Understanding the problem but managing to disassociate ourselves from even thinking about it, much less taking action to correct the situation, I believe factory farming is something future generations will accept as inhumane and wonder at our casual cruelty in tolerating it for so long. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that more than 99% of all animals used in food production each year in the U.S. are raised on factory farms under problematic conditions such as “cages and overcrowding; physical alterations (e.g.,teeth-clipping or tail-docking) performed without anesthetic; indoor confinement with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns; inability to engage in natural behaviors; breeding for fast growth or high yields of meat, milk and eggs that compromises animal welfare; neglect of sick and suffering animals, often due to high ratio of animals to workers; misuse of antibiotics to compensate for unsanitary conditions; and/or rough or abusive handling by workers.” Many cringed at the 2014 story about how then New Jersey governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie vetoed legislation which would have required pigs being raised for slaughter to be enclosed in crates at least big enough for them to turn around. Despite few if any pig farms in New Jersey, Christie rejected the bill in order not to offend potential Iowa caucus Republican primary voters. It hardly seems too much to ask that a living creature be given enough room to turn around before its unnatural (not to mention brief) life is abruptly ended so that I can have sausage with my scrambled eggs.
It’s not my intent to go off on an anti-factory farm rant or to encourage you to join the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the extreme (some would argue) animal rights group, although factory farms are pretty terrible and you could probably do much worse with your charitable time or money than PETA. No, what strikes me as I think about this, after my cheap chicken dinner purchased already roasted from Costco, is our how paradoxical our species is in understanding what’s wrong with our behavior at the same time we take forever to change it, especially if it is inconvenient or different from what we’re used to.
There are those who claim critics don’t fully understand what factory farms are becoming and even places where the most humanely raised products can be found (although the aforementioned PETA would argue that no meat is produced humanely, and they would have lots of graphic company), but the truth is most of us won’t do much about factory farming, despite our revulsion at some of the conditions under which our food is created. One day, when the vast majority of Earth’s residents have done away with the consumption of any meat except wild animals which have died of natural causes—“Fire up the grill, Maw! I just saw a sickly-looking possum!”—we indifferent carnivores who acted as if hamburger were born in Jewel will justifiably be viewed as primitive and ignorant (at best, with more creative pejoratives regularly used in anonymous on-line comment sections). But what happens when we discover that plants have a rich, ancient culture and have seen our farms as concentration camps where their children are poisoned and butchered, their bodies hacked up and used for human structures, their remains ground into flour, their unborn fetuses boiled in water or baked in ovens for human consumption? Don’t get too smug, vegans!
Changing our ethical behavior requires an evolution of morality which seems to be just as important and vital to our humanity as that which helped us to develop our bodies and brains to the point where we dominate the planet so completely we seem destined to destroy it. Perhaps moral evolution is the only hope we have in preventing that destruction.
Any examination of the human age can’t help but find atrocity after genocide after brutality, ad nauseum—we are responsible for vast numbers of them: From ritualistic human sacrifice by the Incans to European/American buying, selling, and using Africans as farm machinery to Nazi experiments on and extermination of Jews to tribal slaughter in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in old Yugoslavia to the Syrian military killing thousands of its own citizens (occasionally resorting to chemically induced murder)—oh, and don’t forget about the religious persecution of Myanmar. And that historical listing just scratches the surface of the dozens other newsworthy things we are confronted with every day, many of which present us with other moral questions: How do we guarantee children’s safety in schools if we do nothing about the prevalence of guns in the hands of anybody who wants one? How do we ferret out and punish males who use their dominant, powerful positions to subject woman to intimidation, sexual predation, and violence? How do we deal with equality of rights, particularly as they are applied to sexual orientation and gender identity which conflict with religious leaders who condemn these people and won’t bake them cakes? (And by the way, how do we still grant so much power to organizations which advocate discrimination against innocent people?) What can we do about minority rights again, but this time in reference to blacks and the predilection of white Americans to feel threatened by anyone who happens to be black, leading to dire consequences, especially when the police are involved? How do we allow the situation where any human’s ability to access medical care is contingent on whether or not that person has the money/insurance for it? That’s a sampling of the issues which tempt us to ignore our responsibility to do that which is right in the name of convenience or personal biases; we could add dozens more.
For example, something which is closer to the aforementioned animal cruelty issue in that it affects everyone is the environment. There is much each and every single person could take every day to make sure we are not wasting limited resources and are creating as little pollution as possible, but billions of us are still fooling ourselves that our small acts make no difference in the grand scale of things. Regardless of our rationalizations, there’s plenty to do: Ban single use plastics (or at least ban them from our own homes), always bring canvas bags when shopping, and limit both car trips and our Amazon orders for all the fuel consumed and garbage those entail. We could buy organic produce, use push/reel lawnmowers (ones without gas-powered motors), stop using fertilizers and pesticides on our gardens or lawns, and create compost heaps to recycle all our food waste (which we should striving to limit) back into the ground. And coming full circle on our opening point, we could cut animal food products out of our diets to conserve water and other natural resources, not to mention reducing pollution, as well as eliminating the problems of factory farming and the animal cruelty which ensues.
