Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Unemployment and the Declining Middle Class

I know there are plenty of big fish in the skillet these days: the disaster in Japan, the civil war that we’ve forgotten about in Libya, and the fact that the right side of my NCAA bracket has already collapsed like a tent in a tornado.

Still, I’m fretting about unemployment, especially the fact that our economy is not creating or sustaining quality, well-paying jobs. And I’m back to a now familiar theme: the growing divide in this country between those at the top of the economic and job ladder and those at the bottom.

And when you combine those two issues, you get a glimpse at why the debate over public employee jobs and unions — especially in a state like Ohio that has bleed the manufacturing and other jobs that supported a vibrant middle class — is so important and so contentious.

Paul Krugman in his NYT Op-Ed this morning — “The Forgotten Millions” — looks at unemployment and the reality that jobs and job creation are on the back burner these days if they are on the stove at all. Here’s an excerpt:

More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed.

Jobs do get mentioned now and then — and a few political figures, notably Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are still trying to get some kind of action. But no jobs bills have been introduced in Congress, no job-creation plans have been advanced by the White House and all the policy focus seems to be on spending cuts.

So one-sixth of America’s workers — all those who can’t find any job or are stuck with part-time work when they want a full-time job — have, in effect, been abandoned.

It might not be so bad if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.

In short, we’re well on the way to creating a permanent underclass of the jobless.

Why doesn’t Washington care?

Part of the answer may be that while those who are unemployed tend to stay unemployed, those who still have jobs are feeling more secure than they did a couple of years ago. Layoffs and discharges spiked during the crisis of 2008-2009 but have fallen sharply since then, perhaps reducing the sense of urgency. Put it this way: At this point, the U.S. economy is suffering from low hiring, not high firing, so things don’t look so bad — as long as you’re willing to write off the unemployed.

Yet polls indicate that voters still care much more about jobs than they do about the budget deficit. So it’s quite remarkable that inside the Beltway, it’s just the opposite.

Well Dr. K, consider that for the elected officials and their staffs, lobbyists, K Street lawyers, government bureaucrats, policy wonks and other miscreants Inside the Beltway there is never a recession, let alone a Great Recession.

Yet everywhere else, people are worried about jobs — whether they have one or not — and Krugman is right. Unemployment can be a trap. Here’s a NYT editorial “The Unemployed Need Not Apply“:

The Federal Reserve is projecting unemployment to continue at or near 9 percent for the rest of the year. That is 13.9 million Americans out of work. Here is more grim news: Barriers to employment for jobless workers may be even higher than previously thought.

As the Fed updated its forecast last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a forum on discrimination against unemployed job seekers. Members of Congress had urged the commission to explore the issue, after reading press reports of numerous instances in which employers and staffing agencies refused to consider the unemployed for openings.

The message — “the unemployed need not apply” — has at times been explicitly stated in job announcements. In other cases, unemployed job seekers have reported verbal rejections after a recruiter or employer learned they were not currently working.

And many of those long-term unemployed — or long-term underemployed — once held jobs that provided middle class incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits. But as those jobs have disappeared, so has the support for public employees who still have incomes, medical benefits and retirement benefits that afford at best a middle class lifestyle.

Again, from the NYT, “Ohio Town Sees Public Job as Only Route to Middle Class“:

GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — Jodi and Ralph Taylor are public workers whose jobs as a janitor and a sewer manager cover life’s basics. They have moved out of a trailer into a house, do not have to rely on food stamps and sometimes even splurge for the spicy wing specials at the Courtside Bar and Grill.

While that might not seem like much, jobs like theirs, with benefits and higher-than-minimum wages, are considered plum in this depressed corner of southern Ohio. Decades of industrial decline have eroded private-sector jobs here, leaving a thin crust of low-paying service work that makes public-sector jobs look great in comparison.

Now, as Ohio’s legislature moves toward final approval of a bill that would chip away at public-sector unions, those workers say they see it as the opening bell in a race to the bottom. At stake, they say, is what little they have that makes them middle class.

“These jobs let you put good food on the table and send your kids on school trips,” said Monty Blanton, a retired electrician and union worker. “The gap between low and middle is collapsing.”

