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Numbering more than four million, teachers represent better than one percent of the population of the United States. Given the fact that only about half the people in our nation actually vote, teachers are potentially even more than one percent of the electorate. And national elections are sometimes decided by margins smaller than this. Beyond our votes, teachers are connectors, influential among friends, family and community members.
We have been bulwarks of the nation's middle class, but as with the rest of the 99 percent, things have been tough the past three decades. As the nation's sleeping middle class wakes up to the nightmare the American dream has been turned into, perhaps teachers have a chance to gain some allies as we seek to defend our schools.
What would happen if we used this strength - combined with that of parents, college students and the rest of the middle class -- at the polls?
Right now we are watching the Republican candidates tie themselves up into knots over who will participate in a debate moderated by one egotistical billionaire, Donald Trump.
Why don't we have a general election debate moderated by expert teachers and involved parents, with a focus on issues affecting our schools?
Until recently, some billionaires have managed to hoodwink a lot of people into thinking they are the ones trying to rescue the poor from an inefficient school system. But as people realize how badly the system is treating most of us, they have become more skeptical of solutions offered by the wealthy.
If teachers could agree to speak out, and vote together on education issues, we would create a powerful voting bloc that could outweigh the influence of the billionaires. This could create some leverage on the candidates that are supposed to represent us.
What would be the principles that would guide us? I suggest the following:
1. Our primary concern is the future of our students. That is the reason we became teachers, after all.
2. Our public schools are a common treasure. We invest in our schools so they are the heart of our community. Schools are the place where every neighborhood brings its most precious gifts, our young people. This is a legacy we have received, and our goal is to hand it down in better condition than we found it.
3. We want every child to receive a high quality education, with good learning conditions. This means:
* Access to high quality early childhood education.
* Access to nutrition and health care.
* Teachers who are experienced and properly credentialed.
* Small class sizes.
* A rich and well-balanced curriculum, including art, music, PE, history and science.
4. Every student is entitled to a qualified, skilled teacher. Teachers should be credentialed! Teaching should be a career, attracting bright, motivated people who want to make a difference, and who are given the autonomy professionals deserve.
5. Our schools should be adequately funded. Schools in areas with high poverty, large numbers of English learners, high levels of neighborhood violence, and large numbers of special education students, should receive additional funding to cope with these challenges. As Diane Ravitch has said, the phrase "poverty isn't an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty." We need to recognize the impact poverty has, and stop pretending teachers alone can reverse its effects.
6. We must stop using test scores to punish schools, teachers and students. Test scores have no magical powers to uplift. Used this way, they corrupt our classrooms and narrow the curriculum, especially in high-poverty schools.
When our political leaders think of their own children, they are remarkably sensible - as when Barack Obama described how his daughters are learning at Sidwell Friends school last March. But when dealing with schools in general, we get tough talk, as if threatening a staff with mass firings will strengthen a school.
There are a few political leaders who are bucking the tide, and they deserve our support. California Governor Jerry Brown recently has turned down the Department of Education's manipulative NCLB waiver process, and is going directly to the voters to ask for new revenues to support schools and other critical social services.
Senator Bernie Sanders has helped shine a light on the issue of teacher qualifications, through these recent hearings. He is also pushing for Constitutional amendment overturning the ridiculous idea that corporations ought to have the same rights as human beings.
Fortunately, as the Occupy movement is showing, we do not need to wait for our elected leaders. We can take our message directly to the streets and state capitols, as these people are showing at the Occupy Education project.
There has been a very intentional campaign underway for decades to discredit our public schools, and those of us who work in them. People have become accustomed to the idea that our schools are so broken that they ought to be put under intense pressure to change, or even dismantled. Some of our politicians have even gone so far as to blame our schools for the poverty to which they must respond. We need to respond much more assertively.
We need a countervailing campaign that supports our public schools as the cornerstone of our neighborhoods, and one of the foundations of our democracy.
And since we are not always effectively represented by our elected leaders, we need to join with those like Joseph Ricciotti, who recently called on us to Occupy Education Reform:
We need an "Occupy Wall Street" protest among teachers and principals in every school district in the United States to convey the message that we are sick and tired of education reform that is too focused on testing and accountability. Just imagine what would happen if suddenly all educators and parents became protestors by advocating what we believe is best for our children. If we believe that as a society it is crucial to cultivate and educate children to be the creative, intuitive, free thinking citizens that is so important to the future of this nation, then we can no longer afford to allow these non-educators to call the shots. We cannot afford to sit by and have our educational system decimated by a handful of powerful education reformists.
I hope that teachers continue to be active participants in the Occupy movements across the country, and help our fellow citizens understand the peril our public schools are in. I hope more of us run for office ourselves as well. Teachers are more than one percent of the nation, so let's make sure the other 98 percent hear us!
What do you think of the principles I have suggested? Can we, as teachers, raise our voices together so as to create some accountability for those who claim to represent us?