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Overview: Thought & Action Summer 2017

Look away from the White House.

Your personal ability to stanch war with North Korea is limited. Nor can you make the Merdle in the West Wing care about racial minorities, climate change, or income equality.

Instead, focus your activism, as University of Oregon’s Gordon Lafer suggests in these pages of Thought & Action, on state legislatures and governors. Your letters, your marches, your time and your sanity—two things that we all have in decreasing stores these days—will be far more influential in local and state matters.

According to the Pew Research Center, Democrats lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures between 2009 and 2015, and that number likely reached 1,000 this past fall. Republicans now control both legisla¬tive chambers in 32 states, or 33, if you count Nebraska, which has a single “non-partisan” legislative chamber, dominated by Republican-minded lawmakers. By comparison, Democrats control both chambers in 13 states.

For faculty, staff and students, what we’re likely to see in these states is what we’ve already seen in these states, but more of it. That is funding cuts, assaults on tenure, curbs on academic freedom, and the dissolution of unions. In Iowa, for example, where Republicans consolidated their party’s power in Des Moines last fall, one of their first moves was to disembowel public employee unions. Now faculty and staff are prohibited from negotiating around performance evaluations, health benefits, sick leave, or procedures around job transfers, grievances, and layoffs. The new 60-page law limits contract negotiations to wages only, and limits wage increases to 3 percent. It also requires recertification of unions with every new contract, and forbids automatic dues deductions. “This is profession-busting,” said Tammy Wawro, Iowa State Education Association president. “You have carved out the heart of what is important and vital to our profession—our ability to have a voice in the direction of our work environment, which is also our students’ environment.”

In this game of follow the losers, Iowa follows Wisconsin, where state legislators and Gov. Scott Walker have decimated unions, disempowered faculty and staff, and stripped state funds from their colleges and univer¬sities. But, as Lafer points out, the corporate assault on public higher education, did not originate with Walker. It got its start in the back rooms of luxury resorts, where business lobbyists—organized by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC— meet to craft model state legislation that focuses on the privatization of public services and the elimination of labor unions. “The key to understanding the attacks on higher education—and to revealing the bleak future toward which they lead—is understanding the ways in which these initiatives serve what the nation’s biggest corporations believe is their self-interest,” writes Lafer.

Elsewhere in this issue, University of Texas author Patricia Somers, alongside her colleagues, examines her state’s new campus-carry gun law and its effects on women faculty. State laws that enable students and fac¬ulty to tuck a loaded handgun into their backpack or briefcase, or into a hip holster, and carry it into classrooms, faculty offices, and other campus locations have been modeled by ALEC, and passed in 10 states—but not Florida, where faculty union leaders assembled a coalition to kill the bill.

Meanwhile, Michigan Association of Higher Education president Alec Thomson takes a look at the ballooning numbers of dual-enrolled or dual-credit high school students. (Hello again, Iowa! More than 50 per¬cent of your high school students are enrolled in college classes.) In 2016 alone, at least six states took action to get more high-school students into college-level classes, and touted the tuition money saved for parents and students. But, as it stands today, Thomson points out, “dual enrollment pushes to remove the distinctions between higher education and high school, even middle school.” Furthermore, he writes, “At the core of this debate is a key question: what is the central purpose of a college educa¬tion? Should students attend college to expand their learning and develop skills such as critical thinking, or is college expected to be an experience that is designed to bolster a student’s future employment options?” The answer may be nuanced, but it must be debated and reasoned by you—the readers of this journal.

Your voice, especially in combination with your brothers and sisters in your staff and faculty unions, can be powerful. In his article, Lafer warns that the battle against the corporate emperors is a “daunting mission,” but he also provides some organizing strategies. In any case, the alternative— doing and saying nothing—is nauseating.

This overview always is the last piece of the journal written. Today, as the press deadline looms, it is difficult to think of anything but Charlottesville, Va., where just days ago racists and White nationalists marched with burning torches, hurling racial slurs and chanting such things as, “Jew will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan, “blood and soil.” Some of these racists and White nationalists are our students. And they have free speech rights, of course. But so do we, and we must not be silent.

Mary Ellen Flannery is Thought & Action’s editor. She has worked for the National Education Association as a senior writer and editor since 2004. Previously, she reported on education for The Miami Herald.


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