Gallipolis (pronounced gal-uh-POLICE) is a faded town on the Ohio River, one whose fortunes fell with the decline in industries like steel in bigger cities along the river. That erased a swath of middle-income jobs in the area, said Bob Walton, who, as a commissioner for the Southern Ohio Port Authority, an economic development agency, has tracked the economic history of the area for decades.

“It’s a real big change,” Mr. Walton said. “It has changed the complexion of our community.”

Today, storefronts are mostly dark. About one in three people live in poverty. Billboards advertise oxygen tanks and motorized wheelchairs. Old photographs in a local diner look like an exhibit from a town obituary. The region has some of the highest rates of prescription drug abuse in the state, with more people dying from overdoses than car crashes, according to Ed Hughes, executive director of the Counseling Center in Portsmouth, about 55 miles west of here.

David Beaver, 65, a barber, said that when he got out of high school, “you could go anywhere you wanted to and pick your job.”

“Now, it’s depressing,” Mr. Beaver said. “I hear the boys talking. They can’t find anything.”

It is not that there are no jobs, but rather that the jobs available pay too little and have no benefits, resulting in, as Mr. Beaver put it, “just scraping by.” A private hospital and two power plants do offer good jobs, but they are highly competitive and many require some higher education, something that fewer than one in five people here have, according to 2009 census data.

This strikes me as a situation to be concerned about and not just in Ohio: a lack of good jobs, an increasing number of people without the education and skills to compete for the good jobs that are available, and a declining middle class in both the public and private sectors.

And, as Dr. K writes, “Why doesn’t Washington care?”

By the way, as we slide head first into the weekend, I wanted to revisit an earlier post this week where I opined that taking action at the ballot box these days was more important than taking to the streets in protest.

Well, I read a story later that made we reconsider — at least in one instance.

It appears as though students at Tufts University took to the streets in what was described as a partially nude run around campus to protest the decision by university officials to ban the annual Naked Quad Run, held in mid-December to celebrate the end of classes.

Now that’s a street protest worth joining. Just sayin’.

And on reflection, if the union officials, teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin had taken a similar approach, something tells me Gov. Walker and the Republicans would have folded their tents immediately.

C’mon. Think about it.

Arlo Guthrie and the Protests in Wisconsin

Well, I made it to the Kent Stage Friday night to see Arlo Guthrie, following a traditional stop at Ray’s for a few brews and a turkey club.  And it was an excellent AARP hootenanny.

I know I need to be careful when I call Guthrie an aging lefty — since I don’t mean that in baseball terms. But hey, we were both born in the same year: 1947. Both of the generation that came of age in the ’60s convinced we were going to change the world. Not.

So I had to chuckle when Guthrie said that he has been opining — via his music and that of others — on the same issues for decades. And the issues — problems facing working Americans, corporate greed, the concentration of wealth in this country and so on — never seem to go away or get much better.

An example: He received enthusiastic applause when he mentioned Wisconsin and the fact that thousands were taking to the streets there and elsewhere to protest the legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions and workers.

Do the street protests really matter these days? Did they really ever matter?

I’m all for peaceful protests — which as best I can tell has been the situation at least up to this point in Wisconsin and Ohio. But I am becoming more and more convinced that the protest that really matters is the one that people make — or not — at the voting booth. If you don’t vote, it’s tough to complain when elected officials actually lift themselves off their collective thumbs and do something.

Saying all that, I understand why teachers and other public employees are going to have to take some cuts in pay and benefits. The perception, wrong in my opinion, is that they have it better than other workers in the private sector — and people aren’t going to support pubic employees as they watch their own retirement savings, house values, medical benefits and middle-class jobs sliding down the rat hole.

So Guthrie is right. It’s a positive sign that people are willing to get out and protest. But the important protest comes at election time.

 

 

Why Blame the Teachers?

I opined yesterday — “Teachers and Scapegoats” — that at the heart of our many serious problems and issues about education in this country is the fact that as a nation we have for years enthusiastically devalued teachers and teaching. And in the long run, that is going to have significant consequences for our economy, our ability to compete in today’s global economy, our businesses, our young people, our communities and our very democracy.

Now The New York Times joins the debate with an interesting feature — “Why Blame the Teachers?” — that provides a number of different viewpoints on the issue. Here are excerpts.

Diane Ravitch — “It Started With No Child Left Behind.” [Ravitch is the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”]

A historic strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought has merged with fiscal conservatism, producing the present campaign to dismantle the teaching profession. It echoes a deeply-ingrained American belief that anyone can teach, no training or experience necessary.

