During one of the first union representative assemblies I’d ever attended, I felt a tap on my shoulder: “You’re an English teacher, right? We need some help drafting a message we’re sending to voters. Can you stay afterwards for another meeting?”
With a handful of members from the political action and legislative support committee, I spent the entire evening crafting the wording of a mailing and telephone script to remind voters of the need to support public school funding. To me it was exhilarating work. I was finding a place to voice my ideas and share my passion for public education. And I was in a room with people just like me: They were not grousers or obstructionists; they were sharp, savvy, and deeply dedicated professionals who were volunteering their time, after an exhausting teaching day, to advancing a worthwhile cause.
Our goal was to explain to voters, even those without kids, that investing in high-quality public schools benefits everyone. In a county where 75 percent of households don’t have school-aged children, we couldn’t make the obvious arguments about nurturing young people, giving them academic skills, or instilling a love of learning. We needed to talk the way politicians do, and by and large, they argue in terms of economics.
The area where I live and teach, Montgomery County, Md., is not known for its low taxes and laissez-faire business climate. But this place, one of the suburban districts surrounding Washington, vies nationally for pre-eminence in levels of income, education of its residents, and the quality of its public schools. People pay a hefty premium to buy homes in this county, and do so often expressly because of the schools (as I did, just before I had my first child). Moreover, excellent schools attract private investment to the county, as businesses look to establish themselves in locations with a highly desirable workforce pool. In fact, many highly paid executives, like members of the Marriott family, send their children to the public schools here, even though the region boasts some of the most respected private schools in the country.
Our union decided to focus on the message that investment in schools provides the best return to taxpayers of any expenditure they make. Good schools raise property values, bring jobs, create safer neighborhoods, improve civic health, and make our young people ready to participate in the knowledge-based economy. Too often, we teachers take the defensive position when we are unfairly attacked as a free-loading financial burden to society. If we are to truly serve our profession, our children, and our communities, we need to reframe the political discourse about public education. We have a strong economic argument to make, and that is the type of argument that can convince politicians—and, more importantly, voters.
Jennifer Martin, an English teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., has taught nearly every grade of middle and high school at every skill level, from special education inclusion to advanced placement.
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