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Pols vs. Teachers

I do not know why, but there seems to be a trend in our culture to blame particular groups of people for specific ills. We blame all of Islam for 9/11. We blame immigrants for high unemployment. We blame African Americans for our cities' high crime rates. We blame the uninsured for the health-care crisis. And now we are blaming teachers for failing schools.

I, personally, blame politicians for everything.

The fact of the matter is that most issues are complex. A multitude of variables are the cause for most crises. No entire race, religion, or class of people is responsible for any specific problem.

School budgets are in the red. Pensions are on the verge of bankruptcy. Student test scores are flagging.

Whose fault is that? Teachers'?

Again, I blame the politicians.

Teachers have one of the most difficult jobs there is compared to many other professions.

They are required to have the skills of a nurse, police officer, social worker, decorator, computer technician, and parent all wrapped up into one. They have to manage the behavior of 25 individuals whose brains are not physically or emotionally developed while at the same time teaching them the basics needed to survive. Their classroom may consist of a full range of learning types and behavioral disorders. And yet, somehow, out of all that, most children graduate and become successful adults. Thank the teacher.

You have to ask yourself: Is this there anybody as equally responsible for a child's success or failure?

The first thing that pops into my brain is the parents. Are the parents home? Do they speak English? Do they belong to a gang? Are they so busy with their careers that they do not have time to help with homework? Are they setting a good moral example for their offspring by paying taxes, going to church, and driving the speed limit? Do they tolerate ethnic and racial differences or do they use racial slurs and hate-mongering when gossiping about neighbors?

Any of these conditions in a student's home can result in academic failure. Many politicians lack the courage to discuss these issues publicly. After all, parents vote.

So they have made teachers the problem.

Take pensions, for example. Have the city and state governments ever borrowed against the pensions? If so, have they ever paid the pension funds back? Are the teachers' pensions paid from tax dollars or from teacher contributions? Do state and city governments make timely contributions or are they holding back? Are any elected officials who are proposing cuts to teachers' pensions likewise proposing cuts in their pensions?

The fact is that teachers contribute 9.4% of their gross salary to their pension and do not contribute to Social Security. It is the failure of states and cities to meet their pecuniary obligations to teachers' retirement funds that have resulted in the fiscal failings of pension plans.

Yet, teachers are now the scapegoats for politicians who have created the pension crisis.


* * *

There is now a bill sitting on Governor Pat Quinn's desk that gives all the power over our education systems to the administrators appointed by the politicians - the politicians who created the problem in the first place.

Getting rid of teachers who don't perform makes sense, but evaluating performance on test scores opens the door to all kinds of shenanigans, including the incentive to cheat. Another worry: a principal who wants to fire an experienced teacher and replace him or her with a less costly rookie can stack the older teacher's classroom with students who have behavior problems, language issues, and learning disabilities, thereby setting up the teacher and students for failure.

But politicians clearly want to replace experienced teachers with cheaper, inexperienced newcomers. It is even foreseeable that in the future our teacher corps will turn over every four or five years - even while we're stuck with underperforming pols seemingly forever.

How did we get here? Why so much anti-teacher sentiment now?

Start with the United States Supreme Court. Last June, the Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations both for-profit and non-profit had a First Amendment right to spend as much money on political advocacy as they wanted. Corporate-funded - and created - interest groups quickly got to work.

The Portland-based Stand for Children, for example, established a beachhead in Illinois with with $3.5 million in its coffers. This made it the third-wealthiest PAC in Illinois.

Although the PAC originated outside Illinois, most of its money here came from familiar Chicago figures such as the Crowns and the Pritzkers. In a last minute effort to avoid election reform laws that came into effect in 2011, the PAC donated more than $600,000 to Illinois politicians in late 2010.

Stand for Children supports the bill on Quinn's desk - which is also supported in part by the teachers unions. Who ever said the teachers do not understand the dire need to reform and compromise?

So what is wrong with the legislation? A last-minute amendment singling out Chicago teachers was snuck in under the nose of the Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and negatively affects the future of Chicago's children.