Although politicians and corporate leaders claim they want to reform education, it is impossible to see how the campaign against teachers will advance that goal. No high-performing nation in the world is reducing the status and rights of the teaching profession.

Frederick M. Hess — “A Policy Debate, Not an Attack.”  [Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the Education Week blog “Rick Hess Straight Up.” His most recent book is “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.”]

So, today’s debates about teacher tenure, evaluation, or benefits hardly constitute an anti-teacher assault. Rather, public officials and union leaders have negotiated problematic policies that have dispensed benefits while hurting schools and creating unsustainable obligations. In response, some officials (most famously, Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker) have argued that modest concessions aren’t enough, and have sought to use this moment to address structural problems with public employee collective bargaining and teacher tenure.

The response of the teachers unions and their allies has been to insist that such efforts represent teacher bashing. President Obama has spoken of an “assault” that has “denigrated” and “vilified” public employees. As an article in the Times last week noted, “Many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.”

Yet, those accused of espousing anti-teacher sentiment keep taking pains to explain they’re focused on solving problems and to honor the importance of teaching. Indiana’s state superintendent and veteran educator, Tony Bennett, said in the Times article, “This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers; it is a comprehensive effort to reform a system.” Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels has remarked, “I’ve been praising teachers and public education and trying to support it relentlessly for six years. It does no good. When you cross the union, you’re the enemy.”

When the president declares in the State of the Union, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation…become a teacher,” the profession is doing pretty well indeed. At such a time, it’s useful to keep in mind that policy debate is not the same thing as personal attack.

Richard D. Kahlenberg — “A Bipartisan Attack.” [Kahenberg s a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of “All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice,” and “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.”]

American teachers and their elected union representatives are under unprecedented attack across the country, from Wisconsin to Ohio to Indiana. The dominant narrative suggests that teachers are both stopping us from balancing state budgets and preventing us from adopting reforms that will improve education for students.

How did the budget crisis — brought on by a recession caused by Wall Street — end up in the laps of America’s schoolteachers? How did teachers, most of whom work very hard every day to educate schoolchildren, become the scapegoats in education reforms circles?

Historically, before teachers unionized, they were underpaid, pitied and well thought of. In the early 1960s, when Albert Shanker and others convinced teachers to band together to fight for greater dignity and decent wages and benefits, teachers became important political players, generally supporting Democrats, who tend to favor greater investments in education than Republicans.

Molly Putnam — “What Politicians Don’t Know.”[Putnam has taught at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn for almost seven years. She currently teaches government and economics in the social studies department.]

Politicians are threatening to lay off thousands of teachers and then using that threat as a bargaining chip with the teacher’s union. They are specifically aiming at seniority rights, contending that the “last in, first out” rule, when applied, will cause great harm to the public schools.

They’re trying to convince the public that the most “effective”/newer teachers will be laid off and the “ineffective”/older teachers will be left behind to foist a sub-par education on our children. They claim this approach — by ridding the system of highly-paid senior teachers — will allow them to balance the budget and make their teaching force younger, less costly and more effective.

Anyone who believes it will work out this way hasn’t spent time in a public school.

Jeffrey Mirel – “Discouraging New Teachers.” [Mirel is the David L. Angus Collegiate Professor of Education and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author, most recently, of “Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants.”]

Recent right-wing attacks have described teaching as a “part-time job” or a glorified form of “baby-sitting.” This characterization of teaching is simply wrong, and the initiatives that it supports — cutting salaries, benefits, tenure and collective bargaining — are maliciously wrong.

Teaching on the kindergarten through 12th grade level in the United States today is an incredibly challenging, complex and difficult enterprise. Teachers in 21st century American public schools need to be skilled managers of large classes that are increasingly diverse in terms of race, culture and special needs. These teachers need to understand: what discipline-based content and skills their pupils need to acquire; how their pupils learn; and how to best represent content so that their pupils master it. None of these things are simple, easy or natural. Teaching is learned over years of practice.

Can and should the work of American teachers be improved? Of course. Are there inept teachers in some schools who should be fired? Yes. But it is absurd to believe that mocking and maligning the teaching profession as a way to justify cuts in salaries and benefits, and putting an end to tenure and union protection, will in any way aid the process of improving public schools.