The path to progress often seems impossible, or at least absurdly slow, especially given the obvious benefits improving our behavior would lead to. Yet, despite our selfish reluctance and stupidity, we keep taking small steps which do advance the cause. We begin in ignorance and unintended harm—who the hell would have figured that a chemical in aerosol cans (deodorant, hairspray and the like) would lead to the destruction of the ozone layer? (And yeah, most of us have to be schooled on what the ozone layer is, much less on why its existence matters.) But we then move to rationalized evil for a time after we’ve learned of the damage we’re inflicting but don’t want the hassle of changing our behavior, thus denying anything’s wrong—and wind up with a hole in the ozone. Once we can’t pretend we’re not engaging in negative actions, however, is when things get interesting, in both horrible and ennobling ways. There are always a few outliers who understand what’s happening more clearly and quickly than others who sound the alarm. Ridicule and ruin often follow for these poor visionaries: The things they have proved to be harmful seem indispensable to our way of life, so we attack them: “Hair spray, gas-powered cars, hot dogs, and smart phones cannot be lived without—we need them! You must have it completely wrong—how dare you claim my precious convenience is hurting anything!” (Now, of course, we’ve evolved our denials even more effectively in the way we use political affiliation, religion, race, and even gender to discredit anyone calling attention to a moral wrong in our society. How much will this new “skill” delay necessary progress is anybody’s guess—the children being separated from their parents hope we can sort this out quickly. Enhanced moral evolution would help, especially when you consider how technologies and cleverness have increased the pace at which human actions impact our lives, which only exacerbates the need for our figuring out the right path fast.)
Eventually—but often not before those pioneers who tried to warn us have been attacked, black-balled, ignored, persecuted, bankrupted, and/or died—we do achieve forward movement, albeit in incremental, halting stages, with regular, significant backslides, until we reach a higher moral ground and clean up our acts. Despite how impossible it seemed thirty years ago, we’ve now had a black President. Nobody thought it could happen fifteen years ago, but gay marriage is currently the law of the land. Women being believed and powerful men being held to account for their crimes and indiscretions didn’t seem likely five years ago, but seemingly invincible males are now losing jobs, social standing, and even going to jail. Those minuscule advances do lead to eventual progression, taking us out of the darkness into the light—well, at least into a patch that is a little less murky. That we can’t recognize how much development actually occurs or what the key turning points are as we agonizingly inch forward is due to the depressing regressions we’re prone to; but if we can force ourselves to look backwards far enough on some issues, we can recognize that we’ve come a long way, that movement forward is a remarkably consistent human trait. Our history is littered with countless horrific mistakes as we’ve already referenced, but out of those low points, we seem able to recognize the evil we have perpetuated in order to make improvements.
It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, and it is damnably difficult to recognize that good is inexorably winning out; but take a look at any recent dark period in human history and you will see that we are doing better now, at least in relation to the specific circumstances of that particular conflagration. Treatment of and rights for minorities and women have improved in most places; pollution has decreased somewhat (or the harm we are doing has slowed down a tad); and the general quality of life has gotten better for hundreds of millions. Sadly, there is an eternal parade of evil things happening, and human corruption will apparently always be a significant part of the equation. Recognizing progress can never come at the expense of uncovering our rottenness, but the positive deserves our attention too.
Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself out a general sense of doom based on the awful, awful regression the United States has taken since the 2016 Presidential election and the subsequent significant back-tracking Trump has instituted in racial issues, environmental protection, corruption, women’s rights, civility, empathy, rule of law, immigration, income distribution, health care, civil rights, democracy, international alliances, and just about any progress we’ve experienced in the past fifty years. No matter what your political leanings, there can be no denying that any movement characterized by the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is based on trying to revert to the way things were in the past, the antithesis of America’s (admittedly, not completely linear) movements over the course of its history. You think differently? Then contemplate the America of one hundred years ago: Women were still fighting to gain the vote, to say nothing of being allowed to compete with men in the workforce. Blacks were regularly being lynched in parts of the country and were severely restricted in voter participation, employment opportunities, and housing options. Child labor laws were so permissive that 18% of American workers were under 16 years old. Still nostalgic? Then would you advocate refashioning present-day U.S. into what it was two hundred years ago in 1818? If you’re hankering for a time when half the country permitted slavery, then I’d recommend you stop reading this blog immediately and never click on my essays again! (I know—no big loss…) Through the prism of historical fact, we can see without a doubt that the wild liberals of their day—those advocating women’s rights, protection of minorities from oppression, reformation of labor laws (not to mention unionization), and abolitionists (one of the more radical groups you’ll find in America’s young life)—were 100% right in pushing this country towards what seemed like extreme positions at the time.
November will be a fascinating evaluation of Trump’s attempts to move the country in his direction (translated: backward many decades); but regardless of the outcome of this grotesque blip on humanity’s moral evolution, history suggests we will finally come to our senses, bit by bit, as we stumble our way to a brighter tomorrow. It will be embarrassing to confess to our grandchildren that we were a party to this idiotic, repressive phase in our development, but just like those humiliating pictures from our early teenage years, we can at least be confident that it will get better. We just don’t know how or when we’ll conquer this particular awkward stage, but if we keep slowly but surely acknowledging and fighting for that which is good, that which is just, and that which is right; even a country that was foolish enough to elect Trump will one day move forward again. We can do better and we will. It’s just that I—like billions and billions of factory farm animals every year—wish it wouldn’t take so long. Who’s hungry?
Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country. As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra: If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad. We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head. While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent: Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now. And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.
Naturally, it’s no different with education. The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct: We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know. No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all. And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil. But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars. Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish. In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.
Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind. And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools? Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever. This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different. That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony). Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.
There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy. But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here: The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.
Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate. And let’s all hope that is true. But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents. Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years. Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.
I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help. What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives? It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions. For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it. The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t). His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.” Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.” Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare. The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts. Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.
That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces. But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor. You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based. That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling. From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.
Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly. Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.
Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party. As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today. Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here). That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over. Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way. Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.
Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness. We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices. That applies to all parties: While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer. We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.
Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools). The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment. The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County. This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.
My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices: I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career. So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s. There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central). That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools. Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South? To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.
I’ve written about this issue several times. You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights. I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.
And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever: For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there. From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central. And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well. But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card. With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.
The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility. That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South. That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.
So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more. The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs). Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers. Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft. Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.
But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South. And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives. Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country. Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.
That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction. But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things. A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people. And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue. For the No Transfer people: How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes? For the “Fill South First” advocates: Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?
I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course. I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South. I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience. But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South. No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.
And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board. Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86. And there is some positive news to report in that direction. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light. You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.
I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is. I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change. And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district. Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community. This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.
As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do. Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.
What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort. She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools. She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform. So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience. Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses. If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…
So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences? When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices. Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it. What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education. And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one. If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you. You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good. If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding. You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open. Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits. Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?). These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns. The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.
Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids. Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents. But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children. (Not very, this parent would argue.) There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number. Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses? Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs. Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.
It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent. Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education. Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree. Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education. Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible. The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely. Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools. At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.
I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington. And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them. We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better. Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.
Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did. Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth. But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address. Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.
But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately. Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.) What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are. My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations. And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way. Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill. And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.
We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education. The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next. If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage. I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations. Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread. But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now. Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.
If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire. Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.
Okay, the next President will be Donald Trump. No, I haven’t come any closer to liking that fact than when I wrote about why it happened or his approach to the Presidency in my last two essays. It is some solace, although more tragic and ironic than satisfying and useful, to know that more Americans actually voted for Hillary, the fifth time in our history the popular vote winner has lost the Presidency. But no matter what mental machinations we try to fool ourselves with, come January 20, the 45th President of the United States will be Trump. So what’s somebody who opposes almost all of what Trump stands for, has proposed, and will endeavor to enact supposed to do?
First and foremost, I would suggest that we anti-Trumpers stop with the meaningless rhetoric. The two extremes are, “We all need to come together and give him a chance/fresh start,” contrasted with, “He’s not my President!” I can understand the thought processes behind both these pronouncements, but they do nothing but illustrate how little we care about how our representative democracy works in the first case or show the same petulant whining we so often chastised Donald for during the campaign, not to mention those who weren’t happy with President Obama for the past eight years, in the second. Our electoral process has determined that Trump will be President; “giving him a chance” is simply a rationalization for withdrawing from the fray: “Hey, I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt for now.” Sorry to tell you, but you don’t have the power or influence to determine whether or not the President, duly elected by our system, gets to take over. It’s nice of you to grant Trump your official permission, but whether or not you do makes absolutely no difference—sadly, he gets a chance no matter what. And no, it’s not okay for you to sit by while he dismantles any progress we’ve made in the country over the past fifty years because it was easier to wash your hands of the whole thing rather than get involved to oppose the bad things he will push for.
Nor does acting like a child help the situation. “He’s not my President” is another mind game designed to separate people from any issues that arise during Trump’s reign. Yeah, it’s embarrassing as hell to have this guy as President, but denying Trump as “yours” (even if limited to an internal denial) does nothing to change what’s happening. Just because I’m a die-hard White Sox fan and do not care for the Cubs won’t make my “The Cubs are not my World Series champions” statement any less ridiculous. Not only does it achieve nothing except the same satisfaction toddlers get from pitching a fit, but it hardens those who voted for him, making it more difficult to get them to abandon Donald quickly once they see how he will operate. Deal with reality, please, not knee-jerk negativity. Unless you can state, “Donald Trump is President of the United States,” you won’t be able to move to the next phase of dealing with him. By all means, drop the possessive, personal, obsessive “my” from your description of ANY national figure. If you like the person in question, the most reasonable and positive term would be “our” (as in “Our Obama”). And if you don’t, “the” will do just fine. But accept it—he won, and denying that or insisting that you are somehow divorced from that reality only serves as a rallying point for his supporters who will have a point in claiming you sound like a crybaby. If all our accolades to Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, we go high,” had any sincerity at all, we should avoid any reliance on the “But they did it too!” plaint as justification for mocking everything he does. Donald Trump will be the next Commander in Chief. (Yes, I was testing you by using the most grandiose term for President possible because we all know Donald eats up that kind of stuff, and you have to maintain your cool despite the awfulness of having a President who will probably be mostly in love with the pomp and circumstance which will surround him, while the snakes he brings on board have a field day repealing anything demonstrating fundamental fairness and/or humanity at the same time they’re striving to add to the riches those already ridiculously wealthy, all in the name of the only “true” faith, Christianity. Yeah, this is going to be a long four years.)
