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Fighting for America’s Education Future

This fall’s elections could make or break public education. Here’s how you can get involved and ensure that students win in the end.

By Amanda Litvinov

 
We all know that an educator’s day doesn’t end when the bell rings at 3:00 p.m. Likewise, your school year doesn’t end in June. And the fact is that your work in advocating for students extends far beyond the school steps: Educators are not only voting for pro-public education candidates, they’re also stepping up in droves to bolster support for public education in the face of an assault by those who would like to change the education landscape in this country—and not for the better. 

Our students will need math, science, literature, and languages to succeed—and that means commitment from elected leaders at every level to funding public education that opens doors for all children. That’s why it’s the job of educators to stand up to the politicians whose policies are hampering our students’ education with larger class sizes, less early childhood education, a shrunken social safety net, and disrespect for the public school employees who are dedicated to giving the very best education to all students.

“If you’re passionate about your career as a public school educator, it’s worth saving, and the best way to do that is to know politics,” says Ashley Anthony, an educator-turned-voting-rights activist from Abington, Pennsylvania. “We see how things take a turn when those who aren’t pro-public education get into office.”

She’s right.

As educators, you are trusted community members, and when you speak out on an issue of importance, you are heard. When you educate friends and neighbors about why every election is high stakes for public education, you are doing the right things for students and schools. Here’s what you can do in the home stretch to the election:

Protect our citizens’ most fundamental political tool

The right to vote is one of American citizens’ most fundamental rights, but widespread efforts in GOP-controlled states could pose significant challenges to voting in the upcoming election for as many as 5 million eligible voters—mostly low-income residents, students, communities of color, and the elderly.

The Voting Rights Act of 1964 may have done away with blatant discriminatory election practices, but since the 2008 presidential election, new laws have cropped up across the country creating various barriers to voting. They include requiring voters to present photo IDs that certain groups are far less likely to have or acquire before November; shortening or eliminating early voting; and changing the rules for third-party voter registration efforts. NEA believes these voter suppression efforts amount to a coordinated attack by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council; NEA also believes educators can play a powerful role in undoing the damage wrought by such organizations.

“We thought we were done when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964, but we’re not done,” educator and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle said recently to a packed hall of educators who had assembled in Washington, D.C., to learn how to protect voter rights in their communities. “Never in my lifetime did I think we’d have to fight for these rights again, but here we are. It’s our turn to step up.”

 
Asia Horton (right)

“My family is engaged in politics, and I’ve long been involved in canvassing,” says Asia Horton, a fifth-grade special education teacher from Erie, Penn. Horton knows it’s important to connect the big issues to local realities. “Erie has a devastatingly high number of children living in poverty,” she says. The most recent figure from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates program of the U.S. census says 24 percent of Erie County children live in poverty, and the percentage in Erie City is even higher.

The school where Horton taught for the past four years, Burton Elementary, was closed along with three other area schools due to the state’s current education funding crisis.

Says Horton: “We need to have people in office who want to find ways to make sure that everyone has a fair shot beginning with a high quality education.”

Using the tools at educationvotes.org/ voterprotection, check to make sure you’re registered to vote and know the current voting laws in your state. Then help family and friends check their status by sharing these tools on social media.

Support public school champions on both sides of the aisle

 
When a Utah freshman state senator, Sen. Aaron Osmond (R), sponsored a 2011 bill described by the Utah Education Association (UEA) president as a “nightmare,” high school English teacher Ryan Anderson knew he had to act. So, as soon as school ended one day last November, he set out with colleagues on a five-hour trip across the state to attend a forum with Sen. Osmond.

Provisions in the “nightmare” bill, Utah Senate Bill 64 (SB 64), would make all public educators at-will employees on one- to five-year contracts; eliminate early termination protections; limit bargaining rights to salary and benefits (all but destroying educators’ ability to advocate for students at the bargaining table); and base at least 25 percent of teacher compensation on evaluations, with little clarity as to how those assessments would be carried out.

“There was impassioned speeches that night—paraprofessionals, teachers, support staff, superintendents, business administrators all speaking out, hoping our views as professionals would be heard,” says Anderson, who has nearly 35 years of teaching experience.

A year later, Anderson is still struck by the reaction he and his fellow educators saw in Osmond. “We could tell from his comments and his insightful questions he was really listening,” says Anderson. “The change in his perspective was visceral.”

