REPORT CARD: “Who Wants to be a Teacher Now?”

One of the awesome—and not always appreciated—benefits of a massive political protest is that it gets us talking. Once we start talking, we can’t help doing some thinking. I was lucky enough to be in Madison, Wisconsin recently, where more than 40,000 teachers, students, and other workers are flooding the state capitol for days on end to protest Republican Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public employees’ collective bargaining rights. A banner inside the Capitol read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” High school and college students marched down State Street, the main drag leading to the Capitol, with signs reading “I love my teachers.”

It was exhilarating to see so many people defending teachers, instead of blaming them for failing schools and ailing budgets, as we tend to do here in New York—and just about everywhere else in this country. Wisconsin teachers still might lose their fight. But the protests were so large and so disruptive—even closing the public schools—that, all over Madison, there was no other topic of conversation. Two conservative businessmen sitting behind me on the plane ride home agreed at first that while it seemed extreme, ending collective bargaining just “had to be done.” Finding common ground, as seatmates do when they don’t know each other, the two concurred that Wisconsin taxpayers were spending too much money on these public employees’ benefits. But as they talked, one of the men realized there was a problem, and that problem was a doozy. “Who’s going to want to be a teacher now?” he worried aloud.

Such thinking is going on all over Wisconsin, and its results are measurable. Several polls have found broad support, in Wisconsin and nationwide, for the protests and against Governor Walker. The most objective of these, a joint poll released February 22 by Gallup and USA Today, found that 61 percent of adults across the nation opposed Walker’s effort to strip public employees of their union rights.

Though Mayor Bloomberg has criticized the extreme moves of Governor Walker in Wisconsin, and even praised our municipal unions, there is still no doubt that union-busting and austerity measures are hitting our schools in New York, with attacks on teacher seniority rules, reckless expansion of charters, and planned teacher layoffs. I hope we in Brooklyn will respond with similar solidarity, militancy, and thought. Our kids’ education depends on it. But I’m worried that we may not rise to the occasion.

We—and I mean parents—engage in the political process mainly to defend our own children’s narrow interests: maybe we don’t want a charter school in our children’s school building (the parents of P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights), or we do want more choices in our neighborhood. What we don’t do is fight for more resources for everyone’s schools and against policies that devalue teachers and teaching and insult the intelligence of everyone involved, especially children.

Take Bloomberg’s plan to reduce the number of teachers, getting rid of 6,166 positions in total, 4,666 through layoffs and 1,500 through attrition. Twenty-five elementary school children per teacher is an unacceptable ratio, and it’s typical now. In better-off neighborhood schools, parents volunteer just so there will be more adult supervision in the classroom. But in many poor neighborhoods, parents simply don’t have the luxury. With fewer teachers, the situation is obviously going to get worse. Schools with plans for greatness won’t be able to realize their vision, and schools that are already chaotic will just get worse. It is hard to understand how we all listen to Bloomberg and Cuomo talk about “hard choices” in this budget debate without taking to the streets. These are the choices they are facing: decimate our schools and ruin children’s lives, or cause millionaires some minor psychological distress by making them pay some more taxes. It’s a tough one, right?

At the end of February, the mayor released a list of 4,675 teachers who would be laid off if the governor’s austerity budget passes, and if a bill repealing teacher seniority fails. The point of releasing the list, everybody seems to agree, is to inspire parents at the most affected schools to protest and, in an effort to save their children’s favorite teachers, to lobby against seniority. This is so cynical. Parents should indeed be protesting, but we should be rejecting the idea of any layoffs at all, and denouncing the austerity budget itself. When some schools have 30 children in one classroom, why would we talk about firing teachers when we should be talking about renewing the millionaire’s tax? But of course, this debate is not about improving education for children. It’s about saving money so rich people won’t have to pay burdensome taxes. Those “tough choices” again!

