Appreciating Organized Teachers and Their Unions in Teacher Appreciation Week

For over two decades our public schools have been trapped in a wave of massive education disruption—an effort to reform education by holding schools and teachers accountable for raising students’ aggregate test scores. But it didn’t work.  Overall test scores haven’t risen. When almost all U.S. public schools were on track to be declared “failing,” before the 2014 deadline when all American students were supposed to be proficient, Arne Duncan created waivers to blackmail states to agree to impose his pet policies if he would let them off the hook from No Child Left Behind’s accountability system. It is a truth universally acknowledged that No Child Left Behind left millions of America’s poorest children far behind.

In her new book, Slaying Goliath, Diane Ravitch defines recent decades as an age of education disruption: “Today’s Disrupters…. want to reinvent education, reimagine it, replace it with another approach, either through technology or a market-driven choice system in which government supplies the funds and parents send their children wherever they want. Not every Disrupter believes exactly the same thing…. Some believe that test scores are the goal of education… Others, like Betsy DeVos, believe that choice is an end in itself… The Corporate leaders of this campaign admire disruptive innovation, because high-tech businesses do it…. The concept of ‘creative destruction’ is derived from the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Whether or not it is useful in the business world, it is not useful in the lives of children, who need stability, not disruption. Corporate Disrupters approve of schools hiring inexperienced teachers with little or no training, such as Teach for America recruits… Such teachers are paid less than experienced teachers, and few will stay long enough to expect a pension or expensive health benefits… Disrupters like to move fast and break things, including school systems, historic schools, communities, and the lives of students, families and education professionals. They take pride in disrupting established institutions and other people’s lives… Disrupters are unmoved when students and parents plead for the life of a community school slated for closure. Corporate Disrupters do not respect the teaching profession… Disrupters don’t like democratic control of education by elected local school boards…. They like mayoral control, where one person is in charge; the mayor can usually be counted on to listen to business leaders…. The Disrupters oppose teacher tenure and seniority, which they consider to be barriers to removing ineffective teachers. They prefer untenured teachers who are willing to work long hours without extra pay and who are likely to change careers after two or three years of teaching.” (Slaying Goliath, pp 27-50)

Ravitch concludes: “Years from now, historians will look back and wonder why so many very wealthy people spent so much money in a vain attempt to disrupt and privatize public education and why they ignored the income inequality and wealth inequality that were eating away at the vitals of American society.” (Slaying Goliath, p. 50)

Back in the early 1990s, education policy debates were more likely to focus on inequitable and inadequate school funding from state to state and on what to do about growing racial and economic segregation. Advocates worried about disparities in access to opportunity across neighboring school districts. School funding court cases were likely emphasize disparities in inputs—money spent on experienced teachers, money spent to achieve smaller classes, money spent for advanced curriculum, money for support staff and enrichments like art and music.  But after the mid-1990s the emphasis changed; court cases were now framed on how much funding would be needed to raise outcomes as measured by standardized test scores. As the entire conversation shifted to raising test score outcomes, so much that matters in education fall by the way.  And when test scores didn’t rise, privatizers were waiting to seize the so-called “failing” schools.  School accountability pushed the old injustices aside. Test score outcomes, not disparities in inputs, became the focus through the years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. And fighting the privatization of public schools became a necessary endeavor.

In the past couple of years, before the coronavirus came upon us and before schools shut down to protect students, the narrative had begun to shift back to what is important: building the political will to guarantee every child opportunity in the public schools. That guarantee, of course must be defined in terms of inputs—public investment across the states. I give thanks to organized teachers for this shifting narrative.

Schoolteachers and teachers unions have been instrumental in forcing our society once again to see what have become outrageous resource disparities—inputs—in public schools across the United States.  In this Teacher Appreciate Week, I want to express my gratitude to the #RedforEd school teachers who went on strike through 2018 and 2019.  Striking teachers have forced us all to examine the implications of school policy that emphasizes test-and-punish school accountability overlaid upon an institution whose revenue base has fallen.  Public school teachers on strike in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, Oakland, and most recently Chicago have demonstrated the untenable conditions their schools have suffered as revenue has collapsed—children struggling in classes of 40 students, teachers pushed out of the profession when their salaries fall so low they cannot afford to rent an apartment, and schools lacking counselors, social workers, librarians, and school nurses.  The education budget crisis is widespread and deep.  But teachers have been willing to keep up the fight even when the gains are modest or slow to come.  When their states failed to live up to promises, teachers have been willing to strike again, and smaller strikes across other states have continued to reinforce the message.