“I came into office thinking I knew everything I needed to know about the direction we needed to go with public education,” says Osmond, who served as CEO of a for-profit education company prior to taking office. But after four meetings like the one Anderson attended—one was attended by more than 500 educators—plus a dozen classroom visits and hundreds of emails from educators, Osmond says he came to understand the challenges public school educators face daily: overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, language barriers, behavioral issues, and students who are hungry and unbathed.

“It’s just amazing to see the skill these committed teachers have. They’re getting so little in terms of compensation and they deal with so much, yet they’ve been framed as the enemy in public education rather than as the group we need to support the most,” says Osmond.

Osmond called together UEA leaders, educators, and other stakeholders like the State School Board and the superintendents association not only to create a vastly improved bill that would support educators, but also to forge a working relationship that would change the tenor of the conversation about public education in the state legislature.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, who taught elementary school for more than 30 years before becoming president of the UAE, says members had to confront the widespread perception that educator unions make it impossible to get rid of bad teachers. “But Sen. Osmond heard us saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want ineffective teachers in the classroom either, that hurts the profession and worst of all, it hurts kids.’”

Later, when Gallagher-Fishbaugh presented to members the new SB 64—which would require educators to place in the top two evaluation tiers to move up the regular salary schedule—“They applauded,” she recalled.

Sen. Osmond wanted to let educators know what they had taught him throughout the process, so he put it on a blog he called Lessons Learned,  resulting in an outpouring of support from the statewide education community. Even if they didn’t agree with him on everything, educators expressed deep appreciation for his willingness to listen and his transparency.

“Educators by nature are collaborative, and we do our best work together around student learning,” says Anderson. He wishes he could tell all legislators as much: “Don’t legislate education in isolation—we need to work together.”

There’s still time to help pro-public education candidates on their bids for office. Check your state association’s website to find public school champions who understand the issues you’re up against, then contact their local campaign office to find out what you can do.

Boil down the complex issues

There’s no question that sequestration is scary, but don’t be intimidated by complex issues like federal budgets or how to make our tax code more equitable. On EdVotes.org, you’ll get the lowdown on this looming fiscal crisis and other key issues that affect students, educators, and the middle class, along with actions you can take to help set things right. Go to EdVotes.org to sign up for our weekly news email.

Now here’s the skinny on sequestration: If Congress doesn’t agree on a plan to reduce the deficit, automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that will be devastating to public education kick in on January 2.

But there is a way to keep from going over the so-called “fiscal cliff”: “Lawmakers should let tax cuts for the wealthy expire and close federal tax loopholes that do nothing to strengthen our economy,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

It comes down to a choice: Ask the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to pay their fair share, or force schoolchildren to make all the sacrifices. Here’s what that would look like:

  • Education funding would drop to 2003 levels even though public schools now serve 5.4 million more students.
  • More than 9 million students would lose essential services.
  • All federal education programs, including Title I, IDEA, and English language learner grants, would face a $4.8 billion reduction in 2013.
  • Head Start cuts would eliminate slots for 80,000 young children in early education programs.
  • As many as 80,500 jobs across K–12 and higher education would be eliminated; the possible $1.2 billion cuts to Title I grants alone would hurt 1.8 million students and eliminate 16,100 jobs.
  • Pending $973 million in cuts to IDEA grants would impact nearly half a million children with disabilities and eliminate 12,600 jobs. Despite a 27 percent increase in costs over the past six years, IDEA funding would drop to 2006 levels, and shrink the federal share of funding to 2001 levels.
  • Title II grants for Teacher Quality would be cut by $207 million, eliminating 2,800 jobs and dropping funding to its lowest level since its inception in 2002.
  • School Improvement Grants would be cut by $45 million, impacting 69,000 students.
  • Education programs for homeless children would be cut by $5.5 million, the lowest level since 2004, despite a half million (or 143 percent) more homeless students receiving services. At least 72,000 students would be affected.
  • Though 70 percent of the nation’s school enrollment increase has occurred in rural districts, Rural Education programs would be cut by $15 million.
  • A possible $61 million cut to English language learner grants would impact 377,000 students.
  • Career-Tech Education grants to states would be cut $94 million, back to 1999 levels, despite a 2.5 million increase in student enrollment in Career Tech programs and a rise in costs of 77 percent since then.
  • A possible $82 million cut to federal work-study would likely reduce need-based aid for all current recipients and impact 683,000 college students.

