A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

It’s Outreach Time for NEA and AFT

It’s certainly clearer this morning that while Bernie Sanders can and will stay in the race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, there won’t be enough voters feeling the Bern to put him over the top. It’s not too soon for the leaders of our two national education unions, full-throated supporters of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning, to begin the fence mending process with the many rank and file members who are passionate supporters of Sanders, support that for many got all twisted up with their alienation from and resentment of what they see as the policy failures of their unions and the coziness of their leaders with a Washington establishment that has supported education policies that have been detrimental to the work of teachers and the students they teach.

In her victory speech last evening, Clinton took care to embrace some of Sanders’ themes, a significant step to begin a uniting process and recognition of the extent to which Bernie has pushed Clinton leftward from her comfort zone to the right of center. Many of my colleagues in the education labor movement don’t feel that the NEA and AFT treated Sanders fairly, both in the process of their endorsements of Clinton and in some of the ridiculously thoughtless criticism of Sanders. If our leaders, like their preferred candidate, will take a few steps to the left, if will reach out to the Sanders supporters, maybe even finding subtle ways to admit that their early Clinton endorsement was heavy-handed, it should be possible to bring our membership together for the challenge posed by Donald Trump. Hillary is going to need the passion and energy of the Sanders members. The effort to bring them into the fold must start today.

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We Need More Than Bouquets

It’s school budget time, and last night our board of education held the second in a series of public presentations on their preliminary budget to be voted on in May. The budgets of several departments were presented, all of which we prefaced by a presenter talking about the points of pride of the department under discussion. Board members chimed in, to a person extolling the outstanding work of our members. Yet, if one talks to our members, almost to a person they will tell you how underappreciated they feel. In the parlance of the day, there is a major disconnect between what the leaders of the district say about the staff in public and what they communicate to them in their day to day interactions. When an administration constantly looks to routinize our work, it says they have no confidence in our knowledge and professional judgment. When our work is scrutinized rather than supervised, it tells us that we are not trusted to do the right thing. When we are paid thousands of dollars less than workers in neighboring districts, it says our work is not really that important after all. When in addition to underpaying us we see significant dollars budgeted for the latest educational fads, it says to us that those things are more important than the economic well-being of the people who do the essential work of the district –teaching. No amount of public flattery can overcome the day to day indifference to our economic and professional needs. It’s not bouquets we’re after.

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Waning Institutional Loyalty

My school district like many in my area has experienced a very high degree of administrative turnover. Increasingly, the people taking these jobs begin to look at the next rung on their career ladder before they ever settle in to their new positions. They never develop any institutional loyalty. It’s almost as though they are independent contractors, here to do a specified job of work today and gone tomorrow. It’s so bad, that the other day a colleague mentioned the name of a recent administrator, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t place the name. One resigned a few weeks ago whom I’m pretty sure I never met.

For staff that overwhelmingly tends to make the district their career, this turnover has profound implications. In an institution with an administrative revolving door, few of the district’s leaders get to know the staff. In general, few of these transient leaders develop any personal bonds connecting them to the people they are ostensibly supposed to lead. In a well-managed organization there is a certain reciprocity between leaders and led. It is an immutable law of leadership in any hierarchical organization that loyalty has to flow down before it can flow up. Leaders who are seen to understand and support their subordinates command a loyalty in return that solidifies the leader’s position in the hierarchy. It’s that reciprocal loyalty that is the bedrock of loyalty to the institution. Where it is missing, the web of personal bonds that we often refer to by the term “team” can never develop, leaving the staff less and less willing to subordinate their own interests to the god of the institution.

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Are We Our Jobs?

