Some Good News from Florida: Court Rules that Florida Politicians Must Justify Their Actions

Guest blogger Kathleen Oropeza ( represents a grassroots movement of activist parents and their educator allies in Florida, who are successfully opposing the total privatization of public education in that state.   She reports on a recent court victory in their case on  the Florida legislature’s “paramount duty” that takes them  to the Florida Supreme Court.  Other education activists around the country are using “education adequacy” lawsuits in the courts as a means to stop further erosion of public education.  Kudos to our colleagues!!

Court Rules That Florida Politicians Must Justify Their Actions

Just before Thanksgiving, the First District Court of Appeals told Florida politicians “no.”  In a rare move, the entire panel of 15 judges voted 8/7 to deny the writ of prohibition and certify the suit as a “question of public importance,” sending it directly to the Florida Supreme Court.

Attorneys representing Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and the state used an obscure writ to try to stop the suit and deny the courts the right to consider whether the Florida Legislature meets its “paramount duty” to the people as described in Article IX, section 1 of the state constitution.

State attorneys called the funding of Florida public education a “political matter.”

Have Florida politicians forgotten that we, the taxpayers, are the reason they have any money at all to send back to our school districts?  The explosion of “education adequacy” lawsuits springing up in states from Texas to Maine means that people everywhere are weighing the same question.

Each and every year we spend our hard-earned money building public education for our children.  We pay our property taxes to fund public education only to see billions cut from education budgets.   Wanting the best for our children, we send in hundreds of millions of dollars in crayons and paper.  We sell enough wrapping paper to cover the earth three times.  We use that money to pay for direct classroom needs like books, smart-boards and computers.  This asset belongs to us.

Despite these facts, Florida politicians continue to make high art out of subverting the will of the people.  They do not value our state constitution as the purest expression of the peoples’ will.   Article IX, section 1 of the Florida Constitution clearly instructs the Florida Legislature that their “paramount duty” is to fund a free high-quality system of public education for every child.

Instead, Florida politicians, coached by Jeb Bush and the American Legislative Exchange Council, are laser-focused on showing the whole country the most expedient way to sell public education off to the highest bidder.  Clearly, a majority of Florida politicians, tempted by special interest dollars, now ignore their official oath to uphold the state constitution.   Our public servants refuse to serve us.

The court did its job.  The 8 judges who solidly rejected the State’s move to silence the voice of the court have brought hope to every classroom in this country.  Their decision says that the court believes it can decide whether Florida public education fails the high-quality test.  It says this case is not just about funding:


This is Florida’s chance at redemption.  Instead of providing outrageous supermarket headlines, Florida just may be the place where the whole country learns the truth behind the “education reform agenda.”   The court action will force an unvarnished discussion.  It won’t take long for average citizens to see that these unwanted, unfunded “reforms” are a shameless scheme to rob public tax dollars from the education pot of gold meant for our children.  Maybe then, the word “no” will be on everyone’s lips.


Kathleen Oropeza is co-founder of  She and her partners Christine Bramuchi and Linda Kobert are plaintiffs in the lawsuit mentioned in this article.  Contact her at

Link to Florida First District Court Decision:


The Assault on Public Employee Unions

Guest blogger John S. James is a Psychometrist at California State University, Chico and the Vice President of Academic Professionals of California.

The Assault on Public Employee Unions

Over the past three years we have seen the cumulative impact of a wide and varied number of unprecedented and unrelenting attacks on public employees in general and public employee unions in particular. This ongoing campaign is not a merely a series of individual and isolated events, but rather is an integral part of a well-planned long-term coordinated strategy to undermine working people’s livelihoods and destroy what remains of important hard-won collective bargaining rights. It is no great secret that this effort has been in a great part orchestrated and massively financed by a number of extreme-right wing millionaires and billionaires, including the once reclusive and secretive, but now increasingly infamous Koch brothers.

The most recent and glaring demonstration of the assault on public workers occurred earlier this year in Wisconsin. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker (whose campaign was heavily financed by the Koch brothers and their affluent allies) deepened an existing fiscal crisis by giving massive tax breaks to wealthy individuals (including campaign donors) and large corporations.

