From the Archives: Bad News for Striking Teachers

History might not be destiny, but it can be depressing. As I’ve worked in the Philadelphia archives for my new book, I’ve found some reminders that teachers have always had to shell out their own money just to do their jobs.

Friend of Man 1 cover

Working without pay has always been considered part of the job…

These days, teacher protests have focused on both low pay and low school funding. As in Oklahoma, teachers have generated sympathy and political power by pointing out how shoddy their classrooms are, and how often they dip into their own wallets to pay for basic classroom materials.

oklahoma textbooks 1

Teachers shouldn’t have to pay for everything, but they’ve always had to…

As I read Joseph Lancaster’s 1821 newsletter I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing parallel. When Lancaster started his career as an educator, he wrote, he visited the nearby town of Stockport, near Manchester. The schools had been terrible until teachers stepped up. They needed better supplies. They needed an expensive new school building. As Lancaster described, the teachers

as a body, offered to work extra hours at their trades, and from their own earnings, to save and devote the sum of five hundred pounds sterling to the proposed building—within twelve months.

Joseph Lancaster told this as a happy tale, showing the possibilities of education if we all pulled together. Almost two hundred years later, though, I can’t help but be a little bummed out that teachers are still expected to donate their scanty mite in order to keep the school lights on.

 

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Why AZ Teachers Still Aren’t Happy

Seems like a big fat win for Arizona’s striking teachers. Headlines this morning announced a whopping 20% salary raise over three years. So why are some teachers still mad?

az teacher strike

Is RedforEd Dead?

For one thing, many of Arizona’s teachers wanted more than a pay raise. As the legislators voted on the new budget that included their pay raises, the crowd of striking teachers applauded the “no” votes, not the yeses. As one striker told USA Today,

This was never about teachers’ salaries. This was about the future of our kids and the future of education in Arizona.

Striking teachers didn’t only want increased salaries. They wanted a vastly increased budget for public education in general. They wanted funding restored for programs and staffing.

As another strike leader told Jacobin magazine, the new budget—including promises of salary raises—is really only a stopgap, a half-measure meant to distract attention from the state’s real educational funding problems. As she put it,

We’re opposed to this budget, it does not give us what we want. It does not put $1.1 billion back in the funding. What it does give us is a tiny piece of the puzzle, $400 million dollars. Which means we’re responsible for going and getting that other $700 million. We’re going to pivot and go fight to get that money ourselves. We need to fight for the money for our kids and colleagues, because they’ve been left out — and that’s one of the main reasons why we don’t support this budget.

I didn’t hear any strikers mention it, but I can’t help but think that some striking teachers are also peeved at the way they are being talked about by some conservative politicians. I know I would be. For example, even as the budget was being passed, one republican legislator tried to cram in three anti-teacher amendments.

The first would have banned any school closures, except in case of non-political emergency. The second would have allowed lawmakers to call for an investigation of any school district that seemed to be too sympathetic to teachers. The one best calculated to provoke the ire of striking teachers, though, would have prohibited teachers from spouting political ideology in their classrooms, including possible fines of up to $5,000. As this conservative legislator fumed,

It’s far beyond time we rein in indoctrination in our public schools.

As I argue in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion that sneaky subversive teachers are using their positions to warp students’ minds has a long and bitter history. Conservative pundits and politicians have long assumed that left-wing teachers were out to corrode children’s faith in America and capitalism. And for most teachers, those sorts of accusations are not only bizarre, but profoundly insulting.

In addition, then, to feeling shorted on their real goals of increasing school funding and reining in charters, I imagine some Arizona teachers must be chagrined to be subjected to this sort of continuing casual slander from their state leaders.