Pedro Noguera — “Reforms Driven by Education Fads.” [Noguera, a sociologist, is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is also executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and serves on the State University of New York Board of Trustees.]

The recent attacks on teachers can be traced to the convergence of three distinct but related trends: continuing concerns about the lagging academic performance of American students, a belief among policymakers and some foundations that firing “bad” teachers would lead to significant improvements in student achievement, and a desire among lawmakers to balance state budgets by reducing financial commitments to the pensions, salaries and benefits of public employees, particularly teachers. There have also been a number of high profile news stories and movies (“Waiting for Superman”) that have reinforced the idea that the prevalence of bad teachers is at the root of America’s education problem.

What is most troubling and dangerous about this convergence is that it is drowning out a rational analysis of what should be done to support and invigorate the teaching profession in the United States. If measures are not taken quickly to slow down the push toward sweeping, ill-conceived reforms, the damage could have long-term consequences for American education.

Donna Foote — “Elevate, Don’t Denigrate.” [Foote is the author of “Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America.”]

The single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Knowing this, along with the fact that American students rank in the middle of the educational pack among industrialized nations, and that the achievement gap in the U.S. between lower income kids and wealthier students is widening provides us with tremendous challenge and real opportunity.

Instead of initiating endless rounds of educational reforms often based on nothing more than wishful thinking, we should attack the real problem: the quality of our teachers. Unlike those countries whose students score in the top tier in the education rankings, America no longer values teaching as a profession. If we want to raise student achievement and close the achievement gap, then we have to elevate the status of our teaching corps. The classroom must become as desirable a destination as the boardroom or courtroom or operating room. For that to happen, we must develop an entirely new, highly selective system to attract, train, support, evaluate, retain — and amply compensate — high quality teachers in our classrooms.

Why blame the teachers? Wonder if Charlie Sheen is at all worried about this?

Just askin.’

Teachers and Scapegoats

Well, I’m back in sunny, warm cold, snowy Northeast Ohio after spending a week in sunny, warm Dataw Island, South Carolina. And I can report that from what I saw last week — flowers blooming, trees budding, grass growing — that spring will make it here: eventually.

While  in Dataw, I managed to climb to the roof often enough in the early a.m. and giggle the laptop just right to connect to the Internet — so I wasn’t off the grid entirely. And as I opined from my perch overlooking the marsh, I don’t understand why we as a nation continue to so enthusiastically — and mistakenly — devalue teachers and teaching.

Here’s an editorial cartoon from Clay Bennett at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as reprinted in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning. On the door: Scapegoats’ Teachers’ Lounge.

Teachers as scapegoats. Sweet. And true — at least from what I have seen during the last 20 years or so and more recently in Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas and elsewhere.

OK. I understand that what is going on now in Ohio, Wisconsin and so on involves more than just teachers — it touches all public employees and focuses on issues involving unions and collective bargaining, pay, benefits and the fact that middle class jobs have declined if not vanished in many states and communities beyond jobs in the public sector.

And there have been plenty of thoughtful commentaries about how the move to trim collective bargaining rights for public sector employees and unions is a political move to diminish political power and campaign contributions among groups typically aligned with the Democratic Party. I guess I’m not that cynical and that seems to give too much credit to people like Scott Walker and John Kasich. But maybe so. We’ll see.

But back to teachers. If we don’t attract, support, retain and reward excellent classroom teachers then this nation is sunk. And yeah, I know, teachers unions protect some poor teachers — just like other unions and civil service rules protect poor pipefitters and federal and state government miscreants. But we are devaluing education. And that matters.

I don’t typically watch Ed Schultz, the liberal Talking Head host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show,” but he has an interesting post on The Huffington Post, “Why Wisconsin Matters.” Here’s an excerpt:

Governor Scott Walker has leveled the largest assault on public education in the history of the state of Wisconsin. This is an attack on the middle class and an attack on teachers who are being treated as political tools and pawns. They’re bargaining chips in negotiations.

Teachers, who play more of a role in economic development than anybody who wants to take a chance on Wall Street, are being vilified and targeted unfairly.

Nobody goes into teaching to get rich. They do it because they love helping people. They love the reward of seeing kids reach their potential. It takes a special person to be a teacher.

