Saturday, February 19, 2011

Denial is not a river in Wisconson

Most of the rest of the world, expect for a few far-right wingers like Glenn Beck, are happy for the people of Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps soon elsewhere, who are getting their first opportunity to have a democratic government in decades. Of course, the right-wing frets that there may be more "terrorism" there, now that the firm hands of the dictators have been loosed from the throats of their people. However, much the same was said about the American Revolution when we overthrew our king. British solidiers thought of American colonists as no better than "terrorists" or "enemy combatants" and many of the regimes in Europe predicted that our liberated nation would quickly plunge into anarchy. People who know anything about history should, at long last, be able to see that the alleged anarchy is often overblown, although revolutions will have their ugly moments. This is one reason why I would caution the far-right to be careful what they wish for, given that, more often than not, they are the ones using inflammatory rhetoric about needing an armed uprising every time they don't get their way on some minor point.

Speaking of uprisings, let's hear it for Cheesehead power. I'm not just taking about the Greenbay Packers finally taking back the Lombardi trophy. They also made a good show in the capital of what it looks like when unionized Cheeseheads get cheesed off.

Of course, much was made of the match up of Steeler versus Packer, with both teams being representative of blue collar, working class people. However, if one wants to get down to it, working in a "packing" plant is way more blue collar than steel work. It certainly pays a lot less, even with unionization. Anyway, our steel industry, or what is left of it, is only a dim shadow of what it was before free traders freely traded much of it away to other nations in exchange for cheap, shiny trinkets.

Anyway, back to sports for a second, I have long been a fan of Greenbay for another reason, which is that it is the only fan owned team, while the others are often owned by a wealthy individual. Every time Greenbay would win a game this season, I would tell my friends that I hoped they finally made it to the Superbowl, because I think it would make a powerful statement, reminding the nation that you do not need economic royalty to have sports teams. The city of Greenbay decided that they wanted a team that one wealthy owner could not move around willy-nilly, so they sold shares to help finance the Packers. We could do the same thing with other teams, but many people have already drunk the Koolaid of conventional thinking that tells us that we need some rich guy, modeled after the pharaohs or dictators of Egypt in order to world-class professional organizations, like football teams.

The topic of dictators gets us back to the current situation in Wisconsin. In a place where unions started, Republicans have finally seized back control of the governorship and state senate, and are determined to decimate public employee unions. You can hate on unions all you want, but when you see a group of political hitmen doing everything they can to strip rights and benefits from public employees, what will stop them from doing the same to other groups next.

As a teacher in another state, I can attest to the fact that EVERY single year, without exception, we are always told that there is ANOTHER crisis and that we will have to expect massive layoffs, paycuts, benefit cuts, etc. In the end, we always discover that there never was a crisis to begin with. It is just the standard method that the state uses to do business with is. The state always seems to want to balance the budget from the bank accounts of teachers.

Right now the governor in Wisconsin claims that there is a fiscal emergency. This is the same governor who turned down over $1 billion dollars in Federal Stimulus money to build rail systems in his state. In the middle of a recession, when they have a budget shortfall in the state approaching $3.5 billion, this guy is turning down a billion dollars of assistance from the federal government, and then telling people there is an emergency.

I can tell you this. The so-called fiscal emergency, which I predict is another manufactured disaster, was not created by teachers, who tend to earn very modest wages. On the federal level we have seem republicans cut trillions of dollar of taxes over the last decade, with the promise that it would "stimulate the economy". Instead we have the worst recession in living memory and now the states are hurting, because (1) the Federal government has much less money to give them and (2) certain republican politicians are turning down the money that is available, when it is being given to them.

They always want us, out of the goodness of our hearts, to voluntarily cut our own throats, and if we have the temerity to ask them to show us the evidence of this latest emergency, they tell us about how our lavish union contracts have bankrupted them. However, when we look at our wages compared to other people with graduate degrees, we already see ourselves paid 20-30% less than comparably skilled workers in other areas. Our pensions are far from lavish. They talk about teachers making 70k or 80k. I know of nobody in New Mexico who makes even close to that. Our top tier in in the low to mid 50k range, after going through a decade of hoops and national board certifications. Teachers here, even under union contract start at $30,0001 per year and cannot earn more than that for three years. That is the lavish salary of the state. My medical contributions run 13% of my gross salary. My state retirement takes another 10% and is an involuntary contribution.