A Story We Should Care More About

Every new story about creationist teachers or praying cheerleaders gets lots of attention, but the news we should really care about involves the humdrum topics of taxes and school funding. As creationist hero William Jennings Bryan put it in the 1920s, “The hand that writes the paycheck rules the school.” In Alabama, conservatives passed a law allowing taxpayers to write their paychecks in a different way. Yesterday, the state Supreme Court started hearing arguments about this new conservative strategy. This story is one we should all follow as if it were interesting. After all, it promises to give an answer that no praying cheerleader ever could: Will conservative taxpayers be able to rule the school?

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

Don’t look at us: Study school-funding laws!

The Alabama Accountability Act allows taxpayers to divert their tax money away from public schools and toward private ones. Alabama is not alone. More than a dozen states have similar laws on the books. What the justices decide in Alabama might direct debate about these laws nationwide.

Of course, not all the laws are the same. As the National Council of State Legislatures reported, as of April 2014, 14 states had some sort of tax-direction law. In general, these laws allow people to shift some of their taxes to scholarship funding organizations (SFOs). Instead of the tax money going to the government, it goes to these organizations. In turn, the SFOs defray the cost of private school for selected students.

Why should we care? Some critics of these laws insist that the laws are intended to break down the wall of separation between church and state. By allowing students to attend private religious schools, some say, these laws use tax dollars to pay for religious indoctrination.

In Georgia, for example, enemies of that state’s law have worried that students will be sent to conservative schools.  At some schools, foes announce, students are forced to pray and banned from supporting homosexual rights.

Conservative supporters of the laws, such as the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, insist that these laws are the last best chance for low-income students. With tax-funded scholarships, low-income students will be able to escape failing public schools. The real issue, according to the Institute for Justice, is the “right of all . . . parents to send their children to the school of their choice.”

Historically, since the 1930s conservatives have agreed that public schools have been taken over by a grasping, out-of-touch academic elite. Any effort to weaken public schools and strengthen private ones has been seen by many conservatives as a win. As I argue in my upcoming book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, this notion has been both enormously influential and widely shared among very different sorts of conservatives.

Religious conservatives have insisted that secularizing “humanists” like John Dewey have taken over public education. Free-market conservatives have worried that the same power-drunk Keynesian economics that dominated public policy between 1930 and 1980 had turned public schools into intellectual cesspools. Patriotic conservatives fretted that sneaky subversion had become the public-school norm. And we can’t forget, of course, that white racial conservatives considered desegregated public schools to be worse than no schools at all.

This sort of tax-direction law is the most recent strategy conservatives have used to move students out of public schools. Will it work? We should all be riveted to the noises coming out the Alabama Supreme Court. Their decision could set a precedent other states will have to notice.

Broun and the Budget

US Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) garnered a lot of attention last year, including a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education by yours truly, for his claim that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were lies from the pit of hell.

Today Broun took to the pages of the New York Times to call for more drastic budget cuts.  Broun calls Representative Paul Ryan’s budget cuts too mild.  Instead, Broun insists, we need to cut the federal government drastically, including eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy.

Broun writes,

Constitutionally speaking, the federal government should not have a role in K-12 public education anyway. Overpaid Washington bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding how to provide for teachers and students, whose own state and local governments are better equipped to understand their needs. A Heritage Foundation study showed that in 2010, the average salary of an Education Department employee reached $103,000 — nearly double the average public-school teacher’s salary. Let’s phase out a large portion of the department’s roughly $70 billion budget. We can transfer the remaining dollars directly to the states, where they will be used more wisely.

Broun’s missive demonstrates the tight connections between various strains of conservative educational ideology.  Does Broun want less evolution taught in public schools?  Yes.  Does he also want a smaller, leaner, more local government?  Yes.

In Broun’s conservative thinking, these are not utterly separate ideas, but facets of the same good ideas.  If education decisions were made closer to home, Broun argues, they would be made “more wisely.”  Local governments, Broun writes, are “better equipped to understand [teachers’ and students’] needs.”  In short, not only would an elimination the Education Department make good fiscal sense, Broun insists, but it would allow schools to respect the religious views of local creationist parents.