The wonderful thing about public education is that everybody’s welcome — the gifted, the talented, the challenged. The socioeconomically challenged kid can walk in the door and have a chance to learn and his or her only hope, because that home life might not be the best, their hope is that teacher.

Republicans are placing the burden of economic recovery on the backs of the middle class and our teachers. An economic recovery required because of the policies put in place by Republicans, resulting in wealth distribution from the middle class to the top two percent.

My mother was a high school English teacher at Granby High School in Norfolk, Virginia. She had three accelerated classes and three regular classes. My mother graded papers until the wee hours of the morning. She got her kids off to school every day. And when she came home in the afternoon, she was still grading papers, and then she was working on lesson plans on Saturdays.

My mom used to take tremendous pride in knowing that one of her students went off to the University of Virginia and became a doctor. She took a tremendous amount of pride in being part of that student’s education.

And here are two segments from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart that really have a lot to say about what’s wrong with public education — and what’s wrong with the attack on teachers. Both are worth the time to watch.

OK. Well, I’m back and enjoyed survived an early a.m. run in the ice and snow.

And I’m going to continue to opine in my role as a pajama-clad citizen journalist about teaching and teachers. Why?

Well, I’m proud to tell people that I was a classroom teacher — if only for a relatively short time during a 40-year career.

And I believe that if we continue to devalue teaching and teachers — in part by making teachers scapegoats for everything that is wrong with education in this country — the USA will suck an economic and jobs tailpipe that will diminish our prosperity, reduce opportunities for the majority of our young people, and undercut the vitality of our communities and nation as a whole.

Just sayin’.

Ohio and the Value of Teachers and Education

True story: I’m sitting in a small roadhouse cafe, Boondock, just outside Dataw Island last night, enthusiastically eating just-caught shrimp and downing draft beers when a woman approached the table for a stop-and-chat. Her question: “Where you from?” My reply: “Ohio.” Her response: “Oh, too bad.”

Gulp.

But she has a point. The perception among people whom I work with, visit in other states and talk to is that Ohio isn’t really where you want to be these days: high unemployment with little prospect for growing quality and well-paying jobs, crappy weather, housing market in the toilet at best and so on. And it’s a state where as best I can tell young people can’t wait to leave. It’s the old people who are stuck.

Anyway, something clearly has to be done — and I voted for John Kasich so I’m willing to give him the opportunity — along with the Republican-dominated legislature — to actually improve the economy, create jobs and attract industries to Ohio that offer jobs that require more than asking whether you want fries with that burger. (As an aside, here’s an interesting WaPo opinion article from about a month ago written by George Will about John Kasich, “John Kasich: Spoiling for a fight in Ohio.”)

And I understand that we are in the politically popular era of first cutting budgets and government spending and then trying to figure out how to expand the economy and jobs later. Hard to argue with that since Obama’s stimulus money had about the same result as a fart in church. I also understand that there are going to have to be some tough decisions that will translate to sacrifices for all of us in terms of what we can and should expect to see from government in the way of pensions (Social Security included), health care (yep, Medicare as well) and services.

Saying all that, my concern with what is happening in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees and unions reflects the continuation of a decades-long move in this country to devalue teachers, teaching and education in general. And I don’t understand why we have headed down this road since education is the key to maintaining our standard of living and our economic prosperity — and our very democracy.

And I understand that I am pretty much just a retired college gasbag these days — but at least I have some support on this notion that all the talk about cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of teachers is going to make it harder to attract and retain qualified and dedicated teachers. And hey, if you think this is easy — especially in an era where teachers have almost total accountability for student success, or not, as measured by test scores — give it a try.

Here’s from a NYT article, “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?“:

The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.

“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Ms. Parker, a high school science teacher in Madison, Wis., where public employees’ two-week occupation of the State Capitol has stalled but not deterred the governor’s plan to try to strip them of bargaining rights.

Ms. Parker, a second-year teacher making $36,000, fears that under the proposed legislation class sizes would rise and higher contributions to her benefits would knock her out of the middle class.

And:

Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.

Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers — Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy — education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

And here’s from Matt Miller, opining in WaPo, “The public-sector employees on which our future depends.” (Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly column for The Post.)

I get that public-sector workers are on both sides of the table, and that there’s something suspect and rigged when pols lifted into office by these unions return the favor with generous health and pension benefits that break the bank. I also get that this conspiracy to roll taxpayers is equally at work when pols backed by business reward supporters with tax breaks and subsidies worth many times the political contributions received.