But that in no way implies that we should passively accept this future for America. Actually, the chief problem with both of the above utterances is that they play right into the hands of those who are happy to work with Trump and plan to take as much advantage of his term as possible. We can, should, and must oppose any and all parts of his initiatives that allow intolerance, reduce fundamental rights, increase world tension, and perpetuate unfair distribution of wealth. The “give him a chance” folks need to be reminded that this is the man who in announcing his candidacy characterized Mexicans as rapists, and then went on to encourage people to shoot Hillary Clinton, bragged about sexually assaulting women, retweeted Klan propaganda, and proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country. His “make America great again” agenda includes building a ridiculous wall, repealing gay rights, outlawing abortions, restricting minority voter access, and enriching his billionaire class. I was through giving him chances after the attack on Mexicans, personally, but even if you hung around longer than that, he’s had plenty of opportunities to veer away from hatred, sexism, and greed. He’s not going to, and even if by some miracle he some day will, it would be extremely dumb to assume he’s changed until he’s proved it for a long, long time, at the very least.
Many of his supporters will realize soon enough that they voted against their own interests with Trump, but that isn’t any reason for the rest of us to gloat, regardless of the level of gloating they are engaging in right now. It will be tough enough for them to accept what we’ve always known: We’re all screwed with this guy as President. We need to welcome, galvanize, and organize anyone who understands the dangers of this man and the deplorables he is bringing into our government, no matter how late they come to that understanding. Yes, Hillary was wrong to characterize half his supporters with that word, but we can never accept the bigotry, racism, and religious intolerance that many of his appointees and advisors have historically espoused. Bannon and his ilk must be faced down each and every time they try to attack women, Muslims, blacks, gays, Jews, and the press. Liberals’ nice speeches and essays (like this one, I’ll be the first to admit) might make us feel better and allow us our smug superiority, but holding a protest or two and snorting indignantly won’t mean a damn thing unless we follow that up with action, because the stakes are pretty high.
Voter repression, wasteful spending on ill-conceived projects, tax-breaks for the 1%, repeals of reproductive and minority rights, and huge increases in military spending are just a few of the significant areas that Trump has proposed. And that’s where the real work begins—without voter interest and participation, the Republican President, Congress, and (very soon) Supreme Court majorities will work together to enact substantial changes to much of the progress which has been so painstakingly achieved in our lifetimes. It is small comfort right now that history has always arced toward progress when it comes to social issues, at least. During my time on this Earth (I was born in 1957), there have been laws in this country making it illegal for a white to marry a black and denying any rights (legal or sexual, if you can imagine) for gay couples. Yes, it seems absurd that we allowed the government to discriminate to that degree, just as future generations will be amazed that a U.S. President could be in favor of much advertised to be in Trump’s first 100-day plan. History will show how wrong many of the Republican goals are, and eventually, right will triumph and become the norm.
In the meantime, though, we’ll have to do what we can to resist rollbacks in areas crucial to everybody, like climate change. No, I’m not optimistic Donald will be able to prove it’s a Chinese hoax, but we can expect many regulations loosened or repealed which will lead to more damaging fuel usage, especially coal, in the near future. The Keystone Pipeline might come barreling through from Canada. Drilling will be permitted in more national parks than before. Climate clean-up pacts made with most of the developed world might be torn up. Clean air and water regulations could be diluted, as could restraints on fracking. All of these things will affect everybody in both the short and the long term; it is in all our best interests to provide input to our legislators to help them understand that there is no future in pollution, and burning carbon produces pollution. (In addition, we should contribute when we can to non-profit groups dedicated to fighting for the climate.) Unfortunately, Mother Nature couldn’t care less who’s in office, and the significant, negative weather changes many parts of the country have already begun to experience will only spread, not to mention more frequent, more severe storms à la Katrina and Sandy will slap us hard upside the head. Making these disasters even worse, lower income groups will be disproportionately hurt by these events. Trump is totally wrong on his approach to the environment.
And that’s just one issue of dozens that will begin to impact people, especially those lacking high wages as a shield to the outcomes of a Trump Presidency. When that disillusion sets in for those who reluctantly voted for Trump in the belief that he was the lesser of two evils, those poor souls need to be welcomed with ideas and leaders who can explain clearly how their programs will benefit everybody. There is very little in Trump’s stated plans which will help many working people. Sure, he’ll be able to pressure some business moguls not to move the occasional factory, but he’ll also foster laws which weaken collective bargaining and anything else which help unions organize or negotiate on behalf of employees effectively. That union people actually voted for Trump boggles my mind, but somehow many were convinced that he has answers. When that facade is swept away, the Democrats need to be up-beat and concrete with ways to combat Trump’s direction. We need for them to get their acts together quickly to unite in ways that will offer shelter to those battered by the Trumpocalypse. Whether it be Bernie, Elizabeth, or rising stars like Corey Booker and Julián Castro; it’s important for disappointed people to have something besides a smug, “I told ya so,” to turn to post-Trump. (Speaking of Corey and Julián, anybody besides me think we might have had a different election outcome had Hillary picked someone for Vice President with a bit more pizazz than Tim?)
And so it’s vital to do battle with the Trumpians. But given the number of different areas for which Trump and his Republican legislators/judges have plans to repeal any recent progress and to revert to that which is more oppressive, unhealthier, and more monetarily unfair; you’ll have to limit your focus. Time and money are extremely valuable resources, and for us middle-class people, there’s only so much of either that we have to give. Any help you can give to combat poor choices which are proposed under Trump (including issues such as race relations, economic inequity, voting rights, tax codes, climate change, pollution, education, religious freedom, LGBT rights, international relations, veterans services, deficit spending, defense department increases, renewable energy, Supreme Court nominees, and the next hundred or so things you could list) would be a hugely positive step—the magnitude of all those things will cause most to abandon the quest before even trying, but we will all be impacted by the decisions, de-funding, laws, and wars these people try to push through. Steve Bannon is his senior advisor; that sentence alone should motivate every one of us. So find a cause that interests/motivates you, and at least give money to its champions. I understand—we’re bombarded with requests for our money and time constantly, so I won’t belabor that which is likely to alienate my audience—just give it some thought, okay? Instead, I’ll cut to the real chase and get to the one thing that absolutely has to change in order to repel that which is Trump as quickly as possible.
