Monday, August 27, 2012

Tea Party Politicians on Public Education: Bending and Breaking It All to Pieces

(originally posted at Nomadic View April 2011)

When the Turkish leader of the newly created Turkish Republic came to power, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was able, in a single generation, to transform a country, stripped of its territories and, ravaged by war into a stable, strong and proud nation. His vision for his country involved reform on a vast scale. (He even managed to change the writing of the Turkish alphabet from Arabic style script.)

One of his greatest achievements- which in turn allowed even greater development- was to invest in improving education for all citizens of the Republic.
Developing an educated population, in his opinion, was a patriotic duty.
"Education must be apart from all kinds of superstition and alien thoughts; it must be noble, national and patriotic."
Education was not merely a matter of personal development, in the eyes of Ataturk. Without education, no nation can flourish economically.
Our principle is that national education shall be based on single school and secularism. Our goal in education is to raise citizens which shall increase the economic power and civilization and social value of the national society.
Warrors and the Privileged Elite
Unfortunately, in the United States today, the general attitude among conservative Republican politicians has devolved into something quite different. Check out this information from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC)
The Republican governor of Indiana would have you believe that teachers are the “privileged elite.” Gov. Daniels believes that teachers and other public-sector employees enjoy “feather-bedded payrolls, very expensive salaries and benefits.”
In fact the average teacher annual salary in Indiana was $46,640 in 2009. That's an average. Hardly the kind of salary one considers privileged. This was, in fact, somewhat lower than the national 2009 average of $49,720. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has a salary between $95,000 and $107,000 per year. But that's hardly surprising. He is a governor.

However, at the beginning of next year, when Daniels becomes the 12th president in Purdue University (selected by a board of directors that he hired himself) that salary will soar to five times his present one, in excess of $500,000 which includes a house and car. (Outgoing Purdue President France Cordova earns $465,000.)

When asked to comment on the charge that he is unqualified for the position, he said in a statement.
"I have not made a life in the academy, but I have spent my life reading, admiring, and attempting to learn from those who do."
Some admiration. Higher education certainly doesn't need Daniel's kind of love. As one editorial points out:
“In 2009, to close a projected budget gap, Daniels urged the Commission on Higher Education to cut the budget to the state’s colleges. The result was a 6 percent cut to the higher ed budget — about $150 million. Purdue felt those cuts, losing $45.5 million over two years.”
It seems as though Daniels will cut the state funding of higher education while at the same time taking an overpriced salary as university president without having any qualifications for the position. But it's teachers, he tells us, they are the privileged elite. 
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Teachers unions are under attack in other states, too.
  • In Ohio, a bill dramatically curbing the rights of teachers to collectively bargain for pensions, benefits, and an array of other contract items has just passed the state Senate.
  • In Tennessee, teachers statewide are rallying this weekend to protest bills pushed by Republican legislators that would abolish the rights of teachers’ unions to negotiate.
    From the floor of the state Senate, tea party Republican Jim Summerville recently warned Tennessee's teachers to mind their own business where education reform is concerned. 
"Make no mistake. The final responsibility is ours — and we are warriors. We will bend public education to our awe, or break it all to pieces.''
Despite all that bravado and threats, Tennessee teachers are the 9th worst paid in the country. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, a base salary for a first year teacher with a PhD is $38,025 This is reflected in the quality of education. Tennessee ranks 47th out of 50 states (and is behind Washington D.C.) in terms of its average composite ACT score. 

For every 100 ninth grade students in the Tennessee education system, 19 will graduate from college in 3 – 6 years. Thirty percent of the state's students will drop out. More than 70 percent of 8th grade students are reading at basic and below basic levels, according to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability. 
The best plan to tackle these serious problem, according to Summerville and many like him, is to bully teacher unions into submission.  
Repealing Education
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s claims that teacher pensions are bankrupting the state. Additionally, according to an article in The Star-Ledger, in March of 2011, a Superior Court judge found that Gov. Chris Christie's deep cuts to state school aid last year left New Jersey's schools unable to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to the state's nearly 1.4 million school children.
At the same time as Christie was cutting aid to state school, he was proposing to cut income taxes by 10 percent which, according an independent analysis, would largely benefit the state’s wealthier residents.

North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx, known for some outlandish remarks, publicly asserted that federal funding for education is unconstitutional. But get this, Foxx chairs the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.  Other committee members include Tim Walberg of Michigan and Joe Heck of Nevada, both of whom support abolishing the U.S. Department of Education

(This is a standard Tea Party talking-point. Michele Bachmann, for example, stated that if she were president she would "pass the mother of all repeal bills on education." Presumably she was not intending to repeal education per se.

With the imagined ease of a dictator, Bachmann said she "would take the entire federal education law, repeal it. Then I would go over to the Department of Education, I'd turn off the lights, I would lock the door and I would send all the money back to the states and localities.")