At a meeting I hold each year for new employees to our school district, I usually end with a warning to new teachers. I try to get them thinking from the very beginning about how much of their waking lives it is appropriate to dedicate to their new jobs. I do so growing out of the observation that the messages sent to teachers these days by school leaders and the parents of the children they teach is that one can never do enough. There is always something else those outside the classroom can think of for one to do. “If you let them,” I tell the newbies, “they will suck the marrow out of your bones.” In subtle and not so subtle ways, the message is conveyed that teachers are expected to subordinate their personal and family needs to their jobs. The job always comes first. As absurd a notion as that is, sad to say it all too often is internalized, creating serious problems in the lives of many teachers. Yet, the profession doesn’t talk much about this problem, not even most union leaderships.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see an article by private school teacher Christopher Doyle in the current issue of Edweek entitled “Teachers, Take Care of Yourselves.” To my message about avoiding the marrow being sucked out of one’s bones, Doyle adds our responsibility to serve as role models for students of what a harmonious, integrated and healthy lifestyle looks like. Such an approach, in addition to helping prevent teacher burnout, might help many students get out from under the horrifying burden of believing their self-worth is completely tied to their school achievement.

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Fair Competition

Most of us don’t have any problem recognizing that some people are more intelligent than others. Neither do we find it difficult to grasp that some people have skills that try as they might other don’t have. You could give me art lessons from now until I don’t know when, and I still would have no artistic ability at all. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to people, some who even work in the field of education, that not all students can be successful at the study of every subject at every level. The dismal facts are that not all students are equally intelligent, and, likewise, not all students have the same talents.

Implicit in all the stupid talk that we euphemistically call school reform is the notion that if our teachers were just up to snuff, if we could have a great teacher in front of every classroom, all of our students would succeed and achieve mastery in every subject, and go on to a top shelf college, and get a fantastic job upon graduation. Talk about political correctness.

I’m all about challenging kids to try to stretch themselves, but, as the adults in their lives, we have to place realistic limits on how far we attempt to stretch them. We do them no favor when we encourage them to try things that our professional judgment tells us they can’t do. Setting young people up for failure does nothing worthwhile. We do nothing helpful for them when we set them up to compete against others whom we know will win. If our schools are to continue to run on a principle of competition (And there are other ways of running them.), we have an obligation to see to it that the competition is fair – that some kids are not the perpetual losers.

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Need to Re-energize Opt-Out

I met with some union colleagues last evening. I was happy to learn that they are moving forward with getting their members to sign membership renewal cards for next year. Like me, they are hoping that the death of Justice Scalia ends the imminent threat posed by the Friedrichs case to agency fee, but they are determined to protect their locals lest their faith in the four liberals on the high court has been misplaced or one of the Republican Neanderthals running for the presidency wins and appoints an ideological successor to Scalia. I actually am starting to believe that this generation of union leaders is starting to learn the secrets of organizing.

Their interest in organizing was manifest in our discussion of the status of the opt-out movement. Most of us are concerned that some of the energy of the movement has been sapped by the propaganda success of the moratorium enacted last year on consequences from high stakes tests for either students or teachers. I share the fear expressed that some of the public, and perhaps even our own members, believe that the threat posed by high stakes testing has abated. Yet, students are still asked to take essentially useless tests, and, worst of all, the tests continue to drive instruction a direction toward the substitution of training instead of education. The simple fact is that the reasons the opt-out movement was formed remain, and those of us who passionately support it are looking for fresh ways to support and build it, as it continues to be the most potent weapon we have against the test and punish reformers.

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Who’s Accountable?

I’m onto my system of school accountability again. It enraged me to read of the introduction by some of the nitwits leading our nation’s school systems of virtual school days. You’ve got it. Virtual school days have kids staying at home and doing their school work in one way or another through the internet. One has to laugh at the rationale offered by some for this cheap knockoff of education. Since more and more employers have their employees working from home, public schools offering virtual school days are preparing students for the workplace of their futures. The schmucks selling this snake-oil are the pawns of the corporate school reformers who would love nothing better that a complete system of virtual schools. No need for school buildings, school buses, no student cafeterias. No need to manage the behavior of hundreds of children. No teachers getting together to engage each other professionally. Much harder for unions to organize people who never come to one workplace. The perfect system for the faceless cogs so desperately sought after by the titans of our rapidly emerging dystopia. Where is our system of accountability to check these charlatans who would cheat children of their right to a real education?

