A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for March, 2018

Don’t Waste Energy and Resources

Progressives need to focus on winning and not on ideological purity. Campaigns like Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to Andrew Cuomo may activate the ideological purity receptors of some on the left, but in the end they lead to a waste of resources and, more importantly, bad feelings and low voter participation rates.

To be clear, I deeply dislike Andrew Cuomo, but as the incumbent governor with a huge campaign fund, he is more than likely to win. For all his faults, is he better than any republican being considered to run against him? Nixon is but one day into her campaign, and she is already asking whether Cuomo is a real Democrat. That’s the kind of question that got us President Trump. It’s the kind of infantile politics that has many Democrat congressional candidates running against Nancy Pelosi, a seasoned, successful, progressive legislator whose power and success curiously stirs opposition to her from members of her own party.

Our country’s institutions are challenged each day by a president and republic controlled congress that is hell-bent on erasing the New Deal from our history. At such a time we need to rally around Democrats of every stripe if we are to save this country as a fit place for working people to live and thrive. We can’t afford to waste energy and resources fighting among ourselves

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Misunderstanding Pensions

There is much I could say about the firing of Andrew McCabe, but I’ll confine myself to an issue his firing raises of import far beyond his individual case. The issue is the almost complete misunderstanding of what a pension is that permeates our media if not our society. As fewer and fewer people have defined benefit pensions, the very meaning of the terms seems to be evaporating.

One would think from the way pensions, particularly public employee pensions, are talked about that they are a reward for meritorious service upon retirement. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Pensions are deferred wages. A sum of money is paid by an employer periodically into a fund on behalf of an employee to provide income to that employee upon his retirement. The employee foregoes that money now to ensure a continuing income when he stops working.

When correctly understood, the taking of the pension of someone like McCabe who worked for over twenty years for an alleged contemporaneous infraction of FBI rules is particularly outrageous. He worked for the dollars that were put in the pension fund for him. We don’t ask him to return all of his pay checks for the twenty years of his employment. Why do we think his pension should be treated differently?

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The Young Awaken

As I write this morning, students across the country are leaving their classes to participate in seventeen minutes of silence in remembrance of the seventeen students killed in Parkland, Florida. In Washington, DC, students from the metro area converged on the Whitehouse, turning their backs to it in protest of the federal government’s failure to enact reasonable gun safety measures.

For a man who was their age in the 60’s, the awakening of student activism on a national scale is beyond heartening. I’ve watched far too many classes of students subordinate their feelings and concerns for matters beyond themselves to the race to get into the best college, to get the best job, to earn the most money. While it is indeed sad that it may have taken a massacre of their peers to wake them from their careerist torpor, the fact is they are awake. They’re marching, registering to vote and, even more importantly, experiencing the exhilaration that come with commitment to something bigger than one’s self. The adrenaline that comes with the experience of working with others for social change is a wonderful addiction that leads to a lifetime of good citizenship.

Bravo, young people! You put your parents who have been sitting on the sidelines to shame. March on!

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Now It’s Oklahoma

Recent militancy by the school employees of West Virginia is inspiring public workers in other non-collective bargaining states to take concerted action. The next likely state-wide strike is in Oklahoma, where the Oklahoma Education Association has carefully developed a campaign entitled Together We’re Stronger. There are four central planks to their campaign – a $10,000 raise over three years to all teachers with a $5,000 increase to support personnel, the restoration of education funding cut in recent years, a five percent increase in the pensions of retirees and a $7500 increase for all other state workers. Clear, concise and anchored in economic terms all state works with frozen wages can understand. Coupled with the threat of a statewide walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association has positioned themselves to be taken seriously by the governor and legislature.

In West Virginia and Oklahoma, public sector works are rediscovering an old truth. They are learning that worker solidarity around carefully crafted demands can force reluctant governments to bargaining even where there are no collective bargaining laws. Who would have ever expected West Virginia and Oklahoma to lead this rediscovery?

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West Virginia Settlement

The West Virginia strike by education workers is over. It appears that labor has won a clear victory, a victory that is causing other non-collective bargaining states to consider strike action. At a time when public sector unions are nervously and desperately attempting to shore-up their solidarity to withstand the almost certain defeat in the impending Janus Case decision, the resolve of the West Virginia NEA and AFT members to put away their ancient grudges and take on the state controlled completely by conservative Republicans offers hope and inspiration to a movement that has been languishing for too long. Undoubtedly spurred on by their example, the Oklahoma Education Association, An NEA affiliate whose teachers are the lowest paid in the nation, is talking about a strike at the end of the month if their economic demands are not met.

One would expect the leadership of both the NEA and AFT to be wildly celebrating the almost inconceivable West Virginia victory. Yet, a look at the web pages of both organizations reveals a stunning silence on the subject. Ironically, both have featured pieces on the Janus Case as they both fail miserably to see in the solidarity of the West Virginia teachers, aides, cafeteria works and bus drivers the real solution to the right’s attack on our unions – vibrant unions that fight like hell for the economic welfare of their members.

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The Unsafe School Myth

Readers will have notices how the discussion of a response to the school shooting in Florida has gradually changed from a focus on guns to hardening schools and providing gun power in some form to school buildings. Students, teachers and parents are being encouraged to believe that going into a school building poses a significant risk, one that demands quasi-military defenses that will have long range implications for school environment and culture. I have argued that school remains the safest place for children to be, the risk of serious injury at home still being far greater than falling victim to a crazed individual with an assault rifle. While I know it’s risky to challenge thoughtlessness with facts, certainly educators have an obligation to try to do so.

Eric Levits, writing in New York Magazine, offers what to me is the best writing on the subject of school safety that I have read. His work should receive the broadest possible circulation, as he offers chapter and verse in support of the fact that contrary the avalanche of stupid talk generated by the Florida tragedy, school remains a very safe place to be. The act of traveling to school puts one at far greater risk of injury and death than succumbing to mass murder. Unless reason can prevail, we appear to be on the verge of vast, unnecessary expenditures, expenditures that will certainly displace badly needed educational resources.

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Our Strike Averse Unions

Teachers and other school personnel remain on strike in West Virginia. A deal negotiated with the governor but dependent on action by the legislature was rejected by the rank and file. Every school district in the state is closed. The editorial page of the New York Times this morning looks at this stunning example of union militancy and says, “…we can hope, these teachers can provide workers throughout the country with a powerful lesson.”

Yet, do we see any of our unions trying to teach this vital lesson? Do we see our national teacher unions trying to inspire their affiliates to see in the militant struggle of the West Virginia school workers the untapped power to demand and achieve reasonable salaries sand working conditions? No we don’t! The New York Times is more militant than our unions!

While the AFT’s Randi Weingarten put out an email Sunday night soliciting donations to a solidarity fund created for AFT-West Virginia, both the NEA and The AFT appear desperate to keep the strike localized, afraid that the militancy it represents will spread to other states where to work in the public schools is to essentially take a vow of poverty.

At a time when the two national teacher unions and their state affiliates are expecting huge membership losses from a ruling in the Janus Case that will outlaw agency fees, when both organizations have been straining to show members the value of union membership, it defies the very concept of a union to essentially ignore an example of the power that can flow from the ranks of union solidarity.

If we get the lesson to be learned from the West Virginia strike, it is essential that we support it. I’ll be contributing today to the AFT solidarity fund. I hope my readers will too. Here are the particulars. Please make checks out to: AFT-WV Solidarity Fund. Mail to: AFTWV, 1615 Washington Street E . Suite 300, Charleston WV 25311

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