Education Reform and the Tea Party, Part Two

*You ought to read “Education Reform and the Tea Party, Part One” first.

Yes, we need better schools in a better education system. Yes, reform is needed. Yes, the unions need to give a little. Yes, tenure protects “bad” teachers. Yes, I am glad for this debate, because no action will be taken unless we give it our attention. Yes, I am a member of the National Education Association (the NEA, the largest teachers union) and yes, I have tenure right now. But . . . I am not a “bad” teacher and I need to tell some harsh truths to the people who want to finger-point at teachers.

It takes action, real action, to fix schools. Not a bunch of jawing, or finger-pointing, or political maneuvering to make it seem like we took action. If people want better schools, they are going to have to participate in person and cough up money, and they’re going to have to elect politicians with the guts to pass the legislation that improves the whole situation. If parents wants better for their kids, they are going to have to take part in the education process every single day just like teachers do and just like their kids do. If people want better schools, they are going to have pay more money in taxes for more teachers to get class sizes down and for more up-to-date technology inside the classrooms. Plain and simple, people who have kids in school and people who don’t are going to have to spend more TIME and MONEY to fix it.

This is why the Tea Party thing is problematic to me. Fiscal conservatism and right-wing ideas do not go hand-in-hand with the improvement of public works, like schools. Fiscal conservatives want to cut government spending, which will further diminish public schools. Right-wing ideas like “I’ll take care of myself and you take care of yourself” don’t lead to fixing public schools. Lower taxes will not allow the revenue to be available for school improvement. There is this ridiculous myth that “liberals” want to throw money at every problem, but here is a reality check.

First, teachers, who have college degrees and training and experience, want to be paid a reasonable salary for showing up every day and doing a job, just like people in every other profession. I’ll use this comparison: Have you ever stood in a long line at a place that had only one cash register open, and thought why don’t they open more registers? Education is the same way. All those kids who have questions, problems and needs have to wait in a long line when there are 25-40 kids in a classroom. Some kids just give up, like any of us do when that line never seems to move. When school systems hire more teachers and build more schools, and those class sizes come down to 15-20, the wait-time gets cut and more needs get met, and fewer kids walk away. This is the main problem experienced by teachers in classrooms: kids with more needs than there is time and resources to meet them. In some cases, even if the teacher stayed 24-hours-a-day, he or she couldn’t meet all the needs. With that said, I will now say: teachers cost money, and building schools to put them in costs money. This isn’t a “liberal” solution; it’s a common-sense solution – anybody with common sense will see that it’s true.

Second, teaching children with the technology that is used in the 21st century workplace also costs money. One good up-to-date desktop computer, with a keyboard and monitor, costs about $800. Put 15 computers in one classroom, that’s $12,000. That’s one classroom. So, do that in 30 classrooms in one school . . . that’s $360,000. That’s one school. The truth is that all of the following things are being done on computers now: research, word processing and presentations. We don’t use encyclopedias, typewriters and poster-boards anymore. We use computers. And they cost money. And that doesn’t even begin to discuss projectors, smart boards, ELMOs, iPods, laptops for check-out, software and updates, maintenance . . .

If these Tea Party folks affect the reforms they want – like lowered taxes and “less government” – education is going to suffer. Teacher jobs will be cut and schools will be closed when tax revenue is down. Class sizes will get larger with fewer teachers and fewer schools. Unemployment will be increased with teacher layoffs. When education in public schools gets worse, more people are going to home-school their kids, then the education provided by untrained parents will be even more insufficient than the education provided in overcrowded classrooms. Also, more people will go into debt trying to pay for private schools. Here is the fact: one way or another WE ARE GOING TO PAY. Why not do it reasonably and responsibly so that our money has greater effects?

If parents want their kids to have a good education, they need to recognize that nothing is free. Here’s the deal: all people – not just teachers and parents – but all people are going to have to give time and money to fix this situation.

As a teacher myself, I might accept having tenure taken away, if I made enough money to actually put money in savings, in case I lost my job. But as a high school teacher in Montgomery, Alabama, I make enough money to feed and shelter my family, pay the bills, put food on the table, and end up broke at the end of every month. I don’t have jack-squat in savings. As long as I am expected to live a far-from-extravagant life on what I’m being paid now – and I have a master’s degree – and still do the job that I do, I want job security, and that means tenure. My union provides that for me, and I pay my dues to give them the power to continue protecting me. I won’t ever get rich doing what I do now, but I know that my kids won’t go hungry, because the school system here has a contract saying that they have to maintain a job for me. And if any parent whose kids are in school begrudges me that . . . well, you can guess what I would have to say about that: You’re asking for lower taxes, and I’m asking to be able to continue taking care of my family, and as a teacher, to continue taking care of some members of your family, too.

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