The unchecked proliferation of charter schools, as so many traditional schools are being shuttered or deliberately starved of space and resources, is an attack on teachers, too, because in the long run, the policy is about a new labor model: replacing the union contract with a nonunion one. Not only are many charters kept open and allowed to expand no matter how poor the education they provide—as Report Card detailed last month—but a just-released Independent Budget Office report shows that there may be funding favoritism too: for the past two years, charter schools housed in public school buildings have received slightly more funding per student than traditional public schools do.

Many parents touring charter schools, looking for a good education for our children, applaud their savings in labor costs, hoping it means that maybe our kids can have more teachers in a classroom, or more music and art. Sometimes it does. The nonunion contract also means a longer school day, which means more time for science and social studies—the only areas in which students in New York City’s charter schools are now scoring better than their counterparts in traditional schools. Parents should indeed demand music, art, science, social studies, and at least two teachers in the classroom. But we shouldn’t get these things at the expense of teachers, and of the teaching profession, or we will, in the long run, be even more ignorant and poorly equipped to face the world than we are today.

New York is not alone; the war on teachers is a nationally shared insanity, and, indeed, is even more extreme elsewhere. The New York Times just reported that a school district in New Jersey has eliminated foreign language teachers and was simply having children learn the languages from a computer program. And—no, this is not an Internet hoax—Providence, R.I, gave all its teachers pink slips in February.

Bloomberg closed two dozen schools in February, supposedly for poor performance. Once again, the message was that teachers were to blame: throw the bums out, and all would be well. But the data—once again from the city’s Independent Budget Office—tells a different story. One-third of the schools targeted for closing were “new small schools,” opened some eight years ago, when small schools were the quick-fix gimmick. They had replaced other schools that had also supposedly failed and thus been closed. It’s unlikely that closing these schools and opening new ones will solve anything, because the kids’ problems go beyond school. The closing high schools have far more low-income students than other city schools (63 percent compared to 52). Worse, the closing high schools have 1.5 times the percentage of students living in temporary housing than the average New York City school (six percent compared to four); that means more students are a short step from homelessness. Bloomberg’s school closure policy punishes teachers for their students’ poverty. A more sensible approach would be to reward—or at least provide extra resources and support for—teachers who work in poor communities.

The city is setting up some schools to fail by segregating the students who struggle the most. More than a third of the closing schools have a special needs population greater than 20 percent. The closing high schools have a high percentage of students who had been held back sometime before entering ninth grade (nine percent compared to six nationwide— more than double).

At the Panel for Education Policy meetings debating on these school closures, at Brooklyn Tech, protesters showed up. Students and teachers from the affected schools came, shouted at Cathie Black, and many walked out. Parents testified that the DOE had cut teachers—and honors classes—from these supposedly failing schools. But we need Brooklyn to start looking a lot more like Wisconsin if we’re going to change anything.

Like my conservative fellow airplane passengers, we have to ask why, in this environment, anyone would choose become a teacher. There will always be people who stick with it because they love kids. But if they don’t have the stability and benefits of being in a union, many talented folks are going to make other plans, since they will surely be paid better in the private sector. That brain drain will hurt our kids. We need a lot more people to be talking—and therefore thinking—about this. It’s time to fight like an Egyptian—or at least a Cheesehead.



Update on PCBs:

On February 23, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to remove and replace PCB-laden fluorescent light fixtures from every public school in the city (see Eleanor J. Bader, “Will the DoE Test for PCBs?” in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of the Rail). The $708 million decision came on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s continued testing for PCBs in classrooms and building hallways; to date the EPA has found elevated levels of the poison in every school studied: PS 11, 12, 45, and 358 in Brooklyn; PS 88 in the Bronx; PS 37, 112, and 206 in Manhattan; and PS 53 in Staten Island.

The city will begin the repairs once competitive bids from PCB removal companies are received. Critics have objected to the protracted schedule proposed for the clean-up, which could take up to ten years. For more info, contact NY Communities for Change.