Headlines in the past week have been dominated by reformers of all stripes speculating on changes in education policy under the new administration. We have not heard much from practicing teachers, coping with reduced resources, losing personal financial security, and trying to work within a chaotic system. A blog from Michigan teacher Marissa Teslak:
This is it. This is what the end of public education in America could look like. Every person on the side of the fence that feels our schools are falling apart can hardly contain themselves. We are sitting on the brink of education utopia. The fight is almost over. Education reform is coming with the new Secretary of Education!
It’s going to be incredible to watch the entire education system collapse.
What? Avid school reformers just tuned me out. I must be a pro-union advocate. Teachers only care about pensions.
And that’s where unions have failed.
Oops, unions just got livid with me. Sorry friends, we have failed to represent the one thing we hold most dear.
How did we get here? How have we gotten so lost on what education should look like in America?
It’s somewhat amazing, somewhat frustrating, and altogether sad.
It’s a long and complicated story. There are missteps and miscommunications on both sides. But it comes down to a simple principle.
Money talks. Those that have a lot of money end up talking the loudest. The new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is no exception. National Heritage Academy is the largest charter in America founded in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The founder has strong ties to DeVos and the Republican party. DeVos being appointed simply means that she protects the for-profit charter movement in her own backyard. She’s no different than any other politician.
On the other side, years of bargaining for more and more, and better and better, as the rest of America fell to its knees, became the focus of so many issues for unions. Districts have continued to short pension funds due to many economic factors, including less money coming in. FEWER STUDENTS IN SCHOOLS MEANS LESS MONEY. Just as I am tired of hearing how crappy public education is, I’m tired of teachers ignoring this.
Let’s say instead of earning a salary, your employer pays you $10,000 per person in your household. So, your family of five gets $50K for the year. You budget your bills, your travel, your extras on that $50,000. Five people means that you drive a car that carries five people. Then, your two children move out. Your company now only pays for the people in your house. You have lost $20,000.
What would you do? You still have a car that seats five, even though all the seats aren’t filled. You still live in a house that is built for five people, even though not everyone is there. You’d have to think of ways to be able to pay for the same things on less money.
How did districts do that? Some got very financially frugal with strict contracts that unions have been fighting tooth and nail for every penny. Other districts were locked into contracts, forcing them to make cuts. Other districts “robbed Peter to pay Paul.” Districts shorted their payments to the pension funds - “borrowing” against the pension system during the recession and loss of students. Our fellow city civil servants are in the same boat, as cities did the same thing. Look up unfunded pension liabilities. It’s a nightmare that we as teachers have ignored for a long time. The pension problem is huge and will cause serious issues to governments, school districts, and tax payers.
So, what’s the problem?
When on earth did teachers think they knew enough about economics? When on earth did businessmen and politicians think they knew enough about teaching?
They don’t. All they know is that the other side is destroying what they do know. The continuation of the funding of the pension plan as it stands now will cause serious economic crisis—but pension reform specifics need to come from districts and teachers, first responders and struggling cites, not lawmakers. And business and politics dictating what teaching should look like will cause a serious education crisis.
We are on the very edge of destroying what makes America truly great. America is a place of free thinking, brainstorming, and giving every child the chance to receive a quality education free of charge. We as teachers cannot ignore the world outside of our classroom walls. We cannot ignore the struggles of those in our communities, thinking we are the only ones suffering. We must depend on those that work on making sure our economy is secure.
Teachers must understand the connection of our pensions to the economy and the government--and why something happening in New York affects them in a small classroom in the country.
Teachers must teach the nation what a quality education looks like. We must explain how hours of too-rigorous, irrelevant instruction hurts students in ways that can’t be put into words. We must explain—and rapidly—how charter schools hurt our severely impaired students. We all depend on public schools to do things charters simply cannot do.
We are all want the same thing.
Quality education we can afford.
It’s time to stop fighting each other and focus on the change we both so desperately need.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” according to Nelson Mandala.
It’s time to change the world.
Marissa Teslak is in her 12th year of teaching after receiving her BA from Michigan State University and her MA from Oakland University in Michigan—10 years in elementary general education and two in the self-contained setting for Special Education. She is a strong advocate for unions to be active, knowledgeable, and working within their communities. She believes in outside-the-box thinking, creativity, and problem-solving at all levels. These are concepts that were taught to her by her local public school district, which she currently works for.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.