes and thereby reducing the state budgets that pay for quality public schools. And we can’t just keep cutting the school funding pie in more pieces—one for public schools, another for charters, another for special ed vouchers, another for tuition tax credits, another for education savings account vouchers, and another for plain old private school tuition vouchers—without making the original public school funding slice a lot smaller. In many ways, last spring’s walkouts across West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and North Carolina—along with the hundreds of educators who are running for elected office this fall—have made our public schools the symbol of what’s at stake for our common life. Are we willing to sacrifice class size, school nurses, counselors, librarians, updated textbooks and school music to give tax cuts to the rich and marketplace school choice to the few at the expense of the many?
The retired CBS news anchor, Dan Rather recently visited his childhood public school, Love Elementary School, in Houston, Texas. Here is what Rather says about his recent trip back to school: “(A)s I walked through the hallways and met the children, I found so much in common with when I went there… I just wish this was where we as Americans were training our focus. If people could just come to Love Elementary School, learn about its bilingual education, meet the inspiring staff, hear from the engaged parents, and appreciate how schools like this are so vital to building a better America. This is about community, and fairness, and justice, and hope… Educating our children—all of our children—must be part of what unites us.”
Teachers have been trying to share a similar message all this year. We’ll have to watch next Tuesday to see whether their lesson has begun to make a difference.