For the last decade or so, it seems that there has been a war on teachers and public education. You can’t watch the news or open a newspaper without reading about how American students are failing to make the grade compared to students around the world, and how that is the fault of public schools and teachers. Now, it seems like the war has expanded to include anything public and anyone who works for local, state, or the federal government. Some people seem to have decided that those who have dedicated their lives to public service are somehow living an easy life thanks to those who work in the private sector, for business. Maybe the two are related. Maybe our schools have failed to educate the public about the importance of government services and the necessary and valuable contributions made by public servants, including teachers, policemen, lawyers and others who work in courts and prison systems, road departments, highway and airline safety, health and human service agencies, public lands, diplomatic corps, and so on.
We teachers have failed to teach the American public how to delve deeply into subjects, how to explore both sides of issues, how to analyze data, how to draw reasoned conclusions. For example, I heard a politician yesterday say that “salaries in the public sector are higher on average than in the private sector,” to make his argument that public servants should take pay and benefit cuts. A recent analysis of census data by Queens College demographers prepared for the New York Times shows that while that statement is true, the educational level of the average state employee is higher than that of the average employee in the private sector. When you compare state employee wages to private sector employees with similar educational levels, in almost all states, the public employees’ wages are lower.
We all know factories have shut down and whole industries have moved overseas. The average salary for non-college educated Americans is either stagnant or decreasing, and their benefits are shrinking. Some argue that public employees should suffer equally. How will we attract and retain great teachers with reduced pay and benefits? A third of teachers don’t stay in the profession after three years as it is.
I’ve been teaching for a couple decades, and the teachers I meet are dedicated. They didn’t go into education primarily for the money or benefits, but with hopes to better the lives of their students. I suspect most state and federal employees have gone into public service because of their idealistic nature as well. And I’ll bet they’ve felt the same sense of sympathy I have in recent years as we’ve seen people in private industry stripped of their promised pensions or laid off and unable to find a job that pays as well.
Republicans say they are against deficit spending. However, when they had the reins of power, they cut taxes in ways that mostly benefited the rich and ran up huge deficits. The current deficits we are now experiencing can be almost wholly attributed to the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession, which has lessened tax revenues. Because of deregulation of the financial industry, we are in the midst of the deepest, widest recession since the Great Depression. It would have been a depression had the Bush and Obama administrations not convinced Congress to pass legislation that saved the banks, the American auto industry, and kept people working and state governments afloat with stimulus spending. In Wisconsin and New Jersey, Republican governors give tax breaks to business and then scream that the deficits they’ve created need to come out of public employees.
The Republican majority elected in 2010 was put in place by an electorate impatient with the pace of the recovery and desperate for jobs. While still a minority, Republicans held out for extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich, threatening to filibuster all legislation unless the Democrats agreed to the deficit-increasing measure. Since taking office and promising to concentrate on jobs, the Republicans in the house have not passed job measure one. Instead, they and Republican governors have been mounting attacks on programs for women and the poor, labor, and the middle class. They attack collective bargaining, threaten to shut down the government if their budget cuts are not passed.
There was a time when Republicans declared war on “welfare queens”, claiming that huge numbers of Americans were gaming the system to live a life of ease. Under Clinton, programs went into effect to help women with children find work, and offered them only temporary assistance. How does that work when unemployment rates hover near 10%? A few billion dollars are saved, though more Americans live in poverty and there is increasing income disparity. Now Republicans are coming after public employees. When they passed No Child Left Behind, they said by setting the bar high, achievement gaps would close, otherwise they would declare schools failing and fire the staff or send the children to other schools. What will they do when public employees don’t meet their unrealistic expectations?
This essay was publised as an op-ed by the Charleston Gazette (WV) on Monday, March 6, 2011 http://wvgazette.com/Opinion/OpEdCommentaries/201103060431