Any discussion of working to oppose what Trump wants to impose has to begin and end with voting. And in our instant-information (not particularly accurate or well-researched information, but, hey, at least we can get the biased nonsense fast, right?), there has to be some way for social media to exert more pressure on those who do not vote. Again, it might take some time for many to understand how foolish it was to accept the false equivalency propaganda which portrayed this election as a choice between two poor candidates and allowed the experienced, qualified, knowledgeable person to be defeated by the new, unqualified, ignorant guy. Sadder still, is the extent to which many allowed themselves to buy the-two-equally-bad-candidates garbage to the point of not voting at all. Even a meager amount of effort would have convinced those fence sitters that like her or not, Hillary was the demonstrably, significantly, unquestionably better choice; and that regardless of what the polls predicted, a millionth of a percentage chance that some idiotic FBI investigation of Anthony Weiner’s computer might open the door to the remotest possibility of Trump’s winning was risk enough to make sure to vote for Clinton. But almost half of eligible voters did not cast a ballot. That’s probably the most awful part about this whole thing—just how easily we could be preparing for an historic first woman’s inauguration as President instead of stocking up on doomsday supplies or checking into the process on becoming a Canadian citizen. All it would have taken would have been for some of us to have voted in a few key states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina all could have been won by Hillary if more had turned out. And had the results in those states have changed; Hillary would have won the Electoral College 312-226. Everybody needs to vote, and we need to put pressure and lay more guilt on those who don’t.
And that could be a great public service project to get involved in. Voter ID, false reports of election fraud, and other attempts to suppress opposition voters need to be stamped out. We should make voting easier, not harder, with a national holiday for elections, on-line voting becoming common-place, and automatic voter registration—based on driver’s licenses and the like. The anti-Republican tide is swelling in this country, and it’s just a matter of time before the outdated, tinged with racism policies this party advocates are yesterday’s horror. Who knows? As a union activist in my teachers association for thirty years, I learned that one of the most galvanizing factors to increase member participation (which, like voter participation, is also hard to generate) was a terrible school board member or three to roil the waters. In the case of Donald, we’ve got perhaps the greatest motivator for progressive programs ever. I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but one day, we might even see Donald Trump’s election as President as the single biggest cause of a renaissance in human development, not because of the idiotic agenda Donald is advancing, but because of how many people were disgusted by his plans and joined together to defeat him. Now is not the time for despair or withdrawal. Trump will soon be the President, so we’d better get busy.
Soon, the Supreme Court will hand down its ruling in the case of Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association in what many in the press are terming a case that could be “the end of public employees unions” (see The Atlantic for a news analysis with that headline). As someone experienced with the issue in question, I tend to be much less pessimistic about how this case could harm organized labor in general and teachers’ unions specifically.
The particulars are as follows: In an important case from 1977 (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, hereafter referenced as “Abood”), the court ruled that non-union members in workplaces with unions had to pay what has become known as their “fair share” of the costs of the union’s representing them. You see, a union which is the “exclusive representative” for a group of employees has to provide services for all of them, whether or not they are union members. Should a school board try to fire a teacher or if someone feels the contract is being violated and wants to file a grievance, the union must provide legal assistance, regardless of their membership status. Similarly, the effort and expense of negotiating a new contract is borne by the union as well, with the resulting deal benefitting all employees, again including those who haven’t joined. So the Abood ruling determined that non-members should contribute to the expenses of negotiating, grievances, and legal representation to which all employees were entitled. “Fee payers,” as non-members forced to contribute became known, were NOT required to contribute to the political activities which unions fund, however. It was the same basic principle that mandates you pay your taxes despite your objections to some of the activities in which our government engages. Just because you opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t mean you got to withhold your April 15th responsibilities.
But that comparison is not exactly the same as unions are hardly identical to governments, bargaining a contract is not really like police protection, nor is defending someone from unfair job discipline totally similar to going to war. Hence the controversy which has surrounded Abood ever since it was in place. Keep in mind another dissimilarity, at least here in Illinois: Public unions had to negotiate “fair share” language in each individual contract before it would be in effect for any one employee group. The first school district in which I worked did not have any fair share language in its contract while I worked there from 1979-1987, and my second district (Hinsdale Township High School District 86) did not have fair share when I started there in 1987, but did bargain it into the 1993-1996 agreement. (Yes, I was a part of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association [HHSTA] bargaining team which negotiated that contract.) In other words, the only school districts in Illinois where fair share exists are the ones in which employee groups have negotiated it into their contracts. As the Illinois Labor Relations Board defines it on their web page, a fair share clause is, “An agreement between the employer and an employee organization under which the employees in a collective bargaining unit are required to pay their proportionate share of the costs of the collective bargaining process, contract administration, and pursuing matters affecting wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. Fair share fees may not exceed the amount of dues required of members.” Nobody forced Hinsdale 86 to put fair share language in its contract; the majority of employees felt it was…well, fair, and the school board agreed to the language in the contract, where it exists to this day.