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The Failure to Oppose King

John King has apologized on behalf of the federal government for policies that left teachers feeling themselves the target of the government’s attack. NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia hopes his apology translates into deeds to improve the conditions and status of teachers. One would think that John Kind was the brand new eraser come to wipe the slate completely clean (Pretty soon no one will understand this metaphor.). Why would anyone take either of them seriously?

Eskelsen Garcia certainly knows King’s history in New York. It is a history that keeps giving. A committed supporter of high stake tests, the linkage of that testing to the evaluation of teachers and the flawed Common Core Standards so disrupted public education in the state that it will be years before we are able to return to some semblance of normalcy. To be sure, he was implementation federal law and the instructions of the Regents, but it was always clear that this man whose education experience was brief and confined largely to charter schools relished his assignment and saw himself as a leader in the so-called education reformed movement. To believe now that he has seen the error of his way in New York and that he, and for that matter the Obama administration, are now sorry for what they have done to public education and to the teaching profession is simply unbelievable.

For most of the teachers in New York it is much too late to apologize. Teachers here are nonplussed by the Obama administration’s nomination of King. The nomination effectively negates any second thoughts they may have about the consequences of their Race to the Top approach. Seeing their national union leaders Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten acquiesce to King’s nomination to be Secretary of Education is interpreted as indifference to the lasting harm King caused to public education in our state.

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Ready for Kindergarten?

The corporate education reform movement is spawning every conceivable kind of exploitation of children and their anxious parents. This morning, a friend pointed me to a community Facebook page on which person shilling an outfit called the Homework Hub the anxiety provoking question, “Is your son or daughter ready for the demands of kindergarten?” It goes on, “The Kindergarten curriculum moves quickly and being prepared for the challenges ahead will give your child a running start from the get go.”

Once upon a better time, children who were toilet trained had all of the qualifications necessary for kindergarten. Parents could comfortable assume that they could send their kids to school without any academic preparation. Now, education hucksters lead parents to feel that unless they have reading readiness skills and other abilities that five year-olds often don’t as yet have, their educations may be permanently sidetracked, their futures dimmed, and their earning potential curtailed. The road to economic success begins in kindergarten.

There seems to be no end to what education con-merchants can sell to a public all too willing to pay any price to be relieved of the gnawing feeling that they may not be doing all they can for their children, that they may be found to be wanting as parents. Thus we see more and more children with calendars of activities ranging from tutoring, to sports, to volunteer work to lessons of all kinds, all assembled by parents seeking build their children’s resumes to get them into a prestigious college, not for the education offered there but for what it will mean for their future earning power. The race to nowhere starts earlier and earlier.

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You Thought You Knew About Pearson

Mention the name Pearson in the circles in which I travel, and it is as though you mentioned some sinister, criminal enterprise. No other company is so closely associated with high stakes testing and the corporate influence on public education. Yet, I suspect that most of the people I know in public education, like I, know very little of just how pervasive the influence of this company is on education – from K to graduate school. One needs to read Stephanie Simon’s piece on Politico to begin to understand the frightening extent to which Pearson saw the potential in the American school reform movement for them to make huge profits, cultivating a perception gullible by school administrators that only they had the materials, test and programs to bring the academic progress the reformers demanded. I certainly never understood that they have been repeatedly given huge, no-bid contract by major public universities to provide those schools with online college courses. If you have been angered at the business influence on our public schools, read this piece. It will enrage you. I hope some of the nation’s attorneys general read this piece and start to look into these no-bid contracts Pearson has gotten. There almost has to be something seriously wrong here.

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Mindless Uniformity

The surest sign to me that a school or school district is intellectually dead is if all of the teachers on a grade are teaching the same thing at the same time using the same lessons and materials. In such places, the corporate reform movement has won, the quality of education being measured by the results on high stakes tests, tests that control what gets taught and when. Such places are led by education functionaries who either never had any understanding of and commitment to public education or sold that commitment for a step up the ladder of administrative success. The best days of teaching and learning in my district were when we had a leader who went from building to building challenging the faculties to try new things, to experiment, to take some risks to make things better. Teaching the way everyone else did marked one as lazy, unimaginative and therefore uninspiring.