In a its most recent, 2019 report that compares states’ spending on education to where it was in 2008 prior to the Great Recession, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities credits teachers’ strikes with forcing some reluctant states to address urgent but long overlooked school funding needs: “Last year, teachers struck or engaged in other protests in five of the 12 states that cut formula funding particularly deeply after the last recession—Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Lawmakers in four of those five states—all but Kentucky—boosted school formula funding last year, at least partially in response to the protests. The funding boosts were substantial, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 10 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also increased funding substantially, with the hikes ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student after inflation.”

And teachers showed us, in Los Angeles and Oakland particularly, that school districts have been devastated when an out of control charter school sector sucks money out of the local schools. In research released in conjunction with the Oakland strike, we learned that the school district loses $57.3 million every year when students take their funding to charter schools.

This year, organized teachers were leaders in another urgently important effort. When by mid-December, nobody had raised the needs of public schools in any of the debates held among a big field of Democratic candidates for President in 2020, teachers unions were instrumental in bringing 7 of the candidates to Pittsburgh for the Public Education Forum 2020. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers deserve thanks not only as primary funders of the event but also as conveners of an astounding partnership of sponsors, who brought organized urban parents, organized teachers, organized education support staff, civil rights organizations, philanthropic organizations, public school students and advocacy organizations to be part of an open conversation with the candidates for President. This was the most diverse and inclusive event I have ever attended. Organized teachers and the dues they pay were essential for bringing 1,500 representatives of an incredible coalition—the Alliance for Educational Justice; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the Center for Popular Democracy Action; the Journey for Justice Alliance; the NAACP; the National Education Association; the Network for Public Education Action; the Schott Foundation for Public Education-Opportunity to Learn Action Fund; the Service Employees International Union; and Voto Latino—together in common purpose.

Jitu Brown, executive director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, described state takeovers and school closures and declared, “We don’t have failing schools, but we have been failed…. People are fighting for justice (in their public schools) all over the country.”  One questioner—a public school student from Camden, New Jersey, plaintively asked the candidates why his school doesn’t have a librarian or a music teacher when he knows about other schools near his which have a library and a music program. A participant in the 34 day hunger strike which, in 2015, saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closure asked a candidate, “What will you do to help local schools avoid closures forced by privatizers?”  Several questioners asked candidates to support full-service, wraparound Community Schools, voiced support for culturally responsive curriculum, and asked candidates to address the school to prison pipeline with restorative justice programs.

At the Public Education Form 2020, several candidates including Joe Biden went on record to promise that if elected, they would prioritize tripling the investment in Title I, the federal education program whose purpose is to provide additional funding for public schools serving high concentrations of very poor children. Candidates were asked by participants to address the federal government’s chronic failure to live up to its promise to pay 40 percent of the cost of programs mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, while this year, Congress is paying less than 15 percent.  And there was discussion of the outrageous lack of oversight in the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.  Not one of the candidates for President endorsed standardized test-based school accountability.

I know that this spring teachers deserve all the praise they are receiving for staying in touch to support their students and helping children transition to online learning while schools are closed during the pandemic. But my special thanks this year in Teacher Appreciation Week must go to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with all of their state and local affiliates and also to independent teachers’ organizations for their policy leadership. Organized teachers speaking on behalf of children, not merely for their own financial interests, have been instrumental in shifting the national conversation away from test score outcomes and back our collective responsibility for equalizing resource inputs.

One of my biggest worries during upcoming months is that with schools closed, with the media attention focused on the medical and business implications of the pandemic, we’ll all lose track of what public school educators have been teaching us all through the strikes and the incredible December forum in Pittsburgh.  A deep recession will inevitably follow the economic shutdown due to the pandemic, and the collapse of state budgets will inevitably threaten public school funding.

Privatizers and Disrupters—people who are unlikely to give up easily—are sure to seize the pandemic months as a time to restore their agenda in the public mind.  In his 2011 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why business interests and privatizers are likely to push back: “The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states… 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. Furthermore there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 129)

This week, to organized teachers who have been teaching us all how we have failed our public schools and our children, and to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, I say thank you!  Please keep on keeping on.