Using the budget shortfall as a rationale, the governor demanded that Wisconsin public employees make significant concessions concerning salaries and pension benefits. After the unions finally agreed to accept these unprecedented proposals, the real agenda emerged – to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Despite sit-ins at the state capitol and some of the largest protest demonstrations in the state’s history, nearly all union rights of most state workers were eventually revoked by law.

In addition to Wisconsin, several states including Idaho; Indiana; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; Nebraska; New Hampshire; Ohio; Oklahoma; New Jersey, and Tennessee have recently enacted legislation restricting the rights of union members. Legislation has now been introduced in 43 states to change collective bargaining for public employees. Even in the ostensibly “blue state” of California, a ballot initiative has been filed that would amend the state constitution to prohibit the recognition of all public sector labor unions and prevent bargaining between these unions and government authorities.

It is important to note that such repressive and draconian measures, if adopted, might possibly violate existing international law, which definitively states that workers have a human right to organize and bargain collectively, according to Amnesty International.

It is somewhat encouraging that all of the media attention concerning the widespread vicious attacks on unionized public employees provoked a backlash, which has produced an outpouring of popular support. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken in February, 2011, expressed the sentiments of most Americans who now strongly oppose taking away the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The poll found that 61% would oppose legislation in their state similar to the Wisconsin bill, compared with 33% who would favor this type of law.

Another example of this historic sea change in public attitude is reflected in a Bloomberg National Poll conducted last March, which clearly demonstrated that Americans firmly reject recent efforts to restrict the bargaining rights of union members. Interestingly, this survey also reported that 63% of respondents feel that corporations have more political power than unions. Public employees were viewed favorably by 72%, compared with 17% who saw them unfavorably. Of those individuals polled, 63% do not think that states should be allowed to break the promises previously made to their retired workers. Most importantly, 64% believe that public employees should have the right to bargain collectively. This result is also consistent with Parade magazine’s online poll, which found that 92% of the respondents believe that America still needs labor unions.

A solid majority of individuals polled in these surveys seem to have a clear understanding of the critical role played by organized labor in the struggle to achieve benefits for working people – benefits which unfortunately are often taken for granted. It was the unions that were instrumental in creating the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek with overtime. It was union activists who successfully fought for paid employee vacation and sick days, genuine retirement security with pensions, and health benefit packages including medical, dental and vision care. And it was the unions that bravely took a stand against the blight of child labor, and stood for unemployment insurance, workplace safety laws, a minimum wage, Social Security and worker’s compensation. Because of the efforts of labor unions, society as a whole changed for the better.

Union members and non-union members alike need to remember the great successes and monumental gains of the past and recognize that they are being threatened by the critical situation the American labor movement is currently facing. In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression and in the midst of often contentious and sometimes violent labor disputes, the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) was signed into law as an important component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal. This legislation established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to assist workers in protecting recently won rights to bargain collectively over their terms and conditions of employment.

Eventually, based upon the percentage of all employed workers, union membership peaked at around 30–35% in the 1950s, which was also a time of unprecedented prosperity with a thriving and vibrant middle class. In contrast, for the year 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the nation’s union membership rate was 11.9%, down from 12.3% a year earlier. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. Despite the general nationwide decline, California now leads the nation in reporting the largest number of union members (2.4 million) with a membership rate of 17.5%.

The most disturbing finding of the 2010 Labor Report was that the union membership rate for the public sector (36.2%) was massively higher than that for private sector workers (6.9%). Why has the labor movement lost so many members in the private sector? The answer lies partly with actual and threatened job losses due to the impact on the large manufacturing sector of both globalization and so-called “free trade” – trade which sometimes pays near slave-labor wages in developing countries. Manufacturing was the great union bulwark that had once provided American workers with good wages and solid benefits.

The other key factor is that public sector employees had limited, though important, protections against wholesale retaliation for union-related activities. In the private sector, employees who attempted to organize in the workplace were often intimidated or summarily discharged. The unfortunate reality is that joining a labor union is no longer viewed as being an employee’s “legally protected” right. According to the NLRB annual report for 2005, there were 31,358 people who were either disciplined or fired for engaging in union activities. A poll conducted in December 2006 found that 58% of non-managerial workers would join a union if they had the opportunity. An ever-present and genuine fear of losing one’s livelihood prevents uncounted numbers of private sector workers from being involved in union organizing, despite wanting to do so.