I grow increasingly concerned that the deformers of public education are winning the battle of ideas as the public misconstrues uniformity for quality and differences as a sign that their children are missing out on something to which they are entitled. On one hand this is clearly the result of the preoccupation with high stakes testing. What we test is what we get. Yet, there is something more going on. Has a public that has grown increasingly mistrustful of public institutions developed a level of mistrust that perceives anyone getting something they are not receiving as a rip-off, an uneven playing field, a failure of that institution, almost a personal affront? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing. A mindless uniformity of instruction and quality education are mutually exclusive concepts.

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Scalia’s Death and Friedrichs

The threat posed by the Friedrichs Case to our public sector labor movement has not gone away with the death of Justice Scalia. I’m unnerved this morning to read various pro-union writers talking about how we have dodged a bullet. It’s troubling to read this stuff because I fear it will invariably lead to a relaxation of an already somewhat lame effort to organize our members to deal with this existential threat and others like it. Having been awakened from a long slumber by Friedrichs, we must take its lesson and use it to immunize ourselves against attacks like it. I refuse to count on the four so-called liberals on the Supreme Court to do the right thinks and affirm our right to agency fee. I don’t want to have to worry that one of the Republican madmen running for the presidency will be elected in November and appoint a replacement for Scalia that will have us longing for his enlightened opinions.

The Friedrichs case was dreamed up and pushed by the extreme right for whom union are anathema. They are not going away anytime soon. Justice Scalia’s death may have temporarily set their agenda back, but to believe that we’re now home free is to be naïve in the extreme.

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A Different Common Core

If we were seriously interested in holding our public schools accountable, we would be much more interested in things other than standardized test scores. We would be horrified by how many Americans reject the scientific certainty that all life on earth has evolved over millions of years. We would be appointing one committee or another to determine why so many of the products of our schools know so little about their elected representatives, how their government works and how few of them ever bother to vote. In our discussions of academic standards, we would search for a curriculum that started children learning in their earliest years about what the legacy of slavery has meant to our nation and what it continues to mean to today’s African Americans. We would heavily sanction schools that didn’t find daily ways to engage students about current events, criticizing teachers for their failure to engage contemporary controversies in their classrooms. We would be taking stock of the extent to which America’s students recognize their responsibilities to others and how their political and economic freedoms are inextricably tied to those of their fellow citizens. We might even come up with some mathematical index to gauge the success of our schools as the agents of the renewal of our society. We need to be talking about a different common core.

This subject is on my mind this morning since I read this article in the New York Times on how poorly America’s seem to be doing in getting children to understand climate change and humans contribution to it.

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Growing the Opt Out Movement

The state assessments are on the horizon, and Commissioner Elia is doing her best to try to delude parents into believing that there are no longer any reasons for opting children out of the exams. She would have citizens understand that these tests have been made shorter, are in the process of being revised by a different and are not going to be tied to consequences for either teachers or students for the next few years while the state reassesses with input from teachers its testing regimen and the Common Core Standards to which it has been connected.

Yet the truth is that nothing of real consequence has changed. Students will still have to sit for hours taking these slightly shortened tests. In fact, many of them will spend more time on them this year than last owing to a completely idiotic decision to allow students unlimited time to complete the exams. Worst of all, absolutely nothing has been done to ameliorate the destructive effect of these high stakes tests on what is taught. Teachers are still teaching to the rhythm of pacing charts tied to the examination schedule rather than the needs of their students. Age inappropriate instruction has parents freaking out over the number of hours little children are spending on home work, work that their parents often have trouble understanding. In wealthier communities like mine, small fortunes are being spent on tutors in the elementary grades lest these kids permanently damage their college options and thereby their economic opportunities for the remainder of their lives.

To me there is even a stronger case for opting out this year than in the past. The gall of our leaders in Albany who think we’re stupid and will passively swallow their reform charade has prompted me to redouble my efforts to convince people that opting their children out offers the best chance of once and for all returning to educating children rather than training them to take tests. The moratorium on consequences for students and teachers was a step in the right direction. The bigger step that must be taken is ending the rule of the testocracy over what happens in our community schools. Growing the opt-out movement will hasten the arrival of that day.