I know that Republicans want to use today’s fiscal strain to bust public-sector unions and kneecap the Democrats’ biggest funders, and that budgets are being balanced partly on the backs of public workers that didn’t cause the financial meltdown that blew a hole in these budgets in the first place. This, while Wall Street bankers and assorted billionaires pay taxes at marginal rates that could easily be higher without affecting productive economic activity at all.

I also know that public-union work rules often create crazy inefficiencies that help account for why the United States spends more for less in education and health care than other advanced nations. But I also see that the savings Scott Walker seeks from Wisconsin’s unions amount to only 10 percent of the state’s budget gap. I also think the Democratic Party has a serious problem when an outsize portion of its political clout comes from organizations that are largely detached from private enterprise and wealth creation.

In other words, my holistic understanding of the arguments on all sides is capacious and complete. I say this not to boast but to show that I come by my confusion honestly. I’ll admit that in weighing these points I’m not sure where I come down on the question of who should “win.” I don’t think the sky will fall if public unions lose some of their current power and benefits, and I don’t think stripping them of some current powers and benefits will do anything to address America’s biggest challenges.

The one thing I know for sure, however, is this: The future of the country depends on the public-sector workers known as teachers. That’s because unless we dramatically improve our educational performance, America’s standard of living will be at risk.

The second thing I know for sure is that we’ll never attract the kind of talented young people we need to the teaching profession unless it pays far more than it does today. With starting teacher salaries averaging $39,000 nationally, and rising to an average maximum of $67,000, it’s no surprise that we draw teachers from the bottom two-thirds of the college class; for schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers come largely from the bottom third. We’re the only leading nation that thinks it can stay a leading nation with a “strategy” of recruiting mediocre students and praying they’ll prove excellent teachers.

C’mon, folks. We need excellent teachers — and we need to value teaching and education. It’s that important.

OK. I’m finishing this post just as Mr. Sol is starting to peek over the marsh that surrounds part of Dataw Island, South Carolina.

But today it is back to reality as we return to Ohio.

Oh, too bad.

Education, Teachers Unions and Waiting for Superman

OK. For a pajama-clad citizen journalist on spring/winter break, I should just be kicking back and enjoying myself. But when you are up before 4 a.m. before Mr. Sol but not before the alligators here, well, better to stay put and fret about what is happening with teachers — and teachers unions — in Wisconsin and elsewhere around the country.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker is expected to outline his budget Tuesday, with deep cuts for public employees, including teachers and education in general. From the story on NPR:

Walker suggested Monday that he will propose cutting state funding for schools by $900 million — a 9 percent drop from this year’s allocation. Schools last week started putting teachers on notice that their contracts may not be renewed for next year given the budget uncertainty.

I get it. Most states — and the USA in general — are either bankrupt or heading down that road. So clearly we are going to have to make some tough decisions about spending — and priorities. But I don’t understand how we believe this country is going to survive in a global economy or sustain a representative democracy without a well-educated workforce and citizens in general.

Full disclosure: I spent the best years of my career teaching at Kent State. My wife recently retired from a 30-year career as a public school teacher in Akron. My son teaches at a high school in Colorado, and my daughter has been a classroom instructor in colleges and schools in this country and abroad.

Saying all that, I understand that during the course of the last 20 or 30 years we have devalued teaching and education in this country. Hey, it’s easy. All you have to do is get up in front of a class and talk. You only work nine months a year. Yada. Yada. Yada.

And that’s the view shared by both liberals and conservatives. So I’m not sure that I view what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and nationally as it relates to teachers and teachers unions as liberal versus conservative as much as I see it as a defining issue between people these days who have quality jobs, benefits and pensions versus those who don’t — or who figure they aren’t going to have them for long.

For instance, I watched part of the pathetically boring Academy Awards broadcast Sunday night, and missing from the documentary category was the film Waiting for Superman, the at least at one time well-heralded inside look at the problems with our education system.

Why no nomination? Well, I heard this several times while chasing the treadmill during the past few weeks — and not just on Fox News: Liberals in Hollywood couldn’t support Waiting for Superman because at its core it is anti-union. I report. You decide.