The current assault on public employee unions is due in great part to the fact that they are the last remaining vestige of what was once a viable dynamic force, fighting for the economic rights of workers in this country. Organized women and men employed in the public sector are now precisely targeted in the crosshairs of determined, ruthless and well-armed adversaries.

Unions may possibly be the last major impediment standing between the total domination of the political and economic system by an oligarchy composed of a new breed of obscenely affluent “uber-libertarian” iconoclasts who want to establish another “gilded age” for present-day America. These plutocrats vehemently oppose even the slightest leveling of the parameters of an inherently unbalanced power relationship that exists between employee and employer, which is attained through collective bargaining. With what can only be described as religious fervor, they are convinced beyond reason that government has absolutely no legitimate function regulating business or providing for basic human needs. The Wall Street dictum that “Greed is good” has been baptized and morphed into “Greed is godly.” The libertarian fringe element is fervently committed to “starving the beast” and destroying all of the social progress achieved since the passage of the New Deal. In fact, extreme right-wing animosity toward Roosevelt’s policies isn’t only confined to FDR; it starts with the “Square Deal” of Teddy Roosevelt, the “trust buster” and conservationist who set aside massive tracts of land for national parks and ushered in the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century.

These ultra-conservative zealots look forward to returning this country to what they believe were the “good old days,” even though it will inevitably result in the same horrible conditions experienced by most workers in the past. They want to restructure the economy in order to once again create a society which is composed of only the greedy few who have riches beyond their wildest dreams and the vast majority who exist in a permanent state of human wretchedness.

Already, we can see the emerging “looneytarian” impact on the political process, creating a topsy-turvy skewed world where billion dollar corporations have been declared to have the same free-speech rights as people, and thus can spend unlimited amounts of money to buy elections. In this kind of world, all public services will one day be completely privatized by predatory corporate interests; all schools will have tuition and all roads eventually lead to a tollbooth.

Recently, public employees and collective bargaining have become convenient scapegoats, being vilified and blamed for the intractable financial difficulties faced by many state and local governments grappling with the repercussions of the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s. The crisis faced by governmental agencies nationwide was not caused by public employee unions: it is the result of persistently high unemployment rates and collapsed housing prices which, along with unfair regressive tax systems that favor the wealthy, have resulted in enormous tax revenue shortfalls.

Our current economic situation is a direct consequence of the wholesale looting of financial markets by modern day robber barons engaging in a reprehensible new form of unregulated “casino capitalism.” These are the same individuals (with businesses interests that were “too big to fail”) who were subsequently bailed out when their financial “house of cards” not so unpredictably collapsed, and are now receiving obscene salaries, with accompanying bonuses and bewildering lucrative stock options. The benefits of a one-sided jobless recovery have not yet moved from the plush boardrooms of Wall Street to the threadbare living rooms of Main Street; the penthouse suite is now even further from the basement.

The tactic of the right wing is to convince the voters and taxpaying public that collective bargaining is responsible for widespread state and local budget deficits. This Big Lie narrative depicts living wages, comprehensive health care benefits, and retirement pension programs as outdated concepts which are prohibitively expensive. In the present day economy such advantages are unavailable to millions of private sector workers, and therefore this line of reasoning concludes that governmental agencies can no longer afford to provide these amenities to their “coddled and greedy” employees.

Significantly, the overall decline of labor unions over the past several decades has been a major factor in the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States and rapidly growing income inequality.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported on an analysis by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, which found that in the generation following World War II, economic gains were shared widely, with the incomes of the bottom 90% actually increasing more rapidly in percentage terms, on average, than the incomes of the top 1%. However, since the late 1970s, the incomes of the bottom 90% of households have remained about the same, while the top 1% experienced massive income gains.

The average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households is almost $900 below what it was in 1979, while the average pre-tax income for the top 1% is over $700,000 above the 1979 level.

Piketty and Saez determined that two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains in the most recent economic expansion from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1% of U.S. households, which held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928. During those years, the real (inflation-adjusted) income of the top 1% of households grew more than ten times faster than the income of the bottom 90%.

The Financial Times notes that during this same period of economic expansion, the median US household income actually dropped by $2,000, which meant that most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the beginning. The annual incomes of the bottom 90% of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 – increasing by only 10% in real terms over the last 37 years, during the same period in which the incomes of the top 1% tripled.

