Never Mind the Millionaires, Here Come the Teachers Unions

1 03 2010

The crusade to privatize Chicago’s (and America’s) public schools is not the same thing as a desire to reform our schools. You can believe in charter schools within a public school system to innovate curriculum (I do) and believe that there has to be some peer review process to allow schools to get rid of bad teachers more easily (I also believe this) without buying into the massive privatization scheme being sold as the only way to reform education. Our schools are failing and we need to address that problem. Is injecting the profit motive into school districts, unraveling civil service protections and slashing pay and benefits for teachers, and allowing “problem” children to fail the only way to do it? Privatization zealots want so desperately for you to believe that, but in order to believe it, you have to make some extraordinary and irrational assumptions.

For the school privatization behind Renaissance 2010 to make any sense, you’d have to think that something in the order of 1/3rd of Chicago’s teachers are bad teachers that should be fired (the union has shrunk by an estimated 5,000 teachers in the last ten years), you’d have to answer “yes” to the first follow up, and have to be oblivious to the fact that it was highly-paid “education professionals” who hired them (and kept them long enough for them to get tenure).

The crusade to privatize Chicago’s (and America’s) public schools is not the same thing as a desire to reform our schools. You can believe in charter schools within a public school system to innovate curriculum (I do) and believe that there has to be some peer review process to allow schools to get rid of bad teachers more easily (I also believe this) without buying into the massive privatization scheme being sold as the only way to reform education. Our schools are failing and we need to address that problem. Is injecting the profit motive into school districts, unraveling civil service protections and slashing pay and benefits for teachers, and allowing “problem” children to fail the only way to do it? Privatization zealots want so desperately for you to believe that, but in order to believe it, you have to make some extraordinary and irrational assumptions.

For the school privatization behind Renaissance 2010 to make any sense, you’d have to think that something in the order of 1/3rd of Chicago’s teachers are bad teachers that should be fired (the union has shrunk by an estimated 5,000 teachers in the last ten years), you’d have to answer “yes” to the first follow up, and have to be oblivious to the fact that it was highly-paid “education professionals” who hired them (and kept them long enough for them to get tenure).

Noted empty suit Arne Duncan said that the genius of Renaissance 2010 was,

“We replace leaders, we replace teachers. Adults will leave and children will stay,”

Something he was very proud of until kids like Derrion Albert started dying thanks to it. (“Children are demanding mentors” Duncan said at a press conference after Albert’s murder, ignoring the Lord of the Flies situation he had helped create).

This week the Chicago Board of Education tried to shut down even more schools based on the premise that if you keep the kids but replace the staff, the schools will improve. This is justified by pointing out that it is hard to fire teachers due to the union contract, so you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even if that were all true, the assumption they don’t address is why there is this big pool of awesome teachers out there, who will instantly be good. Do they believe that being a good teacher is some inborn quality, or that it comes with experience? If it comes with experience, why exactly is it a good idea to fire experienced teachers and hire neophytes with no experience? Because the older teachers get lazy, they say; they get tenure and then stop trying.

So, in other words, the way to fix our failing schools is to hire inexperienced teachers and keep them “motivated” by making sure they have no job security and are at the mercy of administrators and “edupreneurs”. What a coincidence that the bankers and real estate developers who dominate the school choice movement here think that the problem with education is job security and that only be giving them the power to fire at will will schools improve. Kind of like their attitude about everything.

Those same free market fundamentalists who defend high executive compensation and golden parachutes as the only way to attract and keep talent forget that principle when thinking about how to attract and keep talent at our schools. We’ll attract better talent to our schools by hiring inexperienced teachers, slashing their wages, benefits, and pensions, and eliminating their job security? That’s how we’ll make sure that teacher quality improves?

As a logical argument it fails. It fails on the economics, too, and there is no long-term study that demonstrates it to be the case. No, privatizing the schools is not the only or even one solution to the problem of bad teachers protected by tenure. It is just a way to make more people rich off of our schools.

The contradictions deepen. A leading advocacy group for school privatization, the Alliance for School Choice claims that “the best way to improve education is to put parents in charge.” So why don’t charter schools have parent government in the form of Local School Councils? I agree that parent involvement is critical to a student’s success. Privatizers don’t, or they’d be fighting to include LSCs in their privatization program.

School privatization through charter schools and vouchers is built on four fact-free assumptions: first, that teachers unions “protecting bad teachers” is more deleterious than teachers unions protecting professionalism is advantageous; second, that injecting the profit motive into education will make schools more “efficient”; third, that some (undetermined number) of kids are just gonna be failures, so whatever; and fourth, that non-educators could do a better job of educating children than educators. You must believe all of these things to support the charter school movement. If not, you cannot come up with a comprehensible argument for why we should continue to shut down schools in such a ham-fisted way.