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We’ve Lost Our Magic

I used to give a talk to all of our new teachers on the demographics of our community and what they meant for teaching in Plainview-Old Bethpage. After talking about things like median family income, the education level of residents, their skill at negotiating their way through bureaucracies like school districts, I always ended with, “Above all you must be keepers of the magic.”

The magic I referred to is the knowledge they have of teaching that they must protect and defend from a public that increasingly feels free to know more about what the education of children should look like than the people who actually teach. Somehow few if any laypeople think of telling lawyers and physicians how to practice the law and medicine. I never conversed with anyone who claimed to know more about engineering than a trained engineer. Yet, I routinely meet people, who despite the fact that I have spent over forty years in education, think their opinions about the subject are every bit as good and informed as mine. It’s getting so that teachers are the last people anybody wants to talk with when a question about education is advanced. From hedge fund manager to local parent of a kindergarten kid, teachers seem to have lost the magic that provided other professions with a professional distance from the consumers of their services. If we could only put these usurpers of our magic inform of a class of twenty-five kids and have they try to engage them for forty minutes, they would beg us to take back our magic.

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Attacking Medicare for All

Why can’t we face the fact that while the Affordable Care Act was a huge leap forward in the direction of universal health care, it will not get us to that goal? Why can’t those who claim to be progressives recognize that despite the fact that the politics of today makes this an inopportune time to achieve healthcare for all, that does not mean that we cease our advocacy for it as a basic right of any decent society. My blood pressure is really starting to rise in response the criticism of Bernie Sanders by Hillary Clinton supports for advocating a Medicare for All system. We know that Medicare works. Why then is a system that has done so much to lift the aged out of poverty not an appropriate system to care for the health needs of all Americans? It’s simply disheartening to see leaders of a great union like the AFT and other liberal establishment figures succumb to political expediency and work discredit an idea that has motivated progressives for generations. Even if a single payer system like Medicare would increase our healthcare costs (which I don’t believe), it is morally imperative that those who claim the progressive mantel keep advocating for universal care as a basic civil right. If such advocacy is not to come from the ranks of labor, where is it to come from?

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The Cost of Test Driven Schools

We used to laugh at students in many Asian school systems who attended their public schools during the day only to enroll in tutoring schools in the evening to cram for the high stakes tests the results on which in many countries determine a young person’s educational and economic future. American students were allowed to be children, with time for recreational activities, friends and families. There was a balance in their lives between school and home. Without challenging the endurance of our children, without tying their self-worth exclusively to their academic prowess but with a much more determined effort to develop their ties to their communities and nation and with a very conscious effort to provide they with opportunities to find out who they were, the United States managed to maintain the world’s premier economy with a highly productive workforce. We knew that “the child is father of the man” and acted accordingly, trying to cultivate the development good people, good citizens and a good society.

Now we don’t laugh at the drone children of our Asian competitors. We emulate them. More and more we teach to high stakes tests, increasingly blurring the distinction between education and training in the process. Our communities are awash in after-school tutoring services that promise higher grades on everything from basic reading comprehension to the Graduate Record Exams. There are three such places just in the office building in which our union office is located. Our public schools are increasingly urged by ever more anxious parents to provide before and after school extra help to our youngest elementary students to ensure that they have every competitive edge they can get in the race to nowhere. At a recent meeting of our board of education, parents implored the board to provide Saturday and or evening high school math classes in trigonometry for fear that their children might miss a question or two on the ACT examination.

The United States will be no safer if our children do are doing school work during most of their waking hours. Kids fighting with their parents over homework that parents only half understand will not ensure the economic supremacy of the nation. Suppressing what we have learned about the psycho-social development of children will surely not produce happier, better adjusted children with a strong sense of responsibility to others. We can’t test, tutor or academically bludgeon our way to a better, more equal, more wholesome society. We can educate ourselves to a better place, if we choose to.

