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Stopping the war on public education

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

I believe that it is time that we take a serious look at former governor Jeb Bush's biased view toward education reform.  Contrary to the national and state media portrayal of a benevolent benefactor who merely wants to improve our schools, I believe that Mr. Bush has more 'devious' motives when he takes every opportunity to bash teachers unions.

Firstly, we should never forget that teachers unions helped to keep Mr. Bush from joining the wave of Republicans who swept into power in 1994.  Organizations like the Florida Education Association worked tirelessly to reelect Governor Lawton Chiles, a man who helped to implement the statewide assessment known as FCAT.  Originally designed to diagnose student learning and needs, the test was eventually perverted by Mr. Bush into the monstrosity that even today's state leaders are scrambling to repair.
Furthermore, Mr. Bush neglects to mention that he has a direct role in the corporate education machine that stands to profit from turning our schools into testing factories.  When he claims that he wants to move public education away from the 'industrial model,' it would be reasonable to ask what he seeks to implement in its place.

Yes, labor unions are an integral part of Florida's education system.  It was the teacher's union that took a brave stance in 1968 to demand that a fast-growing state invest properly in the schools that serve all young Floridians.  Before the ground-breaking strike, no state had ever experienced a teacher walk out on the scale that the Sunshine State faced under Governor Claude Kirk.  It was necessary, not because of featherbedding and goldbricking bureaucrats and 'educrats'.  The system was broken as administrators and teachers had to reach deep into their pockets to supply even the most basic of necessities for their students.  I doubt that any of us want to return to the day when closets were converted into classrooms and teachers were forced to purchase toilet paper.

The labor movement rose to this challenge and fought to include in the state constitution the right of public employees to transform the system from collective begging into collective bargaining.  When management and employees had a more level playing field, our public schools benefited because collaboration and cooperation replaced antagonism and antipathy.

Would there be no unions in our state's history, I shudder to think of teachers who spent their lunches babysitting their students, had no time to plan during the day, scrambled for simple necessities as bathroom breaks and often faced termination for committing the sin of having children of their own.  The work of our unions helped to create a better atmosphere in which teachers could spend more time teaching and less time worrying about the most basic of working conditions that other professions enjoy.

We like to compare our schools to those elsewhere, as the former education commissioner Gerard Robinson pointed out at a recent town hall meeting in Jacksonville.  He was prepared to tout Vermont's example of having better schools than our own.  I pointed out, however, that Vermont is a union state where per-pupil spending dwarfs our own.  Vermont also is a state where the state leaders to not opt to bully their educators into submission.  No, Vermont is not 'throwing money at the problem,' they are investing to avoid the mess that we are in today.

For all of the ills of the education system, we should avoid pointing fingers at the rank and file who truly do care about our students on a daily basis.  If the Supreme Court says that corporations are people, would we not extend this to the unions that simply ask that we enjoy decent working and teaching conditions?  After all, Mr. Bush succeeds by demonizing teachers unions to score political points with his base.  What he fails to understand is that the membership of our teachers unions consists of men and women who do not deserve to be relegated into yet another service industry that can be manipulated by a man with an agenda toward harming the very public schools that he claims to be saving.

No, Mr. Bush, we do not need to destroy the village in order to save it.  We do, however, need leaders who would heed the call of former president George H.W. Bush to have a 'kinder and gentler' approach toward creating schools that work for all.

A more cooperative approach should always include listening to the stakeholders who are affected by the changes that our government proposes.  After all, we would not implement health care reform without hearing from the medical profession, we would not draft environmental regulation without listening to industry and we would not lock out neighborhoods when designing public works projects.  Mr. Bush, however, has no problem with ignoring the teachers when he adopts an attitude that education reform is something that has to be done to teachers instead of with them.

I read in the news recently that school choice is reaching a turning point in states like Michigan, where even the charter school movement is seeing diminishing returns in their zeal to force 'choice' onto their communities.  The newer charter schools are beginning to plunder the existing charter schools merely because, like shopping centers, the novelty of the new is attracting from the existing schools regardless of their performance or results.  The creation of an unstable educational system may benefit those who have a direct interest in the privatization of our institutions of learning, but we end up leaving many children behind and creating a caste system where every family is on their own.  This, I believe, is part of a systemic effort to divide an conquer our education community.  Parent trigger laws, for example, do little to address the social ills that we all have a part in fighting and I believe that conservatives' education reform work ignores the underlying problems for the sake of scapegoating the men and women who are indeed in the trenches trying to deal with factors such as poverty, abuse and neglect.  Teachers and their unions get little credit for working with the children who walk into their schools.

Having attended public schools from Kindergarten through graduation, I belonged to a cohesive community that believed in me.  I am where I am because of the support of my teachers, counselors and administrators.  I know that many others benefited from an education that Mr. Bush seeks to malign on a daily basis and it is time that we recognize that our schools need more help and less politics.

John Louis Meeks, Jr. is a member of the Florida Education Association.  A former teacher of the year in Atlantic Beach, he has been teaching social studies since 2002.

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