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It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers

A recent action alert from the United Church of Christ reported that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is predicting that up to 300,000 jobs in public schools may be lost due to the recession.  In cities like Chicago and Cleveland school officials are predicting class sizes of 35 to 45 for next fall.  Meanwhile, as high school seniors plan for their graduation ceremonies, a new round of “blame the victim” seems to be in vogue.  In this case it is the vulnerable teaching profession that seems to be under siege.

Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?  Subsequent negotiations between the district and the school board have led to the rehiring of many of those teachers, but under enforced new work rules.  This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.   This Sunday The Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.

What’s going on here?  No one can deny that there is a desperate financial crisis hitting our schools this year.  The inadequacy of a school funding system that relies heavily on property taxes privileges suburban school districts at the expense of rural and urban districts.  Year by year its flaws grow more apparent, yet year by year we steadfastly refuse to reform it.  State budgets are in freefall in an environment where few are willing to consider any rise in income taxes to maintain even the most essential public services.  No can deny that there are some mediocre teachers protected by employment rules that need reform.  But there are also plenty of mediocre doctors, lawyers, and clergy around; no one hears them pilloried as a class in quite the same way teachers are being viewed today.  The fascination with testing, ushered in by the “No Child Left Behind” law, has made it easy to point fingers at failing schools and their teachers, as if the only solution to our education crisis was to throw the bums out and start over again.  But how would you like to have to prepare third graders in a class of thirty-five or more for math and science tests, when many of those students move in and out of your classroom due to the instability of their homes and when support from parents can never be assumed?

What’s going on here?  Certainly union busting is part of what’s going on.  Public officials see a rare opportunity to diminish the power of teachers’ unions in this climate and are doing what they can to discredit organizations that have done much to ensure that teachers are rewarded and protected at a level commensurate with other professions.  People are angry and frustrated with a broken public school system that vouchers, charter schools, and testing haven’t repaired.  Having run out of the easier fixes, the public is looking for the next easy and painless fix – blame the teachers.  The balkanization of our public school system and the economic segregation of our communities ensures that districts with the biggest challenges have the fewest resources.  And let’s be honest, for most people passionate interest in public schools begins when the first child enters kindergarten and ends when the last child graduates from high school.  How many of us know much of anything about what’s going on in our public schools when we don’t have our own children or grandchildren attending them?

When you travel across the country through numerous county seat towns and cities, it’s easy to see what was important to those who established those communities.  They built – at great personal sacrifice – churches, schools, libraries, and court houses, public institutions that provided for the general welfare of their communities rather than simply the private mercantile interests if its citizens.  Usually these buildings were architecturally grand, dominating the landscape, announcing to all that the spiritual, intellectual, and moral enrichment of the public was a central priority.  What do we build today?  Sports arenas.  In the New York area alone the last five years have seen the building of two new baseball stadiums, a football stadium, and a basketball arena, all built around lavish accommodations for those privileged few who can buy luxury boxes.

The city I’ve lived in for the last 18 years has as its community slogan, “A city is known by the schools it keeps.”  If that’s true, then our nation increasingly should be embarrassed.  Many of our public schools are a mess, and until we all take a good look at ourselves in the mirror, blaming the teachers will not only be unfair, it will only make matters worse.  How many of our best and brightest young people, watching the jobs in education dry up and the public perception of the profession under assault, will be eager to devote their lives to the public schools?

Here in Chicago there are many trying to ring the warning bells about the plight of our schools and our teachers.  Sadly, for many those warning bells, like school bells, don’t seem to be very compelling or urgent.  Here there seems to be more attentiveness to the horns at the United Center signaling another goal in the Black Hawks’ run for a Stanley Cup.  When Jesus took a child in his lap, he demonstrated a central vocation of the church.  Today that vocation means many things, but at the center ought to be our shared commitment to public schools and to those who teach in them.

John H. Thomas

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