How did our public school teachers, of all people, become the enemy?
To hear some tell it, the teaching profession has become a hotbed of unaccountable privilege and unpunished gross malfeasance. That’s an extreme turnabout from a time in most of our own younger lives when teachers were recognized as skilled, respected partners in child development.
What has changed in the interim that has some — including our governor — fanning such strong hyperbolic rhetoric and pointing an accusatory finger?
Is it just another outgrowth of the unfortunate times we live in that seem to require that everything get assigned an unwelcome role in that sick ideological maelstrom we call “the culture wars”?
Is the vitriol inspired by a coordinate agenda to weaken a strong union that guarantees teaching professionals more of a voice in how American education works than some in the pundit, political and business sectors want them to have?
Either way, it seems far from a healthy conversation.
For decades, conservatives have patiently and persistently “marketed” to everyday Americans the notion that unions are a source of — rather than a solution to — their problems, largely persuading them to abandon organizing themselves in the workplace. So, how has this worked out? I think an honest observer would assess the outcomes for many as at least somewhat unfavorable.
Can it be that those taking this tack think that the public is so gullible as to fall for that same tired and discredited argument again? And what of this idea that too many of the teachers the union represents are poor-performing and underqualified, leeching the system to the detriment of our children?
Lost in all the frenzied emotive rhetoric is the crucial fact that while there is always room for improvement, the vast majority of public school systems in this state and nation generally yield levels of student performance that are acceptable or better. It’s mostly the smaller rural districts and those in the blighted neighborhoods of our cities that are struggling. Why?
SOURCE OF FUNDS
Public schools are funded through a combination of local property taxes, state aid and targeted federal programs. But for better or worse, the principal source is the property tax. It’s worse for districts in poor areas with stunted property values, as this places them at a distinct disadvantage.
Experts consistently cite funding inequities across districts as the key factor that, if addressed, would have the greatest positive impact on improving educational outcomes.
Then why is so much negative attention being aimed at teachers and none being focused on the illegal refusal of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to comply with a standing Court of Appeals decision ordering them to effectively equalize education spending across all school districts in the state?
The governor argues that there’s plenty of money already allocated for education and, in the abstract, that’s true. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Districts in less-wealthy areas are congenitally shortchanged by state budget formulas that protect far wealthier suburban districts from having to raise their property taxes to support the more ambitious programs they want.
Meanwhile, poorer districts — which also have to deal with greater social challenges that impede learning — struggle just to try to provide a sound basic educational experience.
Cuomo also criticizes current evaluation systems because 95 percent of teachers achieve at least a rating of “effective” — which he calls preposterous — and claims a need for stricter accountability “for the benefit of the children.”
Is 95 percent really unrealistic?
Cuomo is a lawyer. Of the approximately 1.18 million of them in the country, an average of around 800 are disbarred annually. That means 99.93 percent, for all practical purposes, are rated “effective.”
Going unmentioned is the plausible likelihood that the low turnover could be an indication that initial screening effectively weeds out most of the underqualified or under-committed, as it should.
While pointing to teacher unions as the primary obstacle to ensuring “necessary” increased accountability, the governor accuses them of cynically using children as pawns.
But an ad prepared by Cuomo and his charter school supporters currently running on television actually has elementary school children vocalizing his words in anti-public school speeches the governor has made. It’s unlikely they understand the adult concepts they are conveying.
Scapegoating is an old political trick that, unfortunately, all too often works. It should not be allowed to work here.
Public education is too important, too vital to the health and vitality of representative government, for us to accept without question the canard that our public education system and its teachers are failures in need of radical overhaul.
The truly needed solutions to our real problems are plainly in view and have been for a long time. But that subject will require a subsequent essay.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.