The Economic Policy Institute reports for the year 2009, the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households had a net worth that was 225 times greater than that of the typical household, which is the highest ratio ever recorded. Approximately one in four U.S. households had zero or negative net worth, up from 18.6% in 2007.

Although it is estimated that approximately 84% of the nation’s wealth is held by the upper 20% of the population (with the richest 1% hoarding almost 50%), researchers Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely reported that surprisingly, a panel representative of average Americans believed that wealth is distributed a lot more fairly in this country and greatly underestimated the present degree of our present inequality.

In 1973, chief executive officers (CEOs) were on average paid 26 times the median income. Now they are paid in excess of 300 times more. The New York Times recently commissioned a study which determined that for the year 2010 the median annual compensation of CEOs at the 200 largest U.S. companies was $10.8 million, a 23% increase from the year before. A USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found that for the same year, CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 index companies received a median average of $2.2 million from bonuses, up 47% from $1.5 million in 2009.

By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2011 first quarter report revealed that the median wage for 98.3 million full-time workers was $755 a week. This amounted to an increase of only a scant 0.1 more than the prior year – very far below the 2.1 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index, which records the real cost of everyday living.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, points out that since the early 1980s a larger and larger share of the nation’s total income has been transferred to the very top. He notes that in 1980 the richest 1% of Americans received 10% of total national income, compared to over 20% of national income now. The result of this 30-year trend has been that the middle class lacks sufficient purchasing power to boost the economy without going deeply into debt. Reich writes, “The American economy can’t get out of neutral until American workers have more money in their pockets to buy what they produce. And unions are the best way to give them the bargaining power to get better pay.”

To view the assault on public employee labor unions as merely an isolated and limited campaign is to lose sight of the big picture. Attacking the last bastion of unionism is a bold tactical move; but it is just part of a cold and calculated strategy to finally destroy what is left of the middle class. If we eventually lose the middle class, we will also lose America as we presently know it.

The middle class in modern America was created out of the hard-fought battles of the labor movement in conjunction with the progressive policies of the post New Deal era. It is important to note that during this time period the “rising tide of unions lifted all boats” as it can be shown that collective bargaining raises the general salary levels of all workers, even those who are not unionized. Neither non-union nor represented employees should easily dismiss or forget the importance of this “invisible hand of the unionized marketplace.”

Despite all of the recent setbacks for the American middle class there have recently been some extremely encouraging developments, such as the exponential growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a solidly grassroots effort which has now received the support of organized labor. The powerful and compelling argument that 1% of the population massively benefits at the great expense of the remaining 99%, may eventually begin to resonate with an increasingly frustrated and angry populace.

Late in the year 2011, we look forward with guarded optimism to a better future for this country with a revitalized and committed universal labor movement, including both private and public sector employees, supported by union members and non-members alike, which could become a driving force that will protect the important gains made over the past several decades for all working people. We must fully engage in a protracted struggle to save the middle class with all of our available resources, so that the promise of the American Dream will indeed become a reality for future generations.

Blood Money: Pearson’s Profit

The Obama administration’s recent, modest change in policy toward No Child Left Behind (NCLB), indicates some response to years of activism and a statistically-based critique of the inadequacies and injustices of NCLB.  One recent critique is Diane Ravitch’s “School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade.”

It appears that the momentum of the public relations campaign that has been waged against the “positive image” of the public school teacher may be changing.  National Public Radio has started a StoryCorps project “National Teacher,” which will foreground the transformational impact of  educators  on their students.  A new documentary “American Teacher” portrays the real lives of four teachers in the classroom.  Forty-six percent of all teachers quit before the fifth year of teaching; many need to find a second or third job to survive.  Meanwhile, nearly 15 million children in the United States live below the federal poverty level; one-third of all Hispanic children now live in poverty here.  Shouldn’t the cultural focus of the Gates Foundation and friends be a war against poverty instead of a war against teachers and public education?  In the meantime, it is the educator’s selfless act of conscience and  integrity  that makes a difference as we see in “Blood Money” below.

