Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Left's Education Divide

At the Democratic convention, a choice between children and teachers unions

There are plenty of canyons running between the Democrats at this week's convention. The left is angry at President Obama for selling them out on a raft of issues. The Blue Dogs (what's left of them) are glancing uneasily toward the election calendar. And of course that tattered emblem of Democrat disunity, Bill Clinton, is on the speakers' list.

But there's something else threatening to disrupt the Democrat hive mind. As Jon Ward reported at the Huffington Post, convention-goers were treated to a special screening of the movie Won't Back Down. The film, which stars Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis, is about a single mother who tries to reform her daughter's dismal public school. The villain is the obstructionist teachers union. It promotes "parent triggers," which allow parents to vote to overhaul schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, fired off a letter calling the film "divisive" and saying it doesn't focus on "real parent empowerment." (And if anyone knows "real parent empowerment," it's the stridently anti-school-choice Weingarten.)

But her letter ignores the elephant in the rubber room: Won't Back Down director Daniel Barnz is a Democrat. For that matter, so is reform hero Michelle Rhee and Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for Superman fame. All three have issued a call to arms over education that transcends party lines. The reality of America's public schools is finally cracking through the liberal eggshell.

At the state level, Democrat governors and mayors, wrangling with drained budgets, are battling the education establishment. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick backed a law that tied teacher layoffs primarily to performance rather than seniority. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also took on the unions over evaluations and declared, "It's this simple: It's not about the adults; it is about the children." And Mayor Rahm Emanuel cranked up his famous pugnacity after the Chicago Teachers Union refused to budge on compensation and benefits issues.

That might seem like small comfort to school reformers. And it should. Most of the clashes between unions and Democrat state officials have been waged out of necessity. Governors and mayors must balance their budgets; organized labor won't give an inch.

But given the Democratic Party's fundraising, it's a miracle to see party leaders taking on the teachers unions at all. The third-largest contributor to Democrats in 2010, and the fifth-largest contributor overall, was the National Education Association (NEA), which spent $40 million to push back the Republican tide. Add in contributions by AFSCME and the SEIU and the three titans of organized labor spent $171.5 million in 2010, more than the dreaded U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads combined.

The Democrats owe the NEA. If not for it, the Republican sweep might have been even wider.

And yet many Democrats turned around and fought back against Big Education's intransigence. It's created an uneasy imbalance and it's sowing discord among the union rank-and-file. The party's apple-polishers at the NEA voted to endorse Barack Obama last year. But the vote count was 72% in favor; a step down from 2008 when 80% of delegates endorsed Obama, and the vote twelve years ago when 90% supported Al Gore.

This is the same Barack Obama who made the heinous decision to shut down the Washington, D.C. school voucher program. But even he's committed apostasies that irked the unions.

So why are some progressives changing their tune? Well, it's not as if the unions have anywhere else to go. Mitt Romney's education plan requires states to offer school choice and many Republicans want to eliminate the bureaucratic wreck that is the Department of Education. Democrats must wager that they can nip at the NEA without losing its support.

But more importantly, the problem with public schools has become impossible to ignore. Interest-group liberalism requires the left to support the teachers unions. But more and more, that's put Democrats in conflict with inner-city students who need vouchers for a shot at even a passable education. Confronted with the evidence, some progressives are finally siding with the students.

Eventually education may become one of those issues, like the Second Amendment, on which Republicans extract an all-out surrender. At this year's Republican National Convention, Condoleezza Rice declared that education is the civil rights movement of our era. Progressives pride themselves on being civil rights geniuses. Do they really want to be on the wrong side of history here?

Until they answer that question, there's still plenty of hysteria to go around. A smattering of protesters showed up when Won't Back Down was shown at the Democratic Convention. Confirming that the progressive bestiary is running out of monsters, one left-wing blogger tried to tie the movie to Bain Capital. Randi Weingarten is still doing an elaborate dance, talking up reforms while simultaneously making sure nothing meaningful gets done.

But it's becoming clear that unions have overplayed their hand. Mitt Romney should press the advantage when he gets into office. Perhaps then we can finally energize our classrooms and empty the rubber rooms.


New School Year, New Teacher Movement

In light of the daily public finger-pointing and the debate over who or what is most to blame for America’s slipping status in international educational progress reports, teachers across the country feel unjustly singled out. As evidenced by a March poll, educator job satisfaction is at the lowest it's been in more than two decades.

Furthermore, according to reports, the nation’s largest teacher labor union, the National Education Association, has reported a decline of 150,000 members in the past two years with a projection that they will lose an additional 200,000 members by 2014. Based on the data, teachers are fleeing the unions and seeking alternative organizations in record numbers.