In order to add yet another provocative remark to her portfolio, Rep. Virginia Fox told a radio host recently that she had no sympathy for those who complain about their student loan debt.
I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that. I remind folks all the time that the Declaration of Independence says “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You don’t sit on your butt and have it dumped in your lap.
Not like, say, House Sub-Committee positions. 
To illustrate her point, she offered her own story: 
I went through school, I worked my way through, it took me seven years, I never borrowed a dime of money.
But...that was in 1968. Since that time, and across the nation, university tuition rates have been skyrocketing. Between 1982 to 2007, the national average increase at America's universities was 400 percent.

If students are taking out loans, as ThinkProgress points out, perhaps Foxx might try looking into the problem a little deeper instead of dismissing the problem with another tired Reagan "land of opportunity" platitude.
Despite Foxx’s implication, these loans are not taken out frivolously. They are taken out because of the soaring cost of college. In other words, because the price of college is so high — and House Republicans are working overtime to cut Pell grants for one million low-income students — the amount of loans required to pay for it is also high. Indeed, student loan debt topped one trillion dollars last year, orders of magnitude larger than in the decades prior.
As we have seen in the case of Governor Daniels, when it comes to university administration, there seems to be no shortage of money. As one source notes:
A comprehensive study published by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 reported that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent while increasing spending on administration and staff support by 36 percent.
The study also found that, forty years ago, the number of professors employed at American universities outnumbered administrators. Then something unusual happened. While the number of full-time professors and educators increased by more than 50 percent, keeping up to the rate of enrollment, the number of administrators and administration staff increased by 85 percent and 240 percent respectively.   
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To Save a NationOnly fools could ignore the importance of education  to our society and these attempts at vilifying the nation's educators is shameful. 

But then the Tea Party politicians have made it their mission not to reform education but to dismantle public education altogether. It is ideology based only on short-term thinking, cost-saving no matter what the costs to our future. 
Measure that against the potential return on the investment in our young people and you can see that economically it makes no sense. 

The president has offered an alternative view to all of ill-advised Republican budget-slashing.  And the contrast couldn't be greater. His achievements in education- at demanding recognition and respect, as well as accountability. are pretty outstanding. 

As Josh Greenman, writing for the New York Daily News, tells us:
He's promoted performance-based pay for teachers and bonuses for high-caliber math and science teachers. He's championed charter schools. He's pushed for high, common core standards across the 50 states. Nor is this idle talk; via the Race to the Top program, he's dangled billions of dollars in awards to states and localities that hew to this aggressive reform vision.
Since taking office, Obama has offered reforms to education in a number of important ways, from the Race to the Top program, which puts good preschool programs within reach for many families to the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a refundable credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of a college education is free for most Americans. 

On the other side of the equation, the president has sought to improve the quality of teachers in the classroom by allocating funds for experiments in merit pay, that is, paying teachers based on their performance. 
In fact, Obama is taking a page from Bill Clinton's reforms to Arkansas education system. One source gives us this snapshot of Clinton’s education agenda:
The Education Standards Committee, which was headed by state first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, concentrated on bringing higher teacher quality, a more rigorous curriculum, a longer school year, and smaller class sizes to the state. Governor Clinton connected school consolidation to these new standards, and this time, he was able to raise the state sales tax by one percent to fund his reforms. The AEA [Arkansas Education Association] stridently opposed his teacher testing initiative but ultimately benefited during this period by gaining large increases to teacher salaries.
Obama, at the least, seems to understand the importance of education for individuals and the nation. Here are some excerpts from a speech given by President Obama in 2011, honoring teacher of the year. 
But even after all this time, I still remember the special teachers that touched my life. And we all do. We remember the way they challenged us, the way they made us feel, how they pushed us, the encouragement that they gave us, the values that they taught us, the way they helped us to understand the world and analyze it and ask questions. They helped us become the people that we are today.
What people I think don’t realize is just how much work and how much sacrifice it takes to make that connection. My sister is a teacher, and so I’ve had the occasion of just watching her preparing lesson plans and then going out of her way to call that student who she thinks has potential but is slipping away, and working with parents who maybe don’t know how to support their kids. And it’s tiring work, but how incredibly gratifying it must be.
Because in the end, the most effective teachers are the ones who are constantly striving to get better and help their students get better. Those teachers who stay up late grading papers. The teachers who give up their afternoons and free periods to give that student a little bit of extra one-on-one help, and spend evenings and weekends developing lesson plans and activities that don’t just teach the material, but make it come alive. And the teachers who see the potential in students even when the students themselves don’t see that potential.
In the words of one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Teachers here today, and thousands like them, are surrounded every day by young people who will shape our future. But it takes a special person to recognize that. It takes a special person to light that fire, to raise our children’s expectations for themselves, and never give up on them no matter how challenging it might be.
Not giving up on teachers (even if it means holding them to higher standards and more accountability) means not giving up on children and young people, in effect, the future of the country. 

Most importantly, it means not giving up on, as Mustafa Kemal said, "the one and only people who can save a nation."