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Fighting for America’s Education Future

By Amanda Litvinov

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

As retired educators, you know that the school day doesn’t end when the final bell rings, and the school year doesn’t end in June. And the fact is that advocating for students extends far beyond the school steps. So educators, both active and retired, 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. 

As retired 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 has high stakes for public education, you are doing the right thing 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 Americans’ 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, including requiring photo IDs; shortening or eliminating early voting; and changing the rules for third-party voter registration efforts.

“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.”

 
“My family is engaged in politics, and I’ve long been involved in canvassing,” said Asia Horton (pictured left), a fifth-grade special education teacher from Erie, Pennsylvania. “Erie has a devastatingly high number of children living in poverty,” she said. 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 because of the state’s current education funding crisis.

Horton added: “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

 

Senator Osmond

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; and base at least 25 percent of teacher compensation on evaluations, with little clarity as to how those assessments would be carried out.

“There were impassioned speeches that night—paraprofessionals, teachers, support staff, superintendents, and business administrators all speaking out, hoping our views would be heard,” said 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,” said 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, plus a dozen classroom visits, Osmond says he came to understand the profound challenges public school educators face daily: overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, language barriers, behavioral issues, and hungry students.

“It’s just amazing to see the skills 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 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.

Later, when Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the UEA, presented to members the new SB 64—they applauded, she recalled.

“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 as they bid 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 to help.

Boil down the complex issues

There’s no question that sequestration, popularly known as the “fiscal cliff,” is scary, but don’t be intimidated by complex issues like federal budgets or how to make our tax code more equitable. On EducationVotes.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 EducationVotes.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 will kick in on January 2.

But there is a way to keep from going over the fiscal cliff.

Ask the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans to pay their fair share, or force schoolchildren to make all the sacrifices. Here’s some of what would happen if budget shortfalls are not met:

  • Education funding would drop to 2003 levels, even though public schools are now serving 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.

(The numbers listed above will be updated as further information becomes available. Get the latest information at EducationVotes.org/sequestrations. Find breakdowns by program and by state, and share them on your social networks.  

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 function. Every adult staffing our schools matters to student performance and well-being, and that’s why the threat of privatizing their jobs affects the entire school community.

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-aid solutions like outsourcing to survive a budget crunch and get re-elected.

Connie Boylan, who chairs the anti-privatization committee for the Michigan Education Association, 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.

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, 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

“ESPs are an integral part of the success of our students,” says Kellie Blair Hardt, an educator and local president from Manassas, Virginia.   

—John Rosales

How are you getting involved in this year’s elections? Go to EducationVotes.org 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

1-Nov-12