C’mon. Liberals — just like conservatives — have been undercutting teachers and teachers unions for years.  Here’s from a WaPo article, “Gov. Scott Walker can thank Michelle Rhee for making teachers unions the enemy“:

A half-century ago, Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to pass legislation allowing collective bargaining for public employees, including educators. At the time, teachers across the country, who make up a significant share of public employees, were often underpaid and mistreated by autocratic administrators. In the fight for greater dignity, union leaders such as Albert Shanker in New York City linked teacher unionization to the fledgling civil rights movement.

Today, Wisconsin is again at the forefront of a union battle – this time in Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to cut his state’s budget deficit in part by curtailing collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. How did it become okay, once more, to vilify public-sector workers, especially the ones who are educating and caring for our children?

On the most obvious level, teachers unions are taking a pounding because Republicans have gained power in recent state elections, and the GOP has a strong partisan interest in undermining public-employee unions, which provide troops and treasure to the Democratic Party. In Wisconsin, Walker’s campaign to restrict the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other groups to the issue of wages is transparently partisan. Exempt from his plan are two unions that supported him politically: those representing police and firefighters.

But Walker’s argument – that greedy teachers are putting their own interests over the interests of the public – resonates because in recent years, many Democrats have made that argument as well.

Exhibit A is former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Under Democratic mayor Adrian Fenty, she repeatedly clashed with the Washington Teachers’ Union, which she said put the interests of adults over those of children. “Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated,” Rhee said at the Aspen Institute’s education summit in 2008. She told journalist John Merrow it is imperative that teachers-union bargaining rights exclude issues such as devising a fair teacher-evaluation system.

Since resigning as chancellor last year, Rhee has launched a new organization, StudentsFirst, with the express goal of raising $1 billion to counter teachers unions. Her approach remains confrontational. In a profound sense, Democrats like Michelle Rhee have paved the way for Scott Walker.

But Rhee couldn’t have done it alone. Then-candidate Barack Obama endorsed Rhee in a 2008 debate as a “wonderful new superintendent” and later applauded the firing of every single unionized teacher at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. (The teachers were later rehired.) Rhee’s agenda also received a big boost from liberal movie director Davis Guggenheim, whose film, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ “ implies that teachers unions are to blame for the failures of urban education and that non-unionized charter schools are the solution. The movie includes no acknowledgment that the things teachers want for themselves – more resources devoted to education, smaller class sizes, policies that allow them to keep order in the classroom – are also good for kids.

OK. The education system in this country — particularly public education in communities where parents don’t have money and a compelling interest in seeing their kids succeed — essentially sucks. And that has some huge implications for the future of our economy, our communities and our nation.

But I have a tough time swallowing the idea that the blame for this mess extends only to teachers and teachers unions. And I get it. Unions protect bad teachers — just like they protect bad pipefitters. But I have yet to see an effective way to evaluate the performance and accomplishments of classroom teachers — given all the variables. Suppose you are an attorney and your client fails to show up for a third or more of the court dates. Should you be expected to win the case? Just askin.’

Anyway, teachers unions get this — and they get the point that the public, rightly or wrongly, wants change. Here’s from an informative NYT article, “Leader of Teachers’ Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul“:

Responding to criticism that tenure gives even poor teachers a job for life, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced a plan Thursday to overhaul how teachers are evaluated and dismissed.

It would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days.

Teacher evaluations, long an obscure detail in an educator’s career, have moved front and center as school systems try to identify which teachers are best at improving student achievement, and to remove ineffective ones.

The issue has erupted recently, with many districts anticipating layoffs because of slashed budgets. Mayors including Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Cory A. Booker of Newark have attacked seniority laws, which require that teacher dismissals be based on length of experience rather than on competency.

Ms. Weingarten has sought to play a major role in changing evaluations and tenure, lest the issue be used against unions to strip their influence over work life in schools — just as Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Ohio are trying to do this week.

Critics say that removing teachers is nearly impossible because of the obstructions that unions have put up. Administrators also bear some blame. Most evaluations are perfunctory — a drive-by classroom observation by a vice principal — and hearings to prove incompetence can be long and costly.

Improving education in this country — from top to bottom — should rank at the top of any list of this nation’s priorities.

But there ain’t no Superman.

And cutting education budgets and spending and laying off thousands of teachers ain’t going to make thing better.

Just sayin’.

