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.

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One response to “Ohio and the Value of Teachers and Education

  1. GOP value education? This is, you know, the party of the mother of all unfunded mandates; the No Child Left Behind Act (also the House Majority leader’s “historic accomplishment”).

    Also it is worth mentioning that the prime motivation for union busting isn’t the debt; it is politics and furthering an agenda. These unions heavily support the democrats and they are trying desperately to squash financial support where they can (election cycle).

    Kasich, yesterday, to pass his bills through committee, removed 2 members who were GOP and voting in opposition and replaced them with supporting members so he could push the bill through despite public (and apparently committee) wishes.

    Lastly, Wisconsin unions have already agreed to pay cuts and larger roles in pension funding, they are now only fighting for their rights to bargain.

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