It is this rapidly changing climate that is fostering a new direction for American educators. Teachers are calling for new leadership. As the preeminent national non-union educator organization, the Association of American Educators (AAE) is answering that call. We work with teachers everyday who are concerned with the massive transformation occurring in public education. Whether it is frustration with static teacher union representation or the vast changes implemented in schools across the country, teachers rightly feel that they aren’t being heard.

We believe that teachers deserve to be treated as professionals, and that their ideas and experiences should be brought to the policy table. To create and implement meaningful and commonsense education reform, the authentic voices of American teachers must be heard over the outdated, overreaching, politically-charged mantras of the teacher union bosses.

Recent surveys indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support teachers but not teacher unions. This growing statistic clearly illustrates the fundamental disconnect between teachers and labor unions, particularly in states experiencing broad education reforms. Teachers are not blue-collar laborers; they are academic professionals like lawyers, scientists, and engineers. Industrial-style union representation does not garner the respect that educators deserve.

Strikes, work stoppages, and union-style collective bargaining do little to advance the professionalism of teachers. Teachers in a modern workforce do not necessarily need one-size-fits-all salary and benefits packages that do little to recognize teachers who go above and beyond in their schools. Moving forward, AAE envisions a modern approach to teacher representation that promotes professionalism, collaboration, and excellence without a partisan agenda.

We often hear about the necessary reforms needed in American classrooms, but what we do not hear is that we need to overhaul the way our teacher workforce is represented. AAE is the change we need. By embracing a non-union professional movement for educators, we can work together to empower our academic professionals through a positive, new voice for the profession.


Cotton wool culture is damaging our children says British Health and Safety Executive

But didn’t their rules and regulations create problem in the first place?

A ‘Cotton wool culture’ has eroded children’s freedom to play outdoors, health and safety watchdogs admitted yesterday.  They say a blizzard of regulations is being used as an excuse to deny children scope for fun.

The statement, by the Play Safety Forum and the Health and Safety Executive, was condemned as ironic, as HSE rules and regulations are blamed by many for creating the culture in the first place.

But critics said they hoped it marked a turning point and the start of a more commonsense approach to what constitutes danger. Warning that play had become ‘sterile’, they insisted children must be allowed to learn about risk.

The HSE said health and safety laws were being ‘wrongly cited’ as a reason to deny children play opportunities.

The statement cited ‘shocking’ ICM research that half of children aged seven to 12 are not allowed to climb a tree without an adult present and that one in five children in the same age group have been banned from playing conkers.

It said children should be exposed to a degree of risk to help prepare them for the ‘realities’ of daily life, where ‘risk is ever-present’.

Councils, schools, charities and other providers should use ‘sensible adult judgments’ instead of allowing misplaced fears of prosecution to rid play spaces of fun and challenge.

‘When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits,’ it says.

‘No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool.’ The approach accepts that the possibility of ‘serious or life-threatening injuries cannot be eliminated’  – only managed.

While some risks are unacceptable, such as poor maintenance of equipment, a degree of controlled risk allows children to ‘reap the benefits of play’. It is wrong to believe that ‘mistakes and accidents will not happen’.

The HSE’s admission follows numerous examples over the years of the absurd lengths officials have gone to to avoid litigation. They include bans on conker games in case they cause nut allergies or requiring children to wear protective goggles while playing.

Over-zealous safety clampdowns have seen climbing frames, see-saws, swings, roundabouts and slides ripped out of playgrounds.

Officials have also been accused of scrapping equipment altogether when only minor modifications were needed. The welter of rules mean many childhoods are more sheltered than a generation ago.

‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion,’ the statement says. ‘In the case of the most serious failures of duty, prosecution rightly remains a possibility, and cannot be entirely ruled out.

‘However, this possibility does not mean play providers should eliminate even the most trivial of risks.

‘Provided sensible and proportionate steps have been taken, it is highly unlikely there would be any breach of health and safety law involved, or that it would be in the public interest to bring a prosecution.’

Robin Sutcliffe of the Play Safety Forum, an umbrella group for organisations involved in children’s play, said: ‘This will be a landmark statement, helping councils, schools, charities and others to give children and young people greater freedom to experience challenging and adventurous play and leisure opportunities.

‘The implications for society will be far reaching and my thanks go to the HSE for embracing this concept and working with PSF so positively.’

HSE chairman Judith Hackitt said: ‘Health and safety laws are often wrongly cited as a reason to deny children opportunities, contributing to a cotton wool culture.’


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