Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spinning our Wheels

Most Northerners can tell you some story about getting your car caught in a snow drift. Your first instinct is to hit the accelerator and power your way out. Only thing is, it doesn’t work. The car just spins its tires and digs its way deeper into the snow. That’s what it feels in the world of public education these days. The more we use the same broken reforms, the deeper our problems become.

I’ve only taught for 13 years, and I’ve already experienced one reform after another. From inquiry cycles to walk-throughs, from focus groups to focal students, studying data charts and viewing Pollyanna videos about how it might work if we had 20 kids in a classroom who each had their own laptop. Our school has gone from under-achieving to exemplary to under-achieving again to exemplary again and back to underachieving in my tenure. I used to like roller coasters, but now I get a little nauseous.

I’m not saying that there aren’t problems in the schools. It’s clear that our problems are significant. But it’s also clear that there are a lot of quality educational professionals who are dramatically underpaid, underresourced and under the gun who are going above and beyond the call. I am honored to work with a team of brilliant educators who are dedicated to public service. And it pisses me off when those dedicated professionals get blamed for the problems in our schools. Worse yet, I am deeply saddened when they start to blame themselves. We can’t keep asking our educators to do more with fewer resources. And yet, that’s the poisonous recipe that the media and the politicians are brewing up. The impossible results demanded by No Child Left Behind, the rip-it-all-apart mentality of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top, and the increased class sizes and reduced calendar mandated by the Draconian state budgets which hurt our poorest, most diverse communities the most all combine for that destructive poison.

When it comes down to it, the two biggest problems that our schools face is a lack of money and a glut of blame-the-teacher politics. No amount of consultant speeches and beat-‘em-over-the-head-with-test-prep school reform will fix those problems.

The only way to get out of the snow drift is to stop spinning the wheels. Invest in a shovel and move the snow out of the way. Then you can get the car rolling. Start putting our resources into the kids who need it most and get the wedge-issue politics out of education, and we’ll get the schools moving again. But we better hurry, because there’s a pretty bad blizzard coming.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Four weeks Since March 4...

Remember how back on March 4, we all threw down and had a “Day of Action” to protest the impending budget cuts? Well, there’s still no state budget for 2010-2011 yet, and that’s good news. But I’m worried about what the state legislators might be thinking, because it seems as though we protesters have gone away. So, what’s next, CTA?

Yeah, there was March 4, and that felt great. But it’s been four weeks since our grand day of action, and I’m wondering what the next big coordinated effort is going to be. After all, 25,000 more teachers have received their annual RIF letters. Most of us have given up salary, days, benefits, working conditions or all of the above, and the educational tailspin continues. It just seems like we need the next set of marching orders from CTA before another round of cuts get set in stone.

There are several efforts around the state that we can attach our energies to. CFT is still unrolling its “March for California’s Future” through the Central Valley. Between now and April 21, the marchers are holding rallies in critical communities that are jurisdictions of important republican legislators. The marchers are visiting the very communities where voters can pressure their home-town Senators and Assemblymembers into not letting our schools and public services get re-butchered.

California AFSCME continues to push for it’s alternate to the state budget, which identifies up to $40 Billion in new revenue that can be used to re-build our state. Where did the money come from? Mostly fixing loopholes that allow corporations to skate by without paying their fair share.

Or, CTA members could join the efforts of Californians for Democracy, the initiative effort which is seeking to eliminate the state’s dysfunctional two-thirds mandates.

All I’m saying is that any of these coordinated actions is better than doing nothing. And four weeks is long enough for our legislators to forget that anything ever happened.

Monday, March 8, 2010

March 4 rocked! Now what?

Teachers, administrators, parents and students lining up on both sides of the school. Our school, the school down the street, every school in the district. Every community in the Bay Area. Every region of the state. Simultaneously defiant and celebratory. With a little leadership, great things can happen. That’s the lesson of March 4.

And CTA joined the fray. In their most significant organizing effort during the last four devastating budget cycles, CTA finally cranked out the resources and guidance to get every California community hopping around the theme of “No More Cuts.” CTA also scored well in the “plays nice with others” category, joining hands with the California Federation of Teachers and unions representing employees from UC, CSU, community colleges, the greater labor movement, and the rest of the education coalition. Gotta say, I was proud to be CTA.

March 4 may go down as one of CTA’s best days in the last 5 years. Not since the 2005 special election has the state's largest teachers union put it all together so well. With every staff person spending energy getting local leaders to pick up the ball, effective use of the Stand Up for Schools website, great coordination with sister organizations, and mostly, just using its geographical size and scope, CTA played an essential role in the success of the day.

Of course, it’s not enough. Not yet. The shouting was fun. It was great to see the headlines. But the budget crisis did not go away. The solutions (more revenue, majority rule, no more corporate tax give-aways) have not been enacted. And some horrible compromise, which will end up solving nothing, is just a few months away. The Republican minority will again have the opportunity to reject the majority call for new funding. CTA will be asked to “bless” the compromise because more is being cut from health and human services than schools. Our recent track record says that we will reluctantly agree.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is hard to see past the logjam that the Republicans have built in the state legislature around budgeting and taxing. But people are getting tired of legislative logjams led by a super-minority. And the iron is hot. CTA has a presence in the communities that elected those republicans, too. Those schools are hurting, too. Parents in those communities are also upset.

Step one: make it clear to our friends in the legislature that we won’t settle for another bloodletting, that their votes should be dependent on having some real structural change in the way budgets are decided. Step two: get in the faces of every republican in Sacramento until a few of them break. Fight dirty if we have to. Put up billboards across from their local offices crediting them with every layed-off teacher and closed school library. Make sure to name every closed school or shut-down essential school service after them. Get local teachers in the act with more public rallies, more forums about school budget cuts. Step three: repeat. In other words, CTA, please don't drop the ball!

Of all of the statewide organizations, CTA stands alone in having the capacity to run this type of campaign. And the alternative is far worse. The alternative is to is suck it up and watch our neighborhood public schools get dismantled piece by piece. And about a year from now, we can start planning another March 4.