The rhetoric is hot on both sides. But for people eager to attract fresh young talent to the schools, privatizers spend a lot of time bad mouthing teachers.

Consider how proponents of vouchers have characterized supporters of public education: as lazy, shiftless union teachers or their haughty “liberal” supporters who are so in bed with special interests that they don’t care about “the children”. I think plenty of voucher supporters and their cousins who think privatizing the public schools is the only way to make them “efficient” probably actually believe the black, tarry stool they proudly blast all over parents and (mostly) their unconcerned fluffers in the media. Of course, that’s not really a defense of them: what I’m saying to you is that the advocates of school privatization are either so zealous in their hatred of any public institution they’ll believe anything that will destroy them, or are actually dumb enough to think injecting the profit motive into the school system and firing the only people with any institutional memory will somehow magically make things better.

And when I say “magically” I mean magically; free market fundamentalists are too busy pawing themselves (and, rarely, one another) while ogling libertarian porn to bother providing an explanation as to how, exactly, they resolve the logical and practical contradictions of their hare brained scheme: and, more specifically,how it will do anything but ensure that kids already performing well will continue to do so, while explicitly allowing kids to fail.

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Hot libertarian-on-libertarian action

If this all seems overly inflammatory, good. The things these fundamentalists say about public education and middle- and working-class educators has become inexcusable. Reform failures like Arne Duncan get on the national stages and snarls that teachers better start registering for job training classes, the Reverend James Meeks compares hard working teachers to murderers and pimps, and nobody calls them on it? We’re supposed to agree because, of course, teachers unions just want to protect bad teachers?

You know the privatizers are waging little more than a PR effort because they are quick to accuse you of racism if you don’t support their program, never you mind that it is black educators who are hardest hit by the turnarounds (I guess privatizers think black teachers are the worst teachers?) The gleeful invective belies a lack of coherent principle.

Yes, the unions always just want to protect those lazy roustabouts. One-dimensional partisans and their pseduo-intellectual cousins think no deeper than that: schools are failing because we can’t fire bad teachers, and we can’t fire bad teachers because of unions (oh, and, little coinky-dink, unions are major institutional supporters of their political Grendels).

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Chuck Schumer, D-The Mist

And what do the wealthy interests who bankroll all this “school reform” stuff want? We spend plenty of time needling the tiny percentage of highly paid teachers, where’s our investigation of these wealthy benefactors? Of course, they have no ulterior motive. No “special interests” there. In the worldview of the Everything Privatizers, the wealthy are naturally good, and their ideas naturally efficient. Duh, otherwise they wouldn’t be rich! Didn’t you know? Whenever the rich put up millions of dollars–say, the owners of Wal-Mart, whose business model relies on providing the worst possible jobs to unskilled workers, pouring $50 million–to privatize education, it’s just Dickensian noblesse oblige. No, they’re just doing what the rich have always done, show up at the last minute to save the poor child abused by the big bad teachers who have devoted their lives to educating cane-wielding Beadles or whoever.

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Come along lad, don’t tarry! I’m going to nap while you try to learn binomials.

Get this straight: when middle class people like teachers organize a union to protect themselves from their bosses and have a meaningful voice in the classroom, it is because they are greedy and lazy. When billionaires pour money into a project to extract profit from something, it is because they are smart and nice and soft and awesome and sexy. Glad we got that out of the way. As we all know, it was unions led by women millionaires that transformed public school teaching from a patronage dumping ground to a profession that allowed kids who couldn’t afford private schools to compete with the rich kids. It was unions millionaires who instituted the types of civil service protections that guaranteed that a teacher couldn’t be fired for expressing controversial opinions–like, for example, that evolution is real (something your privatizing buddy James Meeks–who owns a school–doesn’t believe, by the way) or that Birth of a Nation was not a documentary.

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How they used to teach Reconstruction. Seriously.

There is room for debate. The teachers unions in many cities, not just our own, have serious problems. They are often short sighted and do not do nearly enough to build bridges with parents in their communities; there is little rank-and-file democracy, which means the union rarely reflects the voice of on-the-ground educators who want to succeed. This isn’t mealy mouthing to sound balanced: I believe in the principle of a unionized workforce in our schools, but that does not mean I support the CTU or teacher unions’ positions on every issue. Tenure is an important protection, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be reformed–for example, by instituting peer review and strengthening the power of LSCs over personnel decisions. Allowing administrators at-will control over teachers’ jobs will simply transform the schools into another dumping ground for pinstripe and old-school patronage. Just as with the police force, teachers themselves have the most to lose when bad teachers are allowed to keep their jobs. It brings down performance levels which makes their school a target, not to mention that teachers at higher grade levels inherit poorly educated kids; and with more accountability to parents through LSCs, teachers will have a greater incentive to root out their lazy coworkers.

