Dear Governor-Elect,

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Congratulations to newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner.  Like most teachers and retired teachers (my category), I didn’t vote for him, and his ascendency to power makes me very nervous.  But unlike many in the education field, I don’t see his election as a dark, sad, horrible day.

It’s always reassuring to me when a vicious, nasty election ends with a relatively smooth transition of power.  Granted, Quinn was reluctant to concede at first and that transition has barely begun (I began writing this the day after the election); but I’m certain we won’t have a bloodbath, revolution, or coup d’état because Rauner won.  This is America, after all, and even though our political system seems totally dysfunctional much of the time, electoral winners don’t imprison or torture the losers (or those who supported the losers).  That’s actually a really good thing for somebody who fancies himself a progressive and lives in DuPage County—I didn’t vote for many winners yesterday (Thank God for Durbin, at least).

That dysfunction also seems less terrible now that someone with whom I disagree on many things will be taking over.  Like most Obama supporters, I have railed about the obstructionist Republicans who have opposed anything President Obama has proposed, but with Rauner in charge, not getting things done sounds pretty good to me.  On education issues, Rauner claims to love teachers and has pledged to spend more on schools.  I’m with him on that.  The details on how he would do that haven’t been clearly spelled out, however, and he’s also supportive of many things I believe will hurt education—merit pay, school choice, charter schools, and weakening/removing tenure, to name a few.

On tangential education/teacher issues, I’m additionally worried about teachers’ pensions and collective bargaining rights.  Rauner definitely seems like a soul brother to Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker (Walker won re-election by about 6%, compared to Rauner’s 5%), so I have visions of teachers sleeping in Springfield’s capitol building, à la Wisconsin’s crisis a couple of years ago.  But, Illinois has two not-so-secret weapons that Wisconsin couldn’t match—Mike Madigan and John Cullerton (Democratic leaders of the House and Senate)—with whom Rauner will have to deal on any proposals he wishes to enact.  Democrats dominate the House and the Senate, not to mention having three-fifths “super” majorities in both houses which could be used to override the governor’s vetoes.   In short, Illinois is exactly the opposite of the US where the chief executive is a Democrat and the Republicans now have majorities in both houses.  So, Illinois’s overall situation should help my blood pressure stay relatively calm.

It’s also reassuring that on ballot initiatives—minimum wage, insurance-covered contraception, tax increases for millionaires, and voting rights—Illinois voters approved them, (as did I).  It’s interesting that Rauner is probably against all four of these, yet still got elected.  It’s almost as if we in Illinois suffer from cognitive dissonance or aren’t too concerned about a government that accomplishes much.

But things still need to get done for our schools, regardless of who’s in power, and that’s where we all should seek common ground.  Who’s in charge shouldn’t matter when it comes to something as essential and basic as education.  At some point, we all need to recognize that the important work of preparing our kids to meet their future can’t be a political game any longer.  Yeah, in this day and age, that sounds hopelessly idealistic and naïve.  But every child in America should have an equal opportunity to learn.  That we’re still a long way from that ideal simply means we all need to work harder to find solutions to make it happen.

So here’s my wish list for you, Governor Rauner, as you take on that daunting task.

  1. Teachers need to be the dominant voices in any policies you create. Everyone should be participating in creating, modifying, and discussing the standards to which our students need to be held as well as the fundamental philosophies upon which our schools are based.  But teachers always need to be the leaders in those efforts.  Regardless of your opinions on teacher tenure, tax rates, or pensions; those in the classroom are the only ones who can make anything happen.  And while we should never forget that students are the most important people in those classrooms, we can’t overlook the adults running the show who are the keys to making any policies a reality.

Okay, so you garner enough power to get all those supposedly lousy teachers fired and you wipe away tenure in the process—now what?  After you’ve initiated your educational version of the Spanish Inquisition (which as we all know, nobody expects), who’s going to show up the next day to make sure that Jane and Johnny do their math problems the way you think they should?  Many view teachers as simply educational technicians who should do as they are told by “smarter” policy crafters; but no matter how visionary you leaders are, you still have to have somebody in that room every day organizing, grading, planning, and motivating.  Each day a million unforeseen actions and reactions will take place which only a teacher can interpret and respond to.  That pile of papers (or on-line Google docs) still has to be evaluated to determine what Johnny and Jane really know, so adjustments can be made to help them figure out what they don’t yet understand.  And then, we need somebody to make sure Jane doesn’t distract Johnny with inappropriate behavior, to create adaptations to accommodate Hugo’s special needs, to communicate to her parents that Gertrude has now missed three homework assignments in a row, to learn the latest technological innovation that everyone believes is so amazing, to change Bart’s seat because he’s unable to focus in his current location, to remember to pass out the forms for ordering class pictures which will interrupt class tomorrow, to be sure not to call Tommy “Jack” even though he  looks just like his brother from two years ago, to turn in worksheets to be run off at least a week in advance since the copier often breaks down or is overly crowded during assigned preparation time, to get a laptop fixed since it keeps giving the blue screen of death in the middle of class, to fill out several psychological forms for the social worker, to determine if there’s anything going on with Bertha and her repeated requests to leave class, to see if Boris’s grades can be manipulated just a tad so he can eke out a C since he’s been working really hard this quarter, to prepare handouts/grade sheets for every parent who comes in during parent conferences, and to figure out how to eat lunch and grade at the same time without getting mustard all over the papers since the quarter ends tomorrow.  (I could go on and on [and on], but I’m hoping you’ve gotten the idea by now.)

