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Teachers Beware: They are Coming for Our Pensions

I have tried, in recent months, to strike a balance between hope and concern about where we seem to be headed in education. Today I am going to sound an alarm bell. The pensions of teachers and other public employees are in jeopardy because a wealthy elite have decided they have better things to do with our money.

On Wednesday, listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR, I heard an expert on the auto industry, Paul Ingrassia, talk happily about the "tough love" the Obama administration had shown for auto workers. Using the device of bankruptcy to break contractual obligations to their employees, the US car makers have reduced their labor costs from 30% of the cost of a car to just 6%. Now, even though they are selling fewer cars, the car makers are raking in the billions again.

Ingrassia explained it this way:

So if we can, you know, at least address the problems of Detroit with promises, the promise of improvement, or even a cure, why can't we apply the same tough-love methods to the federal budget deficit and the whole entitlement structure that we have in this country that has helped produce that deficit, and also to the public employee pension plans that are threatening to bankrupt many of our states? Those are huge problems that will swamp this country if they're not addressed.

There was a very interesting op-ed piece a couple of days ago in The Wall Street Journal by a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that Congress should pass a law that allows states to declare bankruptcy. And, you know, it's not a bad thought. And there's no way that GM and Chrysler would have made it through this restructuring without the ability to renounce contracts and, you know, to renounce their financial obligations that they have accumulated over the years that they could not afford to meet.

And the shoe dropped just a day later, when the New York Times reported that "Policy makers are working behind the scenes to come up with a way to let states declare bankruptcy and get out from under crushing debts, including the pensions they have promised to retired public workers."

The New York Times story indicates that there is not yet legislation for this purpose, and that there are concerns that if states declare bankruptcy, holders of state bonds might suffer. This would create instability in financial markets - which is of course intolerable to the bankers who are apparently running America. But apparently robbing teachers of our pensions is quite acceptable - so the clever lawyers are hard at work to come up with a scheme that will allow the states to default on their obligations to pensions, while preserving their obligations to bondholders.

It is interesting to note Ingrassia's use of the phrase "tough love." In Michelle Rhee's plan to fix the schools she simplisticly declares are, she says we must "Ensure that the government exercises discipline in pension and benefit programs." So there must be tough love and discipline - we are being treated as if we were children bingeing on ice cream.

We are not children. We are adults who have chosen to teach, a not very well-paid profession. And those of us who have chosen to make it a career look forward to the day when we can cease grading papers and calling parents, and enjoy a few years of hard-earned rest before we go off to the teacher's lounge in the sky. Our pensions are a form of deferred compensation. That money has already been earned, and the obligation to us is very real.

This is one more step towards the destruction of our profession. We need people to choose teaching as a career because it is complex work that deepens year after year. The first or second year intern may have good test scores, but they have a great deal to learn - as most of them will tell you. But when we make everything about test scores, and base everything - pay, hiring, evaluations - on these scores, we have lost the foundation for our profession, and any intern with a repertoire of test prep techniques is as "effective" as a seasoned veteran. This crass definition of effectiveness allows the embrace of policies that devalue experience and seniority, and things like pensions that promote career longevity, in favor of cost-cutting measures. We need a profession that creates stability in our schools, not the constant churn that makes the veteran teacher a rarity, and robs us of the dynamic mix that results when novices and veterans collaborate together to learn how innovative practices can meld with traditional ones.

But take careful note, when Mr. Ingrassia talks about the "entitlement structure we have in this country," these are code words for Social Security, the other target in the sights of the billionaires. So we are in good company. It is not just public employees that stand to lose our pensions - it is every person who does not have an independent means of supporting themselves when they retire. And this is both the greatest danger, and our greatest hope. We need to help our fellow Americans understand - they are coming for ALL of our pensions. Teachers and other public employees are taking some big hits, but the biggest pot of gold of all is Social Security, and that will affect every wage earner in the nation. We need some good old fashioned solidarity. And we need to get ourselves into the streets for some old fashioned protests. I am headed to Washington, DC, this summer, and it looks like I have some company.

What do you think? Are our pensions in jeopardy? Can we gather enough allies to protect them?

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