When I finally retire, politicians will call my pension an "entitlement" and sneer at it like I'm collecting welfare. I paid into it every year, and this doesn't count social security, workman's comp, etc which are also taken out before I even get my check. I should be "entitled" to collect something, down the line, for putting money into all those programs.

As I started to suggest in the title of the article, denial is not a river that runs through Wisconsin, but many anti-union republicans there are in a state of severe denial. They believe that the same group of people who systematically strip away pay and benefits from teachers can be trusted not to do that to police and firefighters, and the average working man. They scream about "no new taxes", but this is a tax on the people they are attacking. They are effectively forcing these people to pay thousands more to the state. It is a very unfair and selective form of taxation on working class people, so that wealthy, non-working people don't have to pay higher taxes.

To the working people of Wisconsin, many of whom were brainwashed enough to think that public employee unions are the source of all their problems. You will not see a penny more in your pocket by attacking teachers. In fact, you will see less money than before, because the people who attack teachers today, will attack you tomorrow. They won't call it a "tax", they will charge higher "fees" and cut back the services that you use. This will effectively be the same as a tax hike, because you will have to pay more for your driver's license.

Here is another dirty little secret about public employee's unions too, for all you union haters. Teachers unions are not even real unions. They are forbidden by law to strike, since they are regarded as "essential" service providers, in many cases. This is like a tiger that has been declawed and had all its teeth pulled. You might say, "look at that scary tiger", but the fact is that it's not a real tiger anymore when it has no claws or teeth to do what tigers do. It's a cuddly pet. So people who tell you about those scary public employee unions are either ignorant of the facts, or want you to be ignorant of the facts. Don't believe the hype.

Alarmists might also point to the fact that public employees can do a "sick-out", but we all know that these are just symbolic and can only last a day or two at best. Only a minority of teachers even called in sick in a few districts for a day in Wisconsin. Real strikes last longer than a single day.

In some ways, it is funny that we have such a love/hate relationship with education. Many people love to hate it and are forever complaining about how kids don't learn enough, while simultaneously cutting funding for education and cutting pay to teachers. I'm sure that test scores are just going to shoot through the roof if you start pay teachers less and cutting their benefits. Why, the best and brightest will just be lined up around the block to go through the elaborate state licensing process, just so that they can make substantially less than they could in the private sector.

Propaganda pieces like _Waiting For Superman_ (WFS) make the unions out to be the source of all evil in education because they limit "flexibility", meaning the ability of principals to fire teachers without any kind of due process, and the "flexibility" of the state to constantly lower pay, while raising requirements. I can tell you that the mythical "tenure" given to school teachers is not the same as real tenure, and it certainly is not granted after two years with only trivial requirements, as the film alleges.

The mantra of the anti-union people is that unions protect bad employees. However, myths aside, most teachers have none of the imagined protections. Waiting for Superman claims that only about 1 in 2500 teachers ever lose their licenses, but the fact is that around half of all teachers do not even renew their licenses after they expire (which is in three years in NM). Besides, you don't have to lose your license to be fired as a teacher. They don't even have to say, "you're fired". You just don't get a contract for the next year. It is standard practice in many places to not rehire any first year teachers, for example, and that is even when these teachers are under union contract.

Far from being a cushy arrangement, most union contracts for teachers are extremely stingy about pay raises, which often only come after several years on the job, and don't even give good education benefits for teachers to upgrade their skills. Typically, even in union contracts, it entirely stacked against the newcomers, and this would not change if there were no contracts at all. It would make things even more precarious. The first time a single parent complains about anything, many principals would rather get rid of the teacher than have to deal with unpleasantness. So students end up with three or four different teachers in a single year, including long-term subs who are not under union contract and are paid even less. That is under the current system. I know because I was brought it, in exactly this situation, when several previous teachers had been fired, and the alleged infractions were not even that serious. So the myth that it cannot happen and that schools are stuck with low performing "lemons" or "turkeys" according to WFS can officially be considered busted just based upon personal observation.

