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Teacher Power: The New Force in American Politics

Last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle had a front page article about Democratic Party candidates attempting to whip up enthusiasm among their followers, to rival the energy seen in the Tea Party across the country.

Politicians need look no further than Florida to see where the grassroots activity will come from. Energized by a terrible law that would have diverted 5% of education money into tests, which would be used to evaluate and pay teachers, that state's educators, parents and students came out en masse. They protested along roadways, they challenged their politicians on the facts, they clogged their mailboxes and fax machines, they filled Facebook with groups posting the latest news, and made themselves a force to be reckoned with. Governor Charlie Crist, who hopes to soon be Senator Crist, heard the siren call of the "voice of the people" and vetoed that bill last week. Now he is reaping his reward - thousands of teachers grateful for his support, and willing to lend theirs in exchange.

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In nearby Louisiana, Republican governor Bobby Jindal has decided that "taking on the teachers' unions" will help improve schools. He has introduced legislation that will expand charters, tie test scores to teacher pay and evaluations, and make it easier to fire teachers if their students' scores do not improve.

In this increasingly polarized climate, teachers are wondering -- just who are our allies?

I am a bit disappointed that the race for California governor has thus far revealed the choice between bad ideas and no ideas at all, regarding our schools. Republican candidate Meg Whitman makes the typical politician's claim that she can simultaneously lower taxes and increase the quality of our schools. Her platform calls for more charter schools and merit pay for teachers, although there is little evidence that either of these will lead to better outcomes. Fellow Republican candidate Steve Poizner is bolder still. He likewise calls for more tax cuts, charter school districts, merit pay, and goes even further to call for the elimination of collective bargaining and tenure in the five lowest performing districts in the state.

But an even bigger disappointment has to be the Democratic Party candidate, former governor and Oakland mayor, Jerry Brown. Brown now serves as state Attorney General, and has earned a name for himself recently fighting mortgage fraud and other legal abuses. He also has some history in education circles. He helped bring two charter schools to Oakland - Oakland Military Institute, and Oakland School for the Arts. I recall his years as mayor with mixed feelings. He clearly cared about the schools, and sought to influence things for the better, but like most politicians, he did not seem to have a very strong handle on how to do so. A letter he wrote to the Department of Education last fall, commenting on Race to the Top, suggests he might have learned something from this experience. He wrote:

Inherent in the command and control philosophy of your draft regulations is a belief that everyone agrees on what should be taught--to whom and when--and how the lowest performing schools can best be turned around. Yet, there are so many unknowns about what produces educational success that a little humility would be in order. A better way would be to state what educational outcomes children should reach and then permit state and local flexibility to figure out how to reach the desired outcomes.

He went on to say:

As Oakland mayor, I directly confronted conditions that hindered education, and that were deeply rooted in the social and economic conditions of the community or were embedded in the particular attitudes and situations of the parents. There is insufficient recognition in the draft regulations that inside and outside of school strategies must be interactive and merged.

Unfortunately a visit to his campaign web site reveals he does not include education among the five areas he is focused on. This is disappointing.

UPDATE: A visit to his website today (August 6, 2010) reveals that Education is now the #1 issue listed under the "Fighting For You tab. It states:


I have been studying education and working on related issues ever since I was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in 1969. I approach this task with some humility, and a realization that there is no silver bullet that will fix everything. Education improvement takes time, persistence, and a systematic approach. California's education problems are not limited to just the lowest performing schools and teachers.

Political candidates are going to see a huge increase of interest in educational issues this fall. This will sadly be due to the unprecedented funding crisis our schools face. Class sizes are going to rise, programs will be cut, and students are going to be paying the price. Some politicians will intensify their attacks on teachers as the source of the problem, which will polarize education politics as we saw in Florida.

Perhaps Jerry Brown has avoided education issues out of humility - it has been said, after all, that the beginning of wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing. But a good leader will find that teachers are an untapped wellspring of expertise around educational policy. In the past few years there have been some intensive efforts to engage teachers in this work, and it is paying off. The Teacher Leaders Network, to which I belong, has produced a number of TeacherSolutions reports on subjects like performance pay. A California group, Accomplished California Teachers, is preparing to release a report sharing teacher ideas on how to improve teacher evaluations, and has an exciting new blog, InterACT. The Facebook group I started five months ago, Teachers' Letters to Obama, now has more than 1700 members, and we are actively discussing what some of our representatives should say to Secretary Duncan in a phone conference we have in the works.

If politicians want to see an enthusiastic base of support, they are going to need to become educated and outspoken on these issues.
As a teacher I am ready to donate, campaign, make phone calls, and walk my precinct for political leaders that make our schools a priority. Many of us are also ready to offer policy ideas rooted in our experience in the state's schools. In order to get involved, however, we need to be asked. And we need to know, are you with us?

What do you think? Are you ready to become more politically active around educational issues? Will teachers make a difference this fall?

photo by Anthony Cody

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