It Falls to Pieces: Deconstructing Newsday’s Teacher Bashing

                                                                               By Jane Weinkrantz  

Any day now, I expect to see Newsday’s front page with a headline like, “Home Schooling WAAAY Better than Public Schools. Greedy, Fat, Lazy LI Teachers No Longer Able to Afford Private Jets and Plastic Surgery as Tax Impoverished Parents Teach Their Own Kids!” That would be objective journalism by Newsdays’s standards. It would also be the logical conclusion to the anti-teacher hate fest that John Hildebrand, whose writing has as much charm as Dick Cheney’s leadership, has been having in the Long Island daily’s pages lately.

I almost don’t know where to begin. With the sloppily reported, pick and choose statistics that conclude that we make $145,000 and don’t contribute to our medical benefits? (I wonder where that mysterious “insurance” deduction on my paycheck is really going?) With the painfully simple-minded graphics that illustrate a higher number of teachers and a decreasing enrollment without acknowledging that those numbers coincide with an aggressive (and money saving) trend towards placing all but the most extremely disabled children in regular public schools, often in classrooms with much smaller class sizes and more than one teacher? Should I start with the non-existent attribution? “School budgets are slated to continue climbing next year at rates ranging from 1 to 4 percent, according to districts’ preliminary projections…The principal factor, officials say, is contractual pay raises.” (“Schools Plan to Cut Payrolls,” Newsday, 3/28/09 ). “Officials say.” Nice. Or in March 7’s “LI Teachers Getting Hefty Raises Despite Economy,” there’s, “Local school authorities  add that contract raises are based largely on regional patterns.” Lastly, “Taxpayer representatives agree districts are at a disadvantage.” Who are these “officials” “authorities” and “representatives?” So many groups, so few actual names.  Was Hildebrand absent the day they studied attribution in journalism school?

While many remain nameless, Hildebrand is generous with his quoting of and attribution  to TaxPac groups and other organizations that view education as overpriced and teachers as overpaid. Spokesman for school boards, superintendents and leaders of taxpayer groups such as Graham Kerby of Long Islanders for Educational Reform and Edmund J. McMahon of the right wing Empire Center for New York State Policy are given plenty of copy space in articles with wonderfully non-biased headlines. (“Taxpayers Cry Uncle,” Newsday, 3/9/09 ). Hildebrand also seems to support superintendents like Thomas Shea of South Huntington who has agreed to take 5 days less pay if teachers and other school employees do the same. How touching and heroic. Of course, at an annual salary of $255,000, Shea probably won’t feel the pinch the way an entry level teacher earning $50,000 will. Even someone who received a 1 on the New York 8th grade math assessment would be able to figure that out.

Let’s not forget the apples to kumquats comparisons that Hildebrand is so fond of…comparing average teachers’ salaries with “workers for other local government agencies.”  Which agencies would those be? What other local government agency requires that every one of its workers have a Master’s degree to qualify for their jobs?  Even when he allows that another union received a raise as high as 8.1 %, the union Hildebrand refers to represents corrections officers, a job that does not require any college background at all. Is his perception that teachers are just another variety of jailer, anyway?

Who can forget the very fuzzy, heck, the angora math that states, “A Newsday review of 10 new teacher contracts---all signed after experts began warning late in 2007 of looming financial troubles---finds typical raises for the coming year of more than 6 percent.” (“LI Teachers Getting Hefty Raises Despite Economy, Newsday, 3/7/2009). First, I would quibble with the notion that the weak U.S. economy was common knowledge in 2007. At the time, the President and his supporters were painting a rosy economic picture. In January 2008, Bush told us, "This economy is on a solid foundation ... While there is some uncertainty, the report is that our financial markets are strong and solid." But, more directly, a Weinkrantz review of new teacher contract settlements with statistics supplied from BOCES  found the following  figures for 08/09 raises (plus increment)  on Long Island: Bethpage 3.5%, East Meadow 3.35%, East Williston 3%, Lynbrook 3.35%.  The highest raise I found was in Roosevelt , a district that has been the setting for many scandals and poverty so serious that it would be difficult to attract qualified teacher candidates, possibly even with a 6% raise. All of the contracts in the 3% range were settled after the U.S. economy’s meltdown became public in fall of 2008 and seem a little more in line with the times than the naysayers at Newsday would have you believe.

Of course, who knows what John Hildebrand really believes? His articles may just be the new millennium’s journalistic version of 1984’s Two Minute Hate, a convenient focus for an understandably angry population that has been duped by leaders who bailed out profligate banks without asking for any accountability, led us into an unfounded war that cost billions, permitted people who made $40,000 a year to qualify for $800,000 mortgages and watched as credit cards and equity loans underwrote lifestyles folks couldn’t afford, but soon became accustomed to. To Newsday editors, teachers seem a modern Emmanuel Goldstein, a group everyone can learn---with a little direction and encouragement---to despise. Plus, bashing us seems to sell papers.

This type of journalism also perpetuates some antiquated ideas about teachers that need to be put to rest once and for all. Newsday’s pages seem to ask over and over: how dare those teachers want money?  How dare they want health care? How dare they see their work as a profession and not a vocation?  To John Hildebrand, Newsday editors and anyone else who is confused: we are not nuns, taking vows of poverty and chastity as we educate your children. We are not maiden schoolmarms wearing bonnets, teaching in the little red school house and living in furnished rooms in boarding houses or with a kindly family in our small Western town. We are not providing “a second salary” for vacations and extras while our husbands earn the real money. In fact, frequently, ours is the only salary. If we are young, some of that salary is still going to pay off our expensive teaching degrees. We are professionals doing a complicated, important and sensitive job, and we are entitled to a wage that is commensurate with our education and experience. Citizens must recognize that schools are part of the skeleton of a civilized society. We are not the fat that can be cut away when times are lean. We are the very framework and structure.

There’s another misconception I’d like to address. Although it is commonly accepted that districts with higher salaries draw more qualified teachers and that schools with strong academic records and diverse extracurricular activities increase property values, education is expected to mirror tough economic times as closely as the Dow, cutting programs and freezing salaries when the economy suffers. It is as though Americans believe that the demand for smart citizens decreases in a recession.

The New York Times Magazine, a publication with much better analytical skills than Newsday, recently ran an article by David Leonhardt entitled, “The Big Fix: Can Barack Obama Really Transform the U.S. Economy?” Leonhardt writes, “There really is no mystery about why education would be the lifeblood of economic growth. On the most basic level, education helps people figure out how to make objects and accomplish tasks more efficiently. It allows companies to make complex products that the rest of the world wants to buy and thus creates high-wage jobs. Education may not be as tangible as green jobs. But it helps a society leverage every other investment it makes, be it in medicine, transportation or alternative energy. Education---educating more people and educating them better---appears to be the best single bet that a society can make.”

Although Hildebrand’s hysterics may appeal to some who feel wronged by our leaders and our economic situation, penalizing teachers and shortchanging students are actions aimed at our basest feelings.  We are better than that.

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