Pennsylvania seniority bill advances the war on teachers

     (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    I’ve watched with a mix of amazement and chagrin as the blame for a crumbling school system has been callously laid at teachers’ feet.

    To be sure, there are bad teachers within the profession, and they should be culled from the ranks. But in my experience, most teachers choose their vocation because they genuinely care about children. And for those who find their calling in the classroom, a long career can give them the opportunity to literally change their students’ lives.

    Still, teachers have found themselves facing unrelenting attacks from conservative politicians and their allies. In Pennsylvania, the latest salvo in the war on teachers is the so-called “Protecting Excellent Teachers Act,” a Republican-backed bill that aims to make teacher seniority a thing of the past. Gov. Wolf has vetoed the bill, and Republicans have responded by threatening to hijack the state budget process, a move that could once again throw our state into economic chaos.

    The legislators pushing the “Protecting Excellent Teachers Act” will tell you it’s about improving educational outcomes for children by putting the best teachers in classrooms. I’m not buying it. I think it’s a cynical ploy to gain political advantage by crippling the teachers unions that typically support Democrats.

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    Tom Wolf knows the power of those unions. The teachers, after all, played a key role in helping Wolf to make Republican Tom Corbett the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor to lose reelection in 40 years.  

    The Republican attack on teachers is bigger than Pennsylvania, however. It’s a national effort to neutralize teachers as a political force. If Republicans can successfully push unionized teachers aside, they will do much more than weaken a key Democratic constituency. They will come one step closer to privatizing public education. 

    Without well-funded and politically engaged teachers unions, it’s easier to pass voucher legislation and put public money into private schools. It’s simpler to turn over public schools to for-profit companies. It’s easier to cut salaries and benefits for teachers in order to enrich corporate interests.

    But nobody would want to do those things if public education was universally successful, so Republicans—sometimes working in concert with right-leaning Democrats—have come up with what I believe to be a national strategy. Its elements include defunding public education at the state level, fighting teachers unions through legislation and litigation, and blaming the resultant mess on teachers.

    It’s a brilliant scheme, really. We’ve seen it play out in court cases, including Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. In that case, a teacher, backed by the right-leaning legal nonprofit, Center for Individual Rights, sued to be exempted from paying union dues because she did not share the union’s political bent. Had she won her case, the union’s ability to collect dues would have been decimated, and their political strength would have been sapped. The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on the case.    

    However, the blame-the-teachers scheme isn’t limited to the courts. It’s also playing out in Chicago, where recalcitrant state lawmakers have refused to fairly fund the nation’s third largest school district. We’re seeing it in Detroit, where teachers resorted to sickouts after the School District told them they might not be paid for their work. 

    We’ve seen it in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has fought to open more charter schools, which tend to have non-union workforces. This despite numerous studies showing that, on average, charters do no better than traditional public schools when it comes to student achievement in reading and math.

    But this push to break teachers unions isn’t about student achievement. It’s about politics. That’s why right-leaning lawmakers and their allies keep telling us that teachers are solely to blame for failing public schools.   

    If we can be convinced that teachers are failing our kids, we’ll nod in agreement when politicians call teachers greedy for seeking the kind of pay and healthcare benefits all workers want. However, if we look a little deeper at the reasons our schools are failing, we’ll see that it’s more than just teachers.

    In too many places, state legislatures refuse to fairly fund public schools. Too many poor children find it difficult to learn because they come to school hungry. Children who see violence experience trauma that leaves them unfocused. Mass incarceration creates emotional scars in the children of the imprisoned.

    Does this mean teachers are totally blameless for the failures of public schools? Of course not.

    But if we’re really concerned about student achievement, we’ll admit that millions of students face huge challenges before they even enter the classroom.

    Addressing those challenges means looking beyond teachers, and taking a hard look at ourselves. 

    Listen to Solomon Jones on 900amWURD mornings from 7 to 10 am

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