I know that people want official studies to "prove" this or that, but you find that, especially in education, the "studies" tend to "prove" whatever the people putting the study together want to prove. They decide what particular agenda they want to prove and then proceed to collect data to "support it". Every year there is some new "scientifically proven" new gimmick system that "can't fail" that promptly fails and we move on to the next one.

For example, a recent justification for denying graduate tuition benefits to teachers is an alleged study that claims that teachers with graduate degrees are not necessarily any more effective than ones with bachelor's degrees. Well I'm sure you can prove that people with PhDs don't necessarily do a better job teaching either, and there are grad students who do a better job at teaching university classes. If universities operated like public schools this would require us to immediately fire everyone with a PhD and replace them all with grad students. But as we just saw, they don't necessarily do a better job either, so many we should replace them with undergraduates, and so on, ad infinitum.

In the end, it may be true that a person with an MBA is not necessarily a better manager than someone without one. It's doubtful that a manager at Burger King is going to sell way more burgers with an MBA under his belt, but I'm sure people can do all kinds of "studies" and prove whatever they want about it.

Generally, however, we have a social contract that says that we value people getting higher levels of education, even if we can't prove that this will instantly make things measurably better in ten different ways. When we stop valuing the process of continually improving levels of education then we start to stagnate and decline as a civilization. We might think that everything you need to know is in a book somewhere, but there are a lot of things that people know about how to do things that must still be passed on to other people and is not something that gets written down. When we stop telling people to go out and get this education because we cannot prove that it instantly makes them more productive, then we will start to lose all this procedural knowledge.

This takes up back to unions. Before there were unions there were skilled craft guilds, and almost every profession had them. Learning to teach is more than one can get from a book. It takes an organization of professions, or a community of practiced individuals with common experiences and common purposes. When we start breaking this apart and saying that every teacher should be out of himself or herself, we will likewise lose a great deal of knowledge and commitment that teachers hold as a group.

It used to be that the word "conservative" meant someone who was cautious and valued time-tested approaches to things. Now we have radicals, calling themselves "conservatives", who want to gut a century of labor practices with a result that is, at best, extremely uncertain. Everyone hopes that the changes he or she puts through will turn out for the best, but the history of education suggests that the vast majority of quick fixes, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), never accomplish even a fraction of their much-lauded ambitions. More than a decade after NCLB, there are more children being left behind than ever, and the same right-wingers who told us that NCLB would fix all these problems are now putting their faith in union busting. Perhaps this time, at long last, we can tell them that "No, this won't work any better than all the other quick fixes you have proposed".

Just like their trillions of dollars of tax cuts did not stimulate the economy, and instead produced the worst recession since 1929, their union busting efforts will neither improve the economy, nor fix education. Cutting spending in the middle of a recession, many have pointed out, is like deciding to start saving water when your house is burning down. Actually FDR used the metaphor of people wanting to save water only when their neighbor's house is on fire. This ambition to start saving money seems to have been forgotten when Bush was president and Republicans were in charge of congress most of the time. It only seems to have been discovered when Obama is now in office and they believe that continuing to wreck the economy can help them in the next presidential election.

We are back to the issue spoken about at the beginning of inventing crises so that certain political opportunists can ram through their agendas with less opposition. People are tired of government by crisis. We are tired of people who constantly provoke fights that weren't there before they stirred the pot and tried to turn the working class against itself in Wisconsin and elsewhere. People who continually provoke fights are likely to get more than bargained for eventually. In many other countries there are national strikes to show solidarity. Wisconsin is, after all, not the only state considering similar maneuvers. What if educators called their own "day of outrage" in this country? What if we all went to our state capitals. I've heard of accidents where boxes of roofing nails got accidentally knocked off the back of trucks and get scattered across all the streets in these capitals. I've also heard of strange accidents where people get very confused and end up squirting glue into the locks of the doors of important buildings, tragically making it impossible to open them without calling locksmiths. A pair of old shoes with bailing wire for laces sometimes might get accidentally tossed into the air like a bolo and end up wrapped around power lines, which could inadvertantly cause them to short out. I don't know how that could happen or why or who want to do such a thing, but if it did occur, God forbid, I suppose it could give people a little more time to reflect on things, and contemplate if this is a confrontation that needs to take place.