But conservatives have always seen the Abood ruling as an infringement on others’ right to work; that “closed shop” (the term some have used in reference to Abood applications) was a classic illustration of unions bullying their way to what they wanted at the expense of workers’ freedoms. And so now its merits have once again been debated (the ruling has been upheld by the court at least four other times, according to legal scholars much more informed than I), with a ruling to be announced in a few months.
But whether or not fair share violates workers’ first amendment rights or if Abood should be overturned is not the key point I would make on this court case. (You can read much more, as I have, in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Center for Education Reform, American Enterprise Institute, The San Diego Union Tribune, and many more if you do a Google news search for Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association.) I believe that reports of the demise of public sector union’s death, while worthy of note—especially by those who benefit from public sector unions—have been greatly exaggerated.
In Chicagoland suburban school districts, teachers unions have done quite well for their members over the last thirty years. A high school teacher with advanced degrees in Darien, Highland Park, Downers Grove, Glenbrook, Schaumburg, Des Plaines, Hinsdale, and many other towns can look forward to a salary in excess of $100,000 per 185-day work year (after twenty years and an advanced degree or two), good insurance benefits, and an excellent (if under constant attack recently) pension plan. For them, the few hundred dollars union membership costs is hardly a financial burden, and they’re the ones acclimating the new kids into the field, generally encouraging them to join their schools’ unions. And since it’s unlikely the fair share ruling (assuming it overturns Abood) will automatically apply or trigger mass membership exodus. Peer pressure is still powerful in all workplaces, and most experienced teachers will strongly endorse their unions and use their influence with those who don’t understand the unions’ value to do the same.
Because union membership is a great benefit at an extremely reasonable price. For your dues, you get legal representation for job-related issues should you need it, you have people to help you should your boss refuse to honor certain terms of your contract or harass you without just cause (See “Know the Law” for more on that), you have paid lobbyists and legislative experts to watch out for your interests in Springfield and Washington, and you can even get discounts and deals on various consumer products (auto insurance and travel, for example) from marketers. Mostly, however, you develop a sense, in this era of experts and politicians taking cheap shots at teachers while laying many of America’s problems at their feet, that somebody’s got your back. A subjective, not provable feeling, perhaps, but in the time of people ignoring all of the obvious glaring flaws in political candidates because they seem “authentic,” you cannot discount how people feel.
Should Abood be overturned, you could also expect national and state teachers’ unions to refocus more of their resources on the rank and file, rather than political machinations. Some would argue that as unions have gotten more influential and powerful, there has been less attention paid to members’ needs and too many forays into issues that have little to do with education and more to do with political alliances. Even endorsing candidates can be perceived more as a necessary evil than a key function for public sector unions. The conflicts of interest that occur when an employee organization is helping to fund the campaigns of its potential bosses—as is the case when a local teachers union endorses school board candidates, for example—has always made some union advocates uncomfortable. I’ve always felt it would be better for unions to educate their members on the candidates’ various positions without making any recommendations, allowing members to make up their own minds. Let teachers see just where Sanders, Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Rubio stand on public school issues; it will be perfectly clear which candidates support teachers more emphatically, without the union then being perceived as an enemy of the unendorsed winner, with whom the union is expected to work regardless. Would that strategy have made Governor Rauner less adamant about wiping unions out? We’ll never know because the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were quite clear in their support of Pat Quinn, the incumbent Rauner defeated. In case you didn’t know, both national teachers unions have already endorsed Hillary Clinton for 2016. And where will that leave them should America choose to feel the Bern?
Then too, school boards have a way of making unions seem much more valuable to teachers. My old union, the HHSTA, has constantly struggled to get teachers more involved, but participation soared during the fall of 2014 when a quartet of school board members (which is a majority) tried to take away many of the rights and benefits which the teachers had achieved over the decades in a single power grab. Increased attendance at meetings, more willingness to help out, and a surge in HHSTA pride all led not only to a reasonable contract settlement, but motivated both the teachers and the public to work to rid themselves of this more extreme element. And in the April 2015 school board elections, the three candidates who vowed to continue the war on the union were routed, getting less than half the votes of the three more moderate candidates, and another of the “gang of four” resigned shortly after the election. Should Abood be overturned and public school governance see that as a sign to go after unions, you can bet that union membership and, even more importantly, active participation would increase significantly. When I was HHSTA president, I used to tell my fellow advocates that our best membership organizer was a bad school board. Although I meant that as a joke, there is a solid foundation of truth in the idea that dissatisfaction is one of the best ways to push people into action. Instead of devastating unions, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association could lead to a backlash of teacher advocacy.
So although there are some who see the possible end of the Abood ruling’s allowance of fair share language in contracts as a death knell for effective public sector unions, I believe it could actually have the opposite effect. Good unions function to protect and serve their members, which most teachers associations have done well over the years. And as the cliché goes, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger;” so too some stress to the ease with which public sector unions have been able to garner dues from teachers whether or not they were members could lead to more effective, stronger on-site organizations. Like much in our convoluted world, Freidrichs v. California Teachers Association might have the opposite effect of weakening or destroying teachers unions; it could actually lead to their renaissance.
For much more on the importance and limitations of teachers’ unions, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
In one of the most insightful articles about school reform I’ve read in a long time, Leon Galis (columnist for Athens Banner-Herald) shares his confusion about those who are pro-voucher as well as those who are opposed to people being able to select charters over traditional public schools. In sorting through the various contradictions each side presents, Galis makes a crucial point about what really lays the foundation for quality public education.
