Opinion: Pray for teachers. Thank a teacher.

Opinion: Pray for teachers. Thank a teacher.

May 04, 2010
Written by Gregg Brekke

It isn't merely that school teachers are facing devastating layoffs, though the layoffs this year are as deep as anyone has ever seen.

Schools depend on property taxes, and property values are down in this recession. State budgets depend on income taxes, and there is massive unemployment. While some say the economy is beginning to pick up, "mounting spending pressures, along with the tapering-off of federal economic-stimulus aid, mean that most states are likely to be grappling with budget shortfalls for at least the next two or three years," according to Education Week. "The states' collective budget gap for fiscal 2011 is estimated at $89 billion. For fiscal 2012, the total projected shortfall for states is $73.5 billion; for fiscal 2013, that number is $64.7 billion."

To comply with state laws that require them to announce layoffs by April 30 for next school year, school districts across the country issued pink slips throughout the month of April. I stood with the Cleveland Teachers Union last week to protest layoffs of 800 employees, 545 of them teachers.

The New York Times reports cuts of 15,000 teachers in New York, 17,000 in Illinois, and 22,000 teachers in California, where Los Angles Superintendent Raymon Cortines pink-slipped 5,200 teachers and declared, "I've been superintendent in five major school districts, and had responsibility for cuts for years — but not this magnitude, not this devastating."

But something else is happening that makes this spring much harder for teachers. The federal political agenda has veered into an angry attack on school teachers. The attack is designed to appear to be bubbling up from state to state as the media shows teachers protesting in the streets-in Florida, in Colorado, in Minnesota, in Indiana, where the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction blamed the teachers unions when he pulled that state out of the second round of the federal Race to the Top competition (Wall Street Journal.)

Some background on the Race to the Top. A year ago, in the spring of 2009, to stem economic collapse, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal stimulus, that among other things, distributed $100 billion to states and school districts to prevent massive layoffs and stem the growth of unemployment. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was given another $4.35 billion fund he called Race to the Top, that he proposed to distribute to states agreeing to his particular reform agenda: remove the statutory caps on new charter schools; restructure struggling schools by firing the principal and at least half the staff, close the school and move the students, or bring in a private Charter School Management or Educational Management Organization; and tie teachers' pay to students' standardized test scores and make it easier to fire teachers.

Race to the Top precipitated the firing in February of the entire staff of Central Falls High School, that serves a low income community near Providence, Rhode Island. Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, said she was implementing the Race to the Top "turnaround" model. President Obama and Secretary Duncan applauded the move.

Race to the Top induced Florida state senator John Thrasher to push Senate Bill 6-a bill to tie teacher pay to test scores, undermine state teacher certification requirements, and put all teachers on one year contracts-through the Florida state senate. After hours of acrimonious live-streamed debate, where I heard one representative rant, "I am a businessman. I fire my employees if they don't produce a perfect product. If school teachers can't produce an excellent product, they should be fired, too," the Florida House also passed the bill in a session that ran until 3:30 AM. After teacher protests overwhelmed state highways, students walked out of class, and 109,000 members of the public sent e-mails to protest SB 6, Governor Charlie Crist vetoed the bill, effectively disqualifying his state from Race to the Top. Crist said he was particularly moved by the father of a special education student who told him, "My son may not be able to learn, but you shouldn't blame his teacher."

Tim Brown, member of Community United Church of Christ in Boulder, Colorado and a music teacher in the Denver Public Schools, writes: "Things are looking not so bright for Colorado teachers. Senate Bill 191 has passed the Senate. It would tie test scores to evaluations and make it possible to fire experienced personnel without regard to seniority or credentials instead of transferring them."

Even supporters of the Secretary Arne Duncan's ideas about school reform question the dangling of large federal grants, without specific Congressional oversight, as incentives for states to radically alter education policy. Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, who says he "applauds many of the Obama administration's priorities for education" and who served as an official in the Department of Education under George Bush, questions whether Race to the Top is an abuse of power: "In taking considerable license with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund its own priorities, the Administration has furthered its education agenda as cash-strapped states chase Race to the Top grants. Provisions of the education initiative that would have been difficult to obtain in federal legislation and weren't mentioned in the ARRA ... have now been put in place legislatively in several states in order for them to be competitive for Race to the Top grants ... It is a mistake in principle-and a danger in reality-to allow any U.S. Secretary of Education this much policy discretion when doling out large sums of money."

Jan Resseger is the UCC's minister for public education and witness.

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