Whatever “initiatives” rain down from above, teachers will have to make them work.  And if they don’t like/agree with them?  Yep, they will silently undermine them every time, so making sure their voices are heard and they are enthusiastic about whatever changes occur is the ONLY way you will have the slightest chance of improving schools.  Teachers have to be the driving force in any reforms, and if you don’t get that, you will absolutely, positively have no significant impact on Illinois school children.

  1. (And there are only two items on my list—can you believe it?) You need to jettison all your ideas of what an educational utopia should be in favor of including everybody—again, this includes teachers at the head of the table—to help you to create a utopia tailored to the needs of each and every school.  Whatever revelation you have—no matter how wonderful or brilliant it is—has absolutely no hope of working for every situation…none.  The idealism and certainty we all expect our politicians to spew as they are running for office really has no place in the day-to-day reality of our vast school system.  Advocating for things you believe to be best should always be your task, but those ideas cannot lead to close-mindedness or inflexibility, not when you’re now the leader for 3,794 schools in 863 school districts throughout the state.  Being adamant about your personal vision might have led to your victory, but that’s no way to run all those completely different schools.

And nobody’s leaving your enemies out of this requirement (you see how quickly a polite request can mutate into a strident demand).  When your opponent supported a bill altering how teacher pensions work, all teachers were upset.  But many screamed from the ramparts that Quinn was a Judas, a tool of the worst kind, who must be shunned so he could be run out of office as soon as possible.

Then you became the Republican candidate, and most of them immediately changed their tune.  Overnight, Quinn was a reasonable man who was (mostly) a good guy to teachers.  But that flip-flopping was too much for many, and Quinn never generated any enthusiasm among most of those who voted for him.  So I’m guessing that many stayed home on Election Day, and the statistics show that Cook County (bastion of Democrats) had a pretty low turnout.  Most blame Quinn totally for that, but at least some responsibility could and should be laid at the feet of his single-issue, fair-weather fans who were stridently negative and loudly proclaiming they would NEVER vote for him again after he signed pension reform legislation (currently still tied up in the courts).

Some even intentionally sat out the election, knowing the issues and recognizing that most of your (Rauner’s) positions were not good for teachers.  I read one blog recently where a retired teacher proudly states how he didn’t vote for anybody, since Quinn had tried to “destroy my pension” (typical of the hyperbolic reaction to the changes).  He goes on to explain how he was very aware that you would probably be much worse for education and teachers, but since Quinn had made him mad, well, he was just too principled to vote for that man.  This kind of near-sighted close-mindedness has no place in the give-and-take environment we need for education.

Yes, you (Rauner) have lots of ideas, and yes, those who opposed you said some pretty mean things about you during the election.  But we need you (and those who feel just as strongly as you do in a different direction) to act like grownups and begin discussions on your disagreements so that we can reach some reasonable compromises that work for everyone.  You won’t get everything you want, which might be a hard lesson for a man as wealthy as you are—hey, you just bought four years in the governor’s mansion, bringing your total residences into the double digits by my count—but if you can’t accept that reality, quit now; pull a Palin and bail as fast as you can because there’s no way “100% your way” is going to happen.  If you can recognize that fact and learn to interact and negotiate with those with whom you disagree, you could be a great governor.  (Although, for many Illinoisans, a great governor is simply one who manages to stay out of jail.  I still ruefully remember the Daily Show bit about how a person in Illinois was more likely to go to prison if he were governor than if he had murdered someone.)

So that’s it, Governor:  Fight for procedures where teachers lead the way to solutions that work for their unique schools, and learn how to work with people with whom you disagree to forge compromises.  I know everyone is assuming just the opposite, especially those of us who are or were in education; but just like in education, the goal in government should be to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to achieve.  I really hope that you make fools out of all of us who are expecting the worst.  Go show them how it’s done, Bruce.

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