Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Politics of Teaching

We know that closing our doors, teaching in our rooms, and hoping for the best don't work. At least not in a larger global sense. We know that the events outside our doors have become so powerful that our doors are not big enough to keep us safely isolated. There is no seal hermetical enough to block out the odor of the stinky cheese of politics.

So what do we do?

Like many Americans, we have to look at the political parties and say, "None of the above."

The GOP could represent some of our interests-- after all, what is more conservative and retro than the American public school? But because teachers are so often associated in the public mind with unions, GOP-ers are unlikely to view us as allies. Because we are not rich, we're not viewed as members of the club by the business-conservative wing. Because we value education and inquiry, we're viewed with distrust by the tea party wing.

I come from a conservative background myself, and I despair of how the GOP often runs counter to its own values. The GOP ought to love gay marriage; it's a chance to let gays become just as much a conservative, family-oriented, self-sufficient part of society as straights. Nor does it make sense that the GOP is the party insisting that citizens who want to exercise their right to vote should have to get a government-issued id.

But the GOP is not our friends.

In many ways, I find that preferable to the Democrats, who pretend to be our friend and repeatedly stab us in the back. In Pennsylvania, PSEA helped elect Ed Rendell, who proceeded to undermine public schools and chip away at the profession. And many of the biggest name in reform attacks today-- Duncan, Rhee-- are card-carrying Dems. Local levels are often no better. Democrats are raiding pension funds, setting up charter sweetheart deals, promoting TFA.

It is no news that the policies of the Obama administration are simply a continuation of Bush-era NCLB. If Bush had somehow been elected to two more terms, we teachers would not be any worse off than we are now. And the Democrat leadership tendency to think that the fancy shmancy elite in DC know better than the rest of us is not serving the teaching profession well.

At the end of the day, both parties are swimming in a polluted sea of dirty money. Each party, in its own way, serves the interests of the rich and powerful.

The unions are supposed to give us some political clout. They are failing.

I know the arguments. I've heard them from my own past state union chief. They boil down into two basic ideas:

1) We need to earn a place at the table.

2) It could have been so much worse.

I'm no romantic about this stuff. I know political realities often require political sacrifice and bargain-making. But the union leadership has lost its way. They've become so enamored of sitting at that damn table that they are not noticing that nobody else at the damn table is listening to them. And I no longer care that it could be worse, because right now it's really, really bad, and we are not saying so.

I'm not sure I'll ever trust NEA leadership again. Their support of CCSS is an inexcusable betrayal of the members. It's a complete abdication of their role. I will never make a contribution to the political action wing of the union. I do not trust them to spend it on something that will actually benefit the profession.

This is not a hopeful piece. It's entirely possible that we are at a point where teachers have so little political clout and the forces of reform are so intent on climbing over our bodies to get at that big pile of money that we might as well be ants trying to stave off an elephant.

We can keep speaking and acting locally. We can keep joining up with like-minded people. We can hope that at some point we will reach critical mass. But do not say to me, "Politician ______ is our friend. He will help us and make things better." Do not say to me, "We must support this party because they are the teachers' friends."

In the political world, we have few friends, and we have to get smarter about recognizing them. We won't recognize them by political party or union certification. We certainly won't know them by what they say. We'll know them by what they do, by their policy choices, by their willingness to stand up in opposition to policies designed to destroy public education. We'll know them because they understand what our opponents are really saying. We'll know them because they actually support us.

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