Monday, February 21, 2011

POINT: Madison, Greens and Public Education

This is yet another moment in time when the status quo is being challenged. As Greens we have the obligation to support the emerging vision of peoples in the US and in countries around the world. History has taught us what works and what doesn’t; what’s change and what’s a historical continuum of previously existing paradigms. So some things we can rule out for the future- we can rule out caliphates; we can rule out bureaucratic statism; we can rule out totalitarianism; we can rule out theocracy. When we shift our vision from the telescope of the world with the universe of peoples and places in motion, to the microscope of our own backyard, we can proceed as leaders who present new options and paint new alternatives on the political canvas.

Such is the case of public employees in the United States and the current movement in Madison, Wisconsin. At the heart of the issue is the issue evolved from the Industrial Revolution of union shop vs. open shop. As a disclaimer, I should add that I have been a public employee for most of my life. I have worked in open shops in a “right-to-work” state (New Mexico) for most of that time or in a non-union financial institution. It’s not the hell that it is represented to be. Although, if I really thought that the union leadership would ever be sincere about workers’ rights, I might even hop on the bandwagon of supporting the union shop. I do have scars from the experience that could have been avoided.

I am used to not being in unions while others are. Years ago, I worked in the Northeast in union factory production work and actively engaged union members to oppose plant closings and protect pensions of those who were being displaced. The plants closed while the leadership of the local AFL-CIO refused to initiate any action to address our concerns and the Rust Belt became history throwing thousands like myself out of work. As an aside, there have been times throughout my employment at different places when I sought support to organize a union at my place of work. The irony is that the union organizers who I contacted presented the same reasons to me as the boss as to why they couldn’t organize. Workers’ rights are NOT secured under the two party duopoly.

Greens have a particular need to address issues with an understanding of structural reform that we are presenting to voters. We are not just advocating for policies on one side of the current political debate. We are here to present a real alternative of governance that goes beyond existing bureaucracy and governmental entities. In New Mexico, Greens supported emerging models of education, as public schools repeatedly showed an inability to improve student performance and achievement. There is no emerging example that has demonstrated a consistent record to date. That doesn’t mean we can’t support homeschooling or charter schools. Neither does it mean we are trying to dismantle the entire public education system as some advocate. We know that urban schools are not working and new options are needed to give students a chance. We know there is educational injustice against minorities in urban schools.

Back to Madison. The teachers are right to support a union shop. They do face an uphill battle, as so few people in this nation even know what a union shop is today. And fewer are willing to switch their own position with that of teachers in this nation. The demonstrations are large and significant in expressing their resolve not to become a “right-to-work” state. And that is the focus of the battle. From the scenes of the mass demonstrations it is obvious how adamant teachers in Wisconsin are. Three realities they confront today that they might not have faced in other times. 1. The recession and unemployment has created budget crises in numerous states throughout the U.S. 2. The failure of the public education system as it exists to improve student achievement levels impacts on public opinion. 3. The low percentage of union workers in the US and the conflict between state and city budgets and state employee benefits of public employees.

From all appearances, there is much public support within Wisconsin as the public school system has demonstrated a strong record of student performance. Wisconsin fourth grade science scores were not significantly above the national average of scores in 2009, but they were higher than the national average in 8th grade science. See also NEA state stats regarding public education financing: . This year these students may face an extended school year this summer as a result of the strike of teachers against the bill before the State Legislature.

Democrats want us to fight each other to polarize public opinion and are playing their hands as anyone would in a power struggle. The actions of Democrats in the State Senate DO NOT represent the interests of teachers or other workers in Wisconsin. There are many questions in regards to the motives of the latest actions as there were reports as late as February 13 that the teachers’ union had come to an agreement with Governor Walker. “For the first time, the Wisconsin Education Association Council endorsed several major reforms that for years it had stubbornly resisted and stalled. This includes: Junking the outdated teacher pay schedule that rewarded longevity and advanced degrees. Instead, the union now supports merit pay so high-performing and high-demand teachers will earn more. Dramatically improving teacher evaluations using, among several other factors, student test results. Making it easier to get rid of the worst teachers if mentors and other help doesn’t boost performance. Shaking up the failing Milwaukee Public Schools.”

There are also forces that are pushing the Tea Party into such polarizing positions and are now mobilizing their ranks to oppose the teachers. The fact is that Greens should agree with the fiscal responsibility of the Tea Party as many did in 1992 with the Perot candidacy. Greens want to see something emerge beyond the status quo. In the United States, this is not only a budget issue, but is also a collective bargaining issue and a student achievement problem. The existing bureaucracy and public school system hasn’t proved capable of addressing any of these issues. One thing that is clear: if the teachers stay away from work too long there will be parents and others who will step in to create new alternative. If the State Legislature is unable to act, people will learn to live without it. There will be private options developed to avoid these options in the future. And there will be winners in these fights; none of whom currently are sitting at their desks for the next school day in Wisconsin.

Inevitably, I ask where the state workers were when the factories in the Northeast were closing. And the answer is they were expanding as the number of social workers increased to service the unemployed. Where were the unions when political action was needed to protect the pensions of factory workers in the Rustbelt? The structural problems of this economy have dragged us all down and its time we begin to make adjustments that mean change for everyone. Change in how our localities are governed- so that we can depend on local resources for local economies of scale; so that we can develop integrated local economies not dependent on outside corporate investment; so that we can govern and manage the natural resources in our regions with stakeholders and not corporate shills representing us. Our political institutions, our schools, our state bureaucracies and our corporate giants are devouring us all. Feeding the bureaucracy is NOT the solution. Calling it a union is not the same as calling it democracy.

If one thinks that the pension issues can be avoided come to San Francisco where one proposition has been defeated but others loom on the horizon. The bankruptcy of liberalism lies not in its intention but in its impact. The bankruptcy of conservatism is not in its impact but in its intentions. Regionally, we need to establish priorities together and come to consensus. We need to avoid the repeated scenarios of crisis-resolution-crisis and begin to plan regionally. So the warning to teachers: Don’t cook the goose that lays the golden egg. The warning to the State Legislature: Don’t leave home without it. We might not be here when you get back. To our children we say: Climb every mountain.

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