We can gauge the sincerity of privatizers by running the idea of a better method of discharging bad teachers without smashing the public teachers unions by them. My hunch is that they’ll reject it outright: their position is a fundamentalist one, a gospel wherein anything that protects workers from arbitrary firing is inherently bad. They derive their revelations and inspiration for scholarly inquest from that gospel, not vice versa. That is why they’re fundamentalists: they have an article faith (“unions bad”) and go from there.

We can fix our schools for every student. The principle of a common public education is a good one, one meant to level the playing field for the children of poverty and the working class. Privatizing the schools will take us backward, not forward. It is not reform, but destruction. We will end up with the same bifurcated education system we had for centuries, where some pursued critical thinking and the liberal arts, and others were prepared for more menial jobs.

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But now with more colorful toys.


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3 responses

23 04 2010
bigcitizen

This entire post is predicated on a straw man argument. Voucherization is not privatization, it is the same public education with dollars attached to students, enabling them (their parents, really) the freedom to choose to withdraw from failing schools and enroll in schools that cater to their specific educational needs. In order to compete for students and the funding attached to them, schools would have no choice but to improve. Teachers who help schools accomplish that mission would be rewarded for their productivity through higher salaries, benefits, whatever they agree upon with the schools.

Teacher unions, like any union, exist for the benefit of their members, not their customers. It is to the teachers, not parents and students, that the unions have an obligation. They may claim to have the best interests of students and parents in mind, but they would be the very first union in all of history that catered to the needs of the customer, not the unionmember.

You express concern that all teachers will be fired, which is again a straw man. Those who are good at what they do – produce a product that satisfies parents and students — would find themselves with jobs; those who fail parents and students would have to find another line of work in which they can be productive.

Inability to fire teachers is a symptom. The disease is the inability for the customer – i.e., students and parents – to choose from an array of products the one that best meets their needs. Parent government on LSCs is insufficient. If a school lacks the incentives to respond to its customers, it will not respond to its customers.

If I were not the owner of one of the blogs to which you linked in your post, I would not have even bothered to respond to this poorly-reasoned rant.

24 05 2010
Smallcitizen

Big Citizen you are simply wrong. Vouchers are indeed the opening salvo in the attack on schools as public entities. It even mirrors the business models that privatizers love so much; “competition” and “choice” for example.
Your slam on unions as being uninterested in improving conditions for their “customers” is misplaced as well. Students are not “customers” and even if they were teachers very well do have motivation to improve on them; improving a student improves work environment as well as everything else.
And yes, all teachers can be fired as a result of at-will employment becoming the norm. Perhaps you should check again into what at-will employment actually is.
You continually refer to students as “customers” which demonstrates your inability to understand the nature of the dynamic that exists between teachers, parents and students; your first lesson should be that it is not a business relationship.
Read Smith’s “Wealth Of Nations”. He discusses why education should never be privatized.

30 06 2010
Big Citizen

“Smallcitizen” — that’s real clever.

To get to the substance of your remarks, there are a number of countries with vouchers that parents may use to send their children to private schools or government-run schools. Contrary to what you assert, they can and do coexist. Yes, it introduces choice and competition to the public sector, but unless your definition of “public” is “free from choice and competition,” they are not mutually exclusive.

Students and parents are indeed customers. Though they are treated as chattel by the teachers unions, so I can see why you might be confused.

You write: “Improving a student improves work environment as well as everything else.” Well, that certainly explains why our public schools are performing so well…(that was sarcasm, in case you didn’t pick up on that).

I never denied that all teachers *can* be fired. The original post expressed concern that all teachers *will* be fired, which is indeed a straw man. Perhaps you should check again into what reading actually is. Those who are good at what they do – produce a product that satisfies parents and students — would find themselves with jobs; those who fail parents and students would have to find another line of work in which they can be productive.

Your first lesson should be that a relationship in which teachers do not serve students but rather students serve teachers is not a fulfillment of our promise, our guarantee, of a free public education to the younger generation that actually prepares them for life. The free public education that Adam Smith believed in (that govts should give parents money they can spend at the school of their choice), not the free public “education” that is in all too many cases nothing more than free public babysitting.

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