Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Plain Talk: Losing good teachers hurts whole society

Plain Talk: Losing good teachers hurts whole society

The recall election and all its in-your-face attack ads and underhanded campaign tactics are mercifully behind us now, but I wonder if anything will ever be the same for Wisconsin’s teachers.

I worry about that because nothing is more important for the future of our nation and our state than the education of our young people. The Founding Fathers were keenly aware that the success of the American democratic experiment — a government essentially run by the people — depended on an educated citizenry. It’s why the country’s public school system became such a vital piece of the role government plays in the life of its citizens.

From the beginning, teaching was a respected occupation, even in the days when the “school marm” taught for little money, stoked the classroom stove with wood or coal, and swept up after the kids went home. Among the first actions of folks in even the smallest of new settlements was to scrape up enough money to hire a teacher for the children.

Although the face of public education changed dramatically as the country — and its many problems — grew, teaching was still among the most respected professions. To this day, nearly every successful man and woman will point to a teacher who had set him or her in the right direction and made a huge impact on their lives.

Here in Wisconsin, though, we’ve come through a nearly two-year period where public school teachers haven’t been respected at all. In fact, they’ve been made the fall guys by a governor and a Legislature that saw them as easy scapegoats for a supposed budget “crisis.”

No longer were the wealthy to be asked to help balance a state budget when teachers and other public workers could be made to shoulder the load. When teachers stood up to protest the move to denude their unions, they were met with a barrage of anti-teacher rhetoric that not only demonized their unions, but eventually focused on the worthiness of individual teachers. Nowhere did this play out more dramatically than in Janesville, just before the recall election.

The right-wing outfit that calls itself Citizens for Responsible Government produced fliers, and some were inappropriately stuffed in delivery tubes owned by the Janesville Gazette, listing more than 300 Janesville teachers and their salaries. The group filed an open records request to get the salaries, but claimed that local Janesville people — ironically, they refused to identify themselves — paid for the fliers and distributed them.

Supposedly, these were the teachers who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker, and in the view of the CRG-backed people are not only overpaid, but unqualified to teach “objectively.” The fliers contained a coupon that parents were encouraged to sign and send to the Janesville school district, requesting that their children be assigned a teacher not on the list.

It was as if teachers shouldn’t have the right to either take part in American democracy or make a decent living, even though they must obtain at least a college degree and fulfill regular advanced educational requirements to keep their licenses. And that’s not mentioning the challenges they face daily educating our children, far too many of whom carry the burdens of society’s problems.

But Janesville wasn’t the only place in the state where teachers came under attack. Some were subjected to verbal abuse, others were singled out in letters to newspaper editors. Some districts reduced their pay and forced them to pay even more toward their pensions and health insurance than the governor and Legislature proposed.

Some people respond, “So what? Everyone else in society has had to take their licks in a bad economy and it’s time teachers did, too.”

First, not everyone has had to suffer. There are segments of our economy that have not only avoided cutbacks, but have been rewarded with tax breaks, too — $150 million worth just here in Wisconsin.

But what’s worse is that we may be tearing down our public education system by making sure that the best and the brightest of our young people forgo careers in teaching, opting for professions that not only pay more, but are free from the backbiting and daily tensions so common in schools today.

When our schools lose our best people, we as a society lose, too. And, sadly, so does American democracy and all that it has meant to this country and its people.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

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