The bill requires 75% of CTU membership to vote Yes in order to strike. It denies the union the legal right to file unfair layoff grievances with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board. Essentially, termination of teachers will be left to the discretion of school principals. The bill also removes the union's right to negotiate the length of the school day or school year. Ultimately, all final decisions without allowing any union discussion will be made by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The state teachers unions now oppose the bill. CTU, which initially supported it, has backed off, citing the bills limits on future collective bargaining

Many veteran teachers I've spoken with over the last several days are demoralized. Why have the elected officials and much of the public forsaken these dedicated individuals? Is it smoke and mirrors to distract from where the fault really lies, the politicians?

This not only is a slap in the teachers' faces, it is a violation of their First Amendment rights. Like a PAC under the Citizens United ruling, unions have First Amendment rights too.

Most importantly, the quality of education will decline. As classroom sizes increase and teachers' salaries decrease, experienced teachers will be fired and new teachers will become difficult to come by. Students' scores will decline. Even more parents of mjeans will send their children to private school, abandoning public schools even further to the less privileged. Public schools in the city will be the repository for the children of the poor and working class.

* * *

The irony of all this is Illinois' push for educational reform is contradictory to a prior attempt for political and election reform. In January 2008, at the peak of the unfolding Blagojevich scandal, then-Lieutenant Governor Quinn formed the Illinois Reform Commission. Its mission was to make recommendations for cleaning up state government. The panel included sincere professionals with genuine interest in reform. Experts were brought in from all over the country to testify.

By the end of April 2008, the panel released a report containing recommendations of a wide range of ethics reforms including campaign financing, transparency, and better government. All this came in the form of legislative proposals presented to the General Assembly. The end result from our elected representatives was a watered-down version of changes that effectively squelched reform.

Now, the General Assembly, after lobbying by a billionaires PAC, wants to reform education, the foundation of our culture. I say let's fix the General Assembly first. Lower the limits on donations to candidates from individuals and PACs. Lower the members' part-time salaries. Take away their health-care plan. Eliminate their pension benefits. When they have done all that, then they can re-examine doing the same for teachers.

In the meantime, many questions go unanswered. How is it that Stand for Children believes it is helping our children by destroying our teachers' rights? Why did CTU president Lewis initially agree to this bill only to later realize there were anti-collective bargaining provisions? Were separate provisions for Chicago's teachers meant to turn the unions against each other? What are the unions doing to stop the enactment of the bill? Will they seek an injunction?

And most importantly: Will anybody ever want to be a teacher again?

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Ed Hammer is a retired Illinois Secretary of State Police Captain and author of the book One Hundred Percent Guilty: How and Insider Links the Death of Six Children to the Politics of Convicted Governor George Ryan.

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See also:
* George Ryan's Park Bench
* George Ryan's Dogs and Ponies
* George Ryan's Other Jailhouse Interview
* Bugging The Chicago School Board
* Cop vs. Teacher
* Signs of Change

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Stan Palder:

Ed Hammer's essay on so-called school reform was dead-on. He described accurately how special-interest groups and politicians are on a crusade to destroy the public schools via demonization of experienced teachers, privatization of public schooling, and giving power over public schools to those ignorant of public schooling such as private prep schoolers Arne Duncan and Barack Obama and private sectarian prep schooler Mayor Richard M. Daley. Too bad that Mr. Hammer didn't mention the Chicago Tribune and Wall Street Journal, which have been relentless in their vicious attacks on teachers.

I was surprised that Mr. Hammer did not mention that charter schools are a fraud. They are a rip-off of the public schools because their so-called lotteries are for those parents who have the motivation to enter the lotteries. If a family wins the lottery, it must follow through and send their child to the charter school. Furthermore, their child can be winnowed out of the charter via punitive measures (sometimes financial) if he or she does not perform up to the charter's standards. A charter school is merely a private school that gets most of its funding from the taxpayer. Extra funding for many charters comes from anti-public school groups.



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Posted on May 26, 2011


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