Galis doesn’t understand how giving people vouchers (which would allow them to put their tax dollars in schools of their choice) would change anything for the better. He points out that people of means already use a kind of voucher system when they opt to buy houses in areas where the schools have a good reputation. If you have a million dollars to buy a house in Oakbrook, Illinois, for example, you have selected Hinsdale Central High School to receive the high school portion of your property tax bill. Most people use that kind of reasoning, at least partly, when they purchase their homes. In effect, they are doing exactly what a voucher system does (although they can’t give their tax dollars to private schools as some voucher systems allow). Using property taxes to fund schools is essentially a real-estate version of the voucher system. If you don’t believe me and Galis, ask any real-estate agent how important the quality of public schools is to prospective buyers. And this voucher system has a payoff for everyone in that the more people who want to move into an area because of the schools, the higher the value of the homes in that community.
So creating an official voucher system on top of the de facto one already in place wouldn’t accomplish anything. The poor—for whom voucher systems would supposedly provide choice—are trapped by their lack of means to get to the good schools. Vouchers don’t help them in the least, as generally, the only schools they can access are the less-functional ones right in their neighborhoods. And as explained above, those with the means to live where they wish are already enjoying the benefits of buying houses in the quality school districts they desire. The only people who make out from vouchers are those who reject public schools and are wealthy enough to send their kids to private schools. And you’ll have to excuse those of us who have no desire to make it easier for our public schools to lose needed revenue to supplement the education of rich people’s kids.
With charter school choice, a similar dynamic is happening where charters are having the best results. As we pointed out, in economically disadvantaged areas, residents do not have the luxury of being able to select their homes where schools have been good for decades. Instead, they’re stuck living only in places they can afford, where education has not been valued to the same degree as wealthier areas. Thus, those public schools suffer from both a lack of motivation and low funding which leads to the dismal results most city schools have. Some charter schools in those areas, however, are bucking trends by demanding the commitment and parental involvement so sorely lacking in many inner-city schools. And there are families in urban areas who deeply desire the structure and discipline that many of their schools lack.
To illustrate this, Galis points to the Utopian Academy for the Arts, a charter school in a very impoverished county in Georgia. Utopian, like other schools in this area, is underfinanced and limited in the programs it offers, but it hews to a traditional curriculum with strict discipline. It is so strapped for cash it cannot offer students bus service, so every family with students in the school has to arrange its own system for transportation to and from school every day. Galis suggests this “ownership” of selecting a school and enduring hardships to attend better ensures cooperative and dedicated students. Just as wealthier families “select” the schools their children attend with home purchases and push them to excel; by allowing choice and demanding standards, Utopian fosters that same sense of purpose and motivation for its students. Since the parents feel their decision to send their children to Utopian and the extra work attending entails were choices they freely made, they challenge their children to get all they can out of the school, despite its being similar in funding and facilities to the other schools in the area. Utopian succeeds, Galis argues, because its families and students feel a sense of ownership for the school, just as more affluent families do about the communities and schools they select.
Getting parents to that “ownership” position is one key to good schools, but there is no single formula that will work in every situation to obtain this subjective feeling. Galis admits to having no idea how Utopian’s quality can be replicated on a large scale for those without the money to move to areas with quality schools. Each community would have to assess what it’s doing to foster that feeling, but the concept is a powerful one that has been largely ignored in discussions about school reform. It’s not about “traditionalists” versus “corporate reformers” so much as everyone looking at ways that all parties involved in schools can feel they are equal partners in the process, creating a sense of shared responsibility for students’ education.
Teachers should be included in that analysis as well. What is so striking to me about Galis’s opinion is that most school reformers fail to recognize how important it is to feel like you’re part of a larger whole, to believe your opinions and labor are both valued and valuable. In recent years, teachers have felt neither, leading to the dreaded morale issues that many dismiss as an excuse for underachievement and a ruse to wring more money out of school boards. While there is some truth to both those accusations, helping everyone—especially teachers—to be part of the team would make a huge difference in how well our schools work.
Keep in mind that this nebulous emotional sense is both fragile and difficult to document. But simply because nobody has a Star Trek-esque tricorder to measure how much ownership exists in a school building does not mean it isn’t important. Basically, the idea here is that how humans feel about whatever they are doing makes a difference in the results of their labors. Everyone can understand this: Think about anything you’ve had to undertake in your life. If you had no input on what was to be accomplished, no understanding why it mattered, and the only feedback you received on your efforts was being chastised because the results weren’t good enough; you would quickly lose interest in giving your best effort. That pretty much sums up the way teachers have been treated in recent years.
Testing companies have intruded more and more into their classrooms, robbing them of curricular choices and dictating teaching styles. Teacher evaluation systems have increasingly focused on standardized test scores, rather than observations of what teachers actually do. And as we wrote about last week, teacher training is evolving into creating education clones who are required to teach and even to speak using only approved lesson plans and language. None of that helps teachers to feel in control, to be empowered, to own their classrooms.
No worker wants to feel unimportant and powerless, but those emotions are especially debilitating to good teaching. Every student has endured at least one angry, petty, inflexible tyrant in the course of thirteen years of public education; the root cause for many of those damaged teachers is their feeling of futility, their belief that their opinions don’t matter, which leads to their trying to exert control in any way they can. Sure, it’s idiotic for a teacher to refuse a reasonable student request, say, to go to the bathroom or to have an extra day for a project due to a family emergency. But you can probably trace that seemingly heartless behavior to a teacher who no longer feels any ownership about larger classroom issues.