The damage done to the public education system through NCLB and the standardized test movement will take many years to repair.  We now find the same failed standards-based management ideology, which fueled NCLB, making an impact on the rush to  restructure public higher education.  Perhaps, if we are able to articulate the lessons learned from K-12, we may better fight the transformation now underway to cheapen the quality of public higher education through assessment regimes and quick fixes such as charter universities and  for-profit online education schemes.  Texas is well on its way down this path of devolution with Florida racing to catch up.   Texas’ Gov. Perry has cut $4 bil from the state’s health and education budget this year, leading to the potential  firing of 49,000 teachers. Thom Hartmann reports that “43,00 students will lose at least part or all of their financial aid — including 28,000 low-income college hopefuls who will  their entire scholarships” in a state that ranks dead last in the number of residents with college degrees.  Moreover, Eugenie Reich reports in “Texas Holds Firm on Physics Closures” that Texas plans to phase out nearly half of its physics programs at state funded universities this year if they have failed to graduate at least 25 students every five years.  This may seem reasonable but many low performing programs “are in areas with predominantly black, Hispanic or disadvantaged populations. Statistics provided to ‘Nature’ by the American Institute of Physics suggest that some 35% of the undergraduate physics degrees awarded in the United States go to students in programmes that would not meet the Texas board’s requirements for staying open.”  I guess science and engineering degrees will  be just for the children of wealthy Texans.

And as much as we want to support our president, his quote from the Department of Education’s  latest report “Our Future, Our Teachers”  gets it just plain wrong.  He states,  “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom… America’s future depends on its teachers”.  According to physics professor Michael Marder, based on his extensive data analysis of students’ standardized text  results in Texas, what matters most is not just the teacher, or whether the school is public or charter.  What matters in improving higher student test scores  is also the socioeconomic and ethnic status of the student.  He invites EVERYONE to check his data.

“Joseph K. is a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), a former mentor teacher twice named a Johns Hopkins University Teaching Fellow, who now teaches poor, inner-city children who wake up every morning in their gang-ridden, drug-infested neighborhoods at five a.m. to catch the bus by six.  He teachers the old-fashioned way —by ignoring standardized test scores. Instead of teaching bubbling, he tries to instill a love of knowledge and learning in his students and for this reason will probably be allowed to continue teaching for fifteen more minutes.”  He blogs at The Trials of Joseph K. (


Dear Teachers,

We are being asked (key word “asked”) to be trained (key word “trained”, like dogs) by Pearson “Learning” August 29th and 30th. Pearson is going to pay us. Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, the money they are going to pay us is blood money. And the blood money they are going to pay us with is our own blood. It is the blood we bled when the Los Angles Unified School District (LAUSD) cuts our pay. It is the blood we will bleed every day when we struggle with larger and larger class sizes. It is the blood Jenny, Isabel, Jared, River, Susan, Summer and all the rest are bleeding right now as they sit home BLEEDING because they no longer have jobs.

It is blood money.

Pearson “Learning” was once a nice publishing house. They printed books under names like Penguin and a number of textbooks primarily in England. They made a tidy profit in the millions of dollars each year. In 2000, as NCLB was being written and discussed, they bought their first testing company. That may or may not have been a coincidence. After passage of NCLB, they bought another testing company. Then they bought another and another and another and another. That was no coincidence. Today they are a conglomerate of testing companies, seven by my count. They have created a vast, powerful TESTING INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX. Their profits are not a few million each year, but a few billion each year and they are growing exponentially.

They employ legions of well-paid lobbyists who infest Washington, D.C., every state capital, and many local school boards. I would love to know how much they contribute to reelection campaigns. They have infested LAUSD which I will explain in a minute. They have one agenda: Profits. Until recently, they had one means to their agenda: Testing. More standardized testing means more profits for Pearson. NCLB is Pearson’s business model. Teachers are laid off, their salaries cut, class size increased, and curriculum narrowed as Pearson lines its pockets with gold.

Consider this regarding standardized testing:

  • high scores often signify relatively superficial thinking
  • many of the leading tests were never intended to measure teaching or learning
  • a school that improves its test results may well have lowered its standards to do so
  • far from helping to “close the gap,” the use of standardized testing is most damaging for low-income and minority students
  • as much as 90 percent of the variations in test scores among schools or states have nothing to do with the quality of instruction
  • far more meaningful measures of student learning – or school quality – are available.

-Alfie Kohn’s  The Case Against Standardized Testing

Standardized tests are DEMONIZING all of us in the inner city, demonizing our union, and being used by almost infinitely powerful economic and political forces in this country to dismantle public education.