Wisconsin, Ohio and the Divided Economy

OK. Here’s a pop quiz. Do you have now — or expect to have — enough money in a 401K (or similar) savings account for retirement? If you have a defined benefit pension, how secure is it? Do you have guaranteed medical benefits from your employer now and as you enter the golden years and beyond? If you’re working and lose your job, could you find one with equal pay and benefits?

I expect that many Americans — in all age groups — are giving some thought to those and similar questions. And the answers help shape perceptions about what is happening now in states throughout the country and Inside the Beltway as the federal government prepares for a possible shutdown.

And I know there are plenty of important issues on the table now in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states about government spending, deficits, public employees and unions, and collective bargaining.

Oh, sorry. One other question. Does America now have essentially two economies?

What got me thinking about that was an editorial cartoon in the Akron Beacon Journal. I most likely won’t get this exactly right but the cartoon depicts two guys. One labeled a public employee is lamenting the fact that his pension might be cut. The other asks — what’s a pension?

Anyway, if you struggled with the answers to today’s pop quiz, here’s some background info.

Here’s from Robert Reich, “The Jobs Report and America’s Two Economies“:

We have two economies. The first is in recovery. The second remains in a continuous depression.

The first is a professional, college-educated, high-wage economy centered in New York and Washington, that’s living well off of global corporate profits. Corporations continue to make money by selling abroad from their foreign operations while cutting costs (especially labor) here at home. Wall Street is making money by taking the Fed’s free money and speculating with it. The richest 10 percent of Americans, holding 90 percent of all financial assets, are riding the wave. And their upscale spending has given high-end retailers and producers a bounce.

The second is most of the rest of America, and it’s still struggling with a mountain of debt, declining home prices, and job losses. In coming months most Americans will also be contending with sharply rising prices of food and fuel.

Our representatives in Washington see and hear mostly the first economy. The business press reports mainly on the first economy. Corporate and Wall Street economists are concerned largely with the first economy.

But the second economy will determine our politics in 2012 and beyond.

Here’s from a WSJ.com article, “Retiring Boomers Find 401(K) Plans Come Up Short“:

Facing shortfalls, many people are postponing retirement, moving to cheaper housing, buying less-expensive food, cutting back on travel, taking bigger risks with their investments and making other sacrifices they never imagined.

“Inevitably, we find that, for the average person, there is not enough there,” says financial adviser Paul Merritt of NTrust Wealth Management in Virginia Beach, Va., who has found himself advising many retirement-age people with too little savings. “The discussion turns out to be: What kind of part-time work do you want to do after you retire?”

He has clients contemplating part-time work into their 70s, he says.

Tax-deferred 401(k) retirement accounts came into wide use in the 1980s, making baby boomers trying to retire now among the first to rely heavily on them.

The problems are widespread, especially among middle-income earners. About 60% of households nearing retirement age have 401(k)-type accounts, according to government data, and those represent the majority of most people’s savings. The situation is less dire for those in a higher income bracket, who tend to save more outside their 401(k) accounts and who have more margin for error if their retirement returns fall below the recommended 85% figure.

And here’s about new jobs,  from The Huffington Post, “60% of New Jobs in 2010 Were in Low-Paying Industries“:

TrimTabs drills into the Labor Bureau’s data for new jobs added in last year, to reveal some unsetting details: “Of the 1.1 million private jobs gained in the last year, 650,000 or 60% are jobs that have absolutely no real wealth creation capacity, nor do they provide any real benefits.”

60% of new jobs went to Temporary Help, Leisure & Hospitality and Retail trade. Leisure and hospitality pays an average hourly wage of $13.14, while a retail salesperson brings in an average of $11.84 an hour, according to the BLS’ database. Temporary help services can be slightly more lucrative at the higher end (Registered Nurses earn $32.77 an hour), but packers and packagers only earn an average of $8.62 per hour.

As TrimTabs puts it:

These jobs are certainly better than no jobs. But for the economy to grow sustainably — without the crutches of $1+ trillion per year in federal deficit spending, zero percent dictated interest rates, and tens of billions per month in central bank debt monetization — American companies need to start generating more higher-paying jobs at home.

I know. It’s tough to spring a pop quiz on you at 4 a.m. So go ahead and review your answers. And take a minute or two to consider some additional reasons why people are standing out in the streets in the dead of winter in Madison, Columbus and elsewhere shouting at each other.