More and more people are choosing to do so. The rapidly growing opt-out movement is effectively challenging the use of high stakes tests. In more and more communities parents are questioning why their children are doing homework to the exclusion of a real home-life. I meet more and more parents who tell their children, “That’s enough homework for one day.” We need to demand that teaching be done in such a way as to devote the time necessary to meet students’ needs rather that slavishly following test driven pacing charts. Kids shouldn’t need extra help because teachers are forced to move on even though they know that their students haven’t mastered their lesson. We need to remind ourselves that really good schools are about the education of human beings, not the training of economic units. We need to understand that the cost of what we are doing today will be far greater than the reformers would lead us to believe.

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More Bad News From Elia

Slowly but ever so surely, Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia is revealing herself to be a committed supporter of corporate education, test and punish public school reform. The announcement that she will attend a charter school rally at a time when the charter industry is seeking the lifting of the cap on charters by the New York State Legislature can only be seen as a poke in the eye to opponents of charter expansion who believe that these publically funded schools drain resources from public schools, do not have to abide by the same regulations and are part of the corporate agenda to discredit public schools with the aim of ultimately privatizing them. For some time, I’ve been observing that Elia is fundamentally no different than her predecessor John King except for having better public relations people. While I’m on the subject, it’s worth noting that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan will all attend the charter rally.

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Untimed?

While people tend to think more positively about squirrels than rats, both are destructive rodents that can seriously damage one’s home. So it is that John King was beyond any doubt the worst New York education commissioner over the course of my teaching and union career. His incompetence was matched only by his arrogance. His successor, Mary Ellen Elia, while a smoother operator, has no intentions of grounding New York’s education policy in our understanding of how children develop and learn but is clearly bent on making the major planks of the corporate reform movement more palatable to the gullible masses.

That she knows nothing about young learners was most recently made clear by her announcement that this year’s grades three through eight English and math tests will be untimed. So, children who have already been overburdened with too many hours of testing will now feel obliged to sit and struggle with questions which in many cases are developmentally inappropriate, feeling dumber and more frustrated by the minute. What would possess any educator to think this is a good thing to do to children? What’s the point?

The only point to be taken that while Elia may have a more appealing personality than her predecessor, it is becoming clear that those of us seeking real change in the management of the education bureaucracy will not be seeing it from Mary Ellen Elia who may in the end be even more destructive than John King. While she is spending considerable time trying to tame the opt-out movement, I doubt she is fooling anyone with moves like this. Any parent who has a child who struggles with high stakes tests would be foolish not to opt his child out from an untimed one.

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How Did Idealism Become a Bad Thing?

I realize that having decided to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, NEA and AFT leadership need to try to organize membership support for their endorsed candidate. Being a practical man, I’m prepared to work my ass off for Hillary should she become the party’s candidate for the presidency, even though I’m a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and the program he advocates. What I don’t get, is their line of attack against Sanders.

For labor leaders, for union leaders who represent hard working, underpaid people, people who find themselves being squeezed out of the middle class and robbed of their profession by a corporate led school reform movement to attack Sanders for being idealistic, an unelectable socialist is to ironically betray what real leaders do – offer those they would lead a vision of a better world than the one they inhabit. Bernie is attacked for unrealistically believing it possible for our public colleges and universities to educate for free the children of the taxpayers who fund these institutions as is done by most of the world’s industrial democracies. Bernie is attacked and ridiculed for not wanting to settle for the Affordable Care Act but wanting to continue to work for the day when quality healthcare is no longer a commodity but a human right. Paid family leave, absolutely essential to the people I represent, is yet another example of Bernie’s hopeless idealism and evidence for his not being qualified to be president. It’s just weirdly unsettling to have the national leadership of our teacher unions attacking a life-long defender of working people, a man with the temerity to attack the corporate elites of our nation, the very elites who have financed the attack on public education.

In a deeply troubling way, the manner in which our national union leaders, and to be fair many other liberal elites, are treating Bernie Sanders is a manifestation our union movement’s lack of motivating idealism. Our leaders would do well to learn from Bernie, particularly his appeal to the young. They might gain some insight, stimulate what’s left of their imaginations, to come up with an agenda for re-inventing the education labor movement for a new generation of members. A little idealism would go a long way in the battle against the forces arrayed against us.

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