And the situation is only going to get worse. [LAUSD Superintendent John] Deasy and [Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan both are pushing value-added standardized testing measures to evaluate teachers. The “LA Times” slanders all of us on a daily basis with its value-added measure on its website. Deasy calls it AGT.

Slander is slander. This year he is bribing teachers with $1,250 (after cutting their pay) to “volunteer” in a pilot project for AGT. “If you volunteer, we will pay you (after cutting your pay.)” To measure “improvement” you need baseline scores (pretests), probably at least one or two interim assessments, and a post test. These tests will be maximally time consuming and VERY expensive. All teachers need to be evaluated, so multiple tests will be given in every subject of every grade multiple times every year. You can bet that Pearson is using its vast influence to get to the front of the line to write (and sell) those tests. As far as I know, they may well have already elbowed out the competition. Their profits will be enormous. And guess where those profits will come from. They will come from you and our students. Your job, if you have one left, will rely on these tests, so you can be damn sure you are going to teach to them and probably teach little, if anything else.

Read this: The Test Generation.

Pearson “Learning” has now figured out a way to “double down” its billions in annual profits, its rape of public education. They are using their publishing arm to sell “Teaching Guides”, “Lesson Books”, etc. so teachers can “better” teach its own tests. Genius. They have created a mobius strip of profit production. We are pawns in their game and they are going to move you two spaces ahead August 29th and 30th.  Don’t think you are getting paid very much for being a pawn. Pawns, if you don’t play chess, are the first things sacrificed.

I reject Pearson and their blood money. I reject everything that they stand for. I reject their endless bubbling. I reject their process of elimination universe. I refuse to be trained like a dog to teach my students how to bark like seals. So should you.

I am drawing my own line in the sand. Public education is going up in flames in this country because of profiteers like Pearson and teachers are going down. I intend at least to have a say in my own demise.

I may show up on August 29th. I will not sign in. I will not touch their food. I will go nowhere near their blood money. If I do show up, it will only be to stand up before everyone and publicly denounce Pearson in much the same way I am doing now. My fantasy is to walk out and have everyone follow; but, alas, that will never happen. It would be nice if some of you would follow, though.

If I do not show up, it will be because I chickened out. Fear is something I understand. In an age of perpetual layoffs and teacher transfers, fear is not without merit. We are surrounded by fear. We are immersed in it. You all will make your own decision regarding the Pearson “training”. You all have your own lives, your own families, your own personal situations. You have to decide what is right for you. I will respect whatever decision you make. Count on that. But consider what is being done to you and our profession by Pearson, companies like it, and politicians who exploit their malevolence. Consider. Consider Jared, Jenny, Isabel, River, Susan, Summer and all the rest. Consider that you are next. We are next.

original post, Friday, August 26, 2011; reposted with permission of the author on October 1, 2011.

Word from Minnesota: Beware the College Degree Bashing Trend

John Van Hecke is Executive Director & Fellow of Hindsight: The Minnesota 2020, a “progressive, new media, non-partisan think tank focused on what really matters.”

Beware the College Degree Bashing Trend

If teacher-bashing is so last year, college degree-bashing may be the conservative whipping boy issue for you. It’s becoming quite trendy to thoughtfully observe that, maybe, everyone shouldn’t go to college. That argument is a red herring of the first order, a public policy distraction pretending to be a legitimate workforce development issue.

Don’t be fooled by the “college isn’t for everyone” argument.  When conservatives say it, it’s simply a bit of fallacious reasoning leading to their two larger goals: reducing public investment in education and growing the low-wage, low-skilled workforce.

When educators, economists and workforce development specialists say “college may not be for everyone,” what they mean is that a higher education must continue to innovate and adapt, meeting students’ and businesses’ needs. Higher education is critical for everyone, and some students may benefit from modifications to the traditional university structure.

After all, college as we know it is less than 100 years old. Yes, Harvard is working on 400 years in the higher education business, but its current course offerings look nothing like the 1711 curriculum or even their 1911 curriculum. Schools can and will change because people’s needs change.

Conservative policy places the interests of Minnesota’s highest income earners ahead of most Minnesotans. When conservative higher ed policy advocates say, “college may not be for everyone,” they mean that public resources shouldn’t be invested in helping average people prosper. They seek to deny education and training opportunities, limiting lifelong income-earning opportunities and, in the process, create a growing low-skilled workforce.