—Cindy Long

Find breakdowns by program and by state, and share them on your social networks: www.nea.org/home/1019.htm

Fight privatization to stand up for students and teachers

When GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said on the campaign trail that education support professionals (ESPs) have nothing to do with student achievement, he revealed how little he knows about how public schools work. Every adult staffing our schools matters to student performance and well-being, and that’s why the threat of privatization of their jobs affects the entire school community and beyond.

Historically, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians have been the usual targets of those seeking to privatize public school jobs. But now, all ESP jobs are threatened in light of severe budget cuts, anti-union fervor, deceptive practices in which contractors lowball bids to school districts then increase fees once they gain leverage, and short-sighted legislators who offer band-aide solutions like outsourcing to survive a budget crunch and get re-elected.

“Sometimes, members are not aware of what privatization means to them,” says Connie Boylan, who chairs the anti-privatization committee for the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

Boylan says that at the local level, it is important to elect board members who understand the critical role of ESPs in schools and the community, where they often live, shop, and worship at the same places as school families. Forty percent of ESPs also support activities of parent groups and volunteer with charitable organizations.

This is not usually the case with workers for private companies.

“They don’t usually live in the school district or know the families of students,” says Boylan. “To them it is just a job. To our ESPs, it is a career.”

Legislators often promise that firing public school employees and transferring their job functions to a private company—whose employees typically receive lower pay, fewer benefits, and no union representation—will mean lower costs to the district. But facts don’t bear out the promise.

In Pennsylvania, school districts across the state that contract with private bus operators spend more money on transportation than those that manage their own bus fleets, according to a new report from the Keystone Research Center (KRC), an independent research and policy development institute based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Researchers identified 29 school districts that substantially increased their use of private carriers between 1992 and 2001. In the first year after privatization in these districts, total spending on student transportation increased by 10 percent or more in 20 out of the 29 school districts.

http://keystoneresearch.org/publications/research/school-bus-transport

Unfortunately, for many school trustees under pressure to cut costs, privatizing ESP jobs appears to be a quick and viable solution. And once legislators are entrenched in office, says Boylan, it is more difficult to oppose them.

“We have to get out in front of the issue by developing a plan and building community support...by contacting parents, and mobilizing business leaders and other union members,” says Boylan. That means encouraging everyone to put their votes where their priorities are, in every election, from school board to president.

“From the bus drivers to the cafeteria workers to the assistant in my own special education classroom, ESPs are an integral part of the success of our students,” says Kellie Blair Hardt, an educator and local president from Manassas, Virginia. “Romney…doesn’t understand it and that’s why ESPs are of no importance to him.”

—John Rosales

Don’t support candidates who don’t support all public school employees! Check out our candidate comparison, and visit your state association website to find out which candidates they recommend for state races. Talk to colleagues and community members to spread the word about how privatization hurts schools.   

Build on your victories

A year ago, Ohio workers faced a frightening scenario—Republican Gov. John Kasich and his allies in the state legislature had pushed through Senate Bill 5 (SB 5) that would strip them of their collective bargaining rights, which they knew were essential for advocating for the best conditions for the communities they serve. If the workers could get upwards of 230,000 signatures, they could get SB 5 on the ballot so Ohio voters could have their say.

But that would mean organizations that had not always seen eye-to-eye would have to cross party lines and old divisions for the cause.

The fact that a citizen-driven, bipartisan coalition of public- and private-sector workers, business leaders, students, parents, the Ohio Education Association (OEA), and other local activist organizations would come together so quickly under the banner We Are Ohio made this an astounding success story that continues with its first anniversary fast approaching.

 
Tom Moscovic (pictured left), a social studies teacher in the Cleveland suburbs who is also president of his local, was involved from the start. To get signatures for petitions, he recalls, “We canvassed neighborhoods, had drive-up corners where people could pull over and sign, we had petition drives at local—we did everything we could think of to do our part.”

Not only did the army of volunteers end up with more than 1.29 million signatures, they undertook a voter education campaign and successfully overturned SB 5. In the process, coalitions formed and inspired individuals to step up in ways that none would have thought possible just two years ago.

“OEA and all of the public unions had the support of the private unions and other organizations, because we knew we were all in this together,” says Moscovic.

The networks forged in response to SB 5 were clearly built to last. Working under the banner Voters First, activists are working to repair the damage of a conservative-led state redistricting that Moscovic called “unconscionable.” Another successful petition drive garnered enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot so voters can decide in November. Their goal is a Constitutional amendment to establish a non-partisan redistricting panel that will restore fairness and result in a state legislature that is more representative of the state.

“Gov. Kasich did something that, ironically, a Democratic administration may never have been able to do,” chuckles Moscovic. “He brought all of these groups together.”

The networks we build when we join together to stand up for public education will live on long after this fall’s elections. Contact your friends and fellow members using tools in the EdVotes Action Center and they become part of the movement!

Sign up now at ActionCenter.EdVotes.org.


8 reasons America’s students are counting on you to vote for their futures

1. CLASS SIZE MATTERS.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said repeatedly that class size doesn’t’ matter. Educators know better. In fact, class size reduction is a proven way to increase learning, especially in the early grades. The Obama administration knows this, and that’s why they released a plan to prevent further teacher layoffs and work to commit $25 billion to support teachers and other school staff who help students succeed. Your vote matters for student achievement in public schools across the nation.

2. HIGHER EDUCATION IS OUT OF REACH FOR TOO MANY STUDENTS.

Mitt Romney has said students should get only “as much education as they can afford.” He doesn’t recognize that for some students higher education is out of the question, while others must take on potentially crippling debt to attend college. Yet Romney has put in a good word for Full Sail University, the for-profit university that makes empty promises of high netting jobs in exchange for $80K annual tuition. These and other predatory tactics were decried in a Senate report earlier this year. Your vote matters to the millions of talented students who can’t afford higher education, and to the millions more who are living under the crushing weight of student debt.

3. PROTECTING EDUCATOR RIGHTS PROTECTS STUDENTS.

Romney’s promise to institute a national right-to-work law as president is a promise to remove an important check and balance in public education. Through collective bargaining, teachers bargain for better conditions that benefit their entire school community. Taking away that collective voice means that educators—the ones who know best what is needed to remove barriers to their learning—will be all but silenced. Your vote matters for the rights of educators and all workers and the learning conditions for students across the country.

4. YOUR STUDENTS WILL WANT TO VOTE.

There’s no question that voter suppression is rampant in GOP-controlled states—in fact, the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 5 million eligible voters will face barriers in exercising their right to cast a ballot in November. “Never in my lifetime did I think we’d have to fight for these rights again, but here we are,” said educator and NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle to a group of NEA educator-activists who pledged to combat voter suppression efforts. “It’s our turn to step up.” Your vote matters for the current and future voters of America.

5. EDUCATION FUNDING MATTERS.

Vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s signature budget proposal, for which Romney pledged his whole-hearted support, would slash funding for pre-K programs. And during his single term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney proposed eliminating early literacy programs and full-day kindergarten. It’s proven that high-quality early education gives students, especially from low-income homes, a better for academic success, and we need to elect people who understand the importance of early education. Your vote matters for getting students off to a good start.

6. THE SYSTEM IS GETTING STACKED AGAINST YOU AND YOUR STUDENTS.

Mitt Romney finally admitted that his tax rate for the past decade was around 13 percent. Under Ryan’s economic plan, millionaires like him would pay even less, while asking more of middle-class taxpayers and cutting important programs they rely on. Romney’s own tax plan would force a $2,000 tax hike on families with kids—and that has a direct effect on the day-to-day lives of your students. Your vote matters for working families and kids.

7. STUDENTS ARE MORE THAN TEST SCORES.

Mitt Romney’s education policy and the announcement of his education advisory panel took a page right out of the George W. Bush playbook.  With this “more of the same” scenario, how can we ever move past No Child Left Behind? Your vote matters for moving public education forward by ending “test, label and punish” education policies.

8. IT’S UP TO YOU TO KEEP THE D.R.E.A.M. ALIVE.

Thanks to President Obama’s executive order, millions of undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children and educated in our public schools can apply to live and work in the U.S. It’s a good move for those students, and for the economy! But it’s a temporary solution, and Mitt Romney has promised to veto the DREAM act should it cross his desk. The way we treat aspiring citizens reflects our commitment to promoting fairness and justice. Your vote matters for the millions of undocumented students, brought to this country as children, who long to attain higher education and contribute to our society.

 


 How are you getting involved in this year’s elections?

Go to EdVotes.org/2012story to share your story about registering voters, talking to your colleagues about the issues, or working on a candidate’s campaign for a local, state, or national race. Inspire your colleagues to join the movement!

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Published In

October, 2012