There are countless paths to creating that sense of ownership in teachers. Unlike Galis, I believe we know and understand many of them already. For me, collective bargaining laws provided the opportunity to have a say in many aspects of my working life, which was why I chose to participate in my teachers’ unions regularly throughout my career. Nothing enhances your sense of equality than sitting down with the superintendent to explain why his action violated the negotiated contract or discussing with school board members why they should improve teacher insurance benefits. But there are many other ways as well. From seeking out laudatory teacher behavior for praise to always including teachers in meaningful ways on district decisions to encouraging creativity in lessons and teaching techniques, administrators can make a huge difference in their schools by showing they understand just how important good teachers are. Parents can call to praise a teacher’s lessons or sensitivity to their child’s unique personality, instead of only contacting teachers when there is a problem. Communities can support teachers with grants for advanced studies or special projects as well as showing up at school events like plays or concerts. Just imagine if a school board member were to apologize for a small teacher salary increase due to fiscal restraints instead of the much more familiar attack on teachers as being underworked and greedy. Even something as silly as a faculty variety show—in which my daughters and I participated for seven years at Hinsdale South High School (they were awesome; I was awful)—can make everyone feel more involved and positive about the school. (I believe this year’s South show will take place on February 11, so make your plans now! And no, you don’t have to worry about my lack of talent ruining the festivities since I retired over three years ago.)
And that’s just a sampling of the ways that ownership can be enhanced from a teacher perspective. My e-book, Snowflake Schools (excerpts of which can be found here), goes over many others. While Galis is correct that finding ways to help parents get that sense of ownership which they then instill in their children is a crucial part of public education, we should also work to make sure that the front-line troops in the classroom have that same feeling.
I think most Americans heartily applauded the recent Supreme Court ruling making equality in marriage rights for gay people the law of the land. I even used the Facebook app to make my profile picture rainbow-hued. (Although that does create the problem of how long it’s appropriate to leave it like that even if you really don’t like how it looks. I went with about a month.) The speed with which this change in attitude occurred was stunning, especially here in conservative DuPage County. It was a proud moment for those of us who have long seen equality in marriage a no-brainer.
Then came a couple of news stories which made me aware that even if the Supremes have seen the light (barely, the 5-4 decision wasn’t exactly a landslide), we still have much work to do before we can claim that discrimination based on sexual orientation is over. In Oregon (see this for details), the state’s 2014 teacher of the year was fired, filed a lawsuit, and then agreed to a $140,000 settlement to resign; and a teacher at a Catholic school near Philadelphia (more in this article) was fired, both due to their being gay. Just as Barak Obama’s being elected President twice has hardly eliminated racism, Obergefell v. Hodges is just one piece of the evolving legal rights that all minorities have had to fight to get in this country.
Unfortunately, despite this historic ruling, many states still do not have anti-discrimination laws which prevent employers from firing employees for their sexual orientation. This map shows that gays in twenty-eight states can have their employment terminated should their homosexuality be deemed an issue by their bosses. When you think about it, this is a much bigger problem than marriage equality. At least, Illinois is one of the more enlightened states in protecting the employment rights of both gays and trans-gendered individuals.
But so is Oregon, which did little to save its 2014 teacher of the year from losing his job. At least he was able to challenge his dismissal which led to the settlement, which was better than nothing. The offending school district, however, admitted no wrong as part of the deal, despite the ruling that there was evidence of “significant discrimination” in his treatment. Yet, had he worked in one of the states without Oregon’s anti-discrimination laws, he would have had no recourse whatsoever for what was ruled (sorta) his wrongful termination.
The Philadelphia case is even sadder in some ways. The woman involved had successfully worked at her school for many years before her orientation became controversial. She had been honest with her principal and colleagues from the start (apparently none of them ever had reason to question her morality in working at a Catholic school), but had not been “out” in any way to her students or the community. A single letter from one parent complained about her, and the diocese wasted no time in dumping her. And it clearly had nothing to do with her competence as the 23,000+ petition to save her employment shows—she was much beloved by the students and parents with whom she worked. Regardless, the Philadelphia Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput (who will serve as host to Pope Francis later this month), praised the firing as “showing character and common sense.” Apparently, when it comes to “What would Jesus do?” and gays, some believe He would cast them out as unfit to teach children. And organized religions wonder why they are losing membership?
Obviously, this is hardly unique to schools, but it seems much worse when it happens there, especially when you consider the hundreds of kids who attend these teachers’ schools. How many of them are struggling with their own sexual orientation? And statistics show their struggles are horrific in the number of times LGTB kids are bullied and their higher-than-average suicide rates. Of course, school officials and politicians will claim to value and respect all students equally, but how can the kids believe that when exceptional teachers who just happen to be gay are fired for that very characteristic? The message is very clear, “Your kind isn’t welcome to work here and we will cast those deviants from our midst should we become aware of them. Go, Bobcats!”
So before we get too smug about how much progress we have made on marriage rights and how enlightened we are, we should take a hard look at all the ways ignorance and bigotry are allowed to control some decisions. And in places as supposedly devoted to reason and tolerance as schools should be, we cannot escape the irony of two excellent teachers being forced out of the classrooms they loved due to the close-mindedness and prejudice that is still pervasive in our society. Hey, I’m thrilled about the ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, but that doesn’t mean the job is complete and the work is over. We all still have miles to go before we sleep.