To compete in the global marketplace, Minnesota’s public colleges and universities must do more than ever. They must translate  dramatically changing workplace needs into courses of study, preparing students to work differently than their parents and grandparents. And, public schools are being asked to achieve this mission with dramatically fewer financial resources.

Minnesota needs  high-functioning colleges and universities, with open access and financing available to all students. It’s our path to prosperity. Higher education moves Minnesota forward. So, when you hear pundits bashing the college degree, don’t fall into the conservative trap. We need more access to learning, not less.

Reposted with permission of the author (first published, August 2011)

Editor’s Addition:

On the impact of defunding public education in Minnesota, please also see Katie Douglass’s blog post Declining Funding Degrading Quality: “According to new Minnesota Department of Education data, the statewide average inflation-adjusted per-pupil state aid will have declined by an estimated 12.8 percent from 2003 levels by the 2012-13 school year. In addition to cuts, underfunding has forced districts to rely on operating levies to make ends meet, putting a greater burden on local property taxpayers. Ninety percent of districts in Minnesota are under a levy.”

Report: Declining Funding, Degrading Quality

A tale of “haves and have-nots” ( or life and death) at the University of Vermont

Nancy Welch, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, relays a contemporary Dickensian tale of academic life in her guest blog .

A tale of "haves and have-nots" (or life and death) at the University of Vermont

When University of Vermont President Daniel Fogel resigned this summer in the wake of a Peyton Place scandal involving his wife and a vice president, trustees rewarded him with a golden handshake that has proved much more shocking for Vermonters than who in the administration building was trying to sleep with whom.

According to the deal Fogel struck with trustees, he’ll receive a monthly salary of more than $35,000–including a car, housing, and “wellness” allowance–for a leave that’s to extend to the start of the Fall 2013 semester. At that point he’ll join the English department at an annual salary of $195,000–more than double the department average for a full professor.

How do the trustees justify such largesse, especially when students face another tuition hike and campus workers have been told to expect frozen wages and benefit cuts? On the grounds of compassion, explained board chair Robert Cioffi: the former president has “poured his heart and soul” into the university; he now needs the university’s support given “the personal issues he is facing.”

I would have liked these trustees to have met one of my colleagues, Steve, who passed away in Summer 2008 just after he poured his heart and soul into teaching a summer session first-year composition class. Steve taught at UVM for nine years. Most often, he was given three composition courses each semester, six courses a year not including summer. But UVM still called him “part-time,” which meant that he wasn’t eligible for UVM’s health insurance plan. As a result, he paid $356 each month for an individual insurance plan, with a deductible of up to $18,750 a year.

When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent two rounds of debilitating chemotherapy, he could have used–he desperately needed–time off. (He would bring a chair with him into the Xerox room so he could sit, head resting on the copier, while Xeroxing handouts for his students.) Given that he was also caring for his disabled father, some compassion from the university he’d served would have been both welcome and deserved. But in two rounds of negotiations with “part-time” faculty, UVM’s administration declined to recognize that faculty teaching six, eight, and more courses a year are not in fact part-time and should receive UVM healthcare benefits. Steve now needed not only to pay $356 a month for his insurance but $8,200 for each chemotherapy infusion. He continued teaching at UVM; he also began teaching additional courses at other area colleges. He was teaching to save his life.

In summer 2008 after he held final conferences with his students, returned their papers, and turned in their grades, Steve checked into hospice and a few days later died. I attended the funeral lunch and met his parents. They were so proud that he had been a lecturer at UVM. And I am so ashamed at what this university’s administration did to him and continues to do to others.

So, Mr. Cioffi, meet Steve. And try meeting more faculty, service workers, and staff. It might deepen your acquaintance with people who make remarkable contributions to our state university and who are miraculously able and willing to be UVM?s heart and soul without car, housing, and “wellness” allowances. It might also broaden your idea of compassion and how broadly it should be shared.

For further information:

The scandal
Fogel’s separation package
[The trustee chair’s defense of the package was in the Burlington Free Press story “Governor Says Compensation Is Corporate” that is only available to subscribers or through ProQuest]

What’s Up With Teacher Pay Cuts in Florida!

Guest blogger Kathleen Oropeza  is an activist education leader in the Florida grassroots organization “Fund Education Now!”  .   Activist moms started this organization in 2009 after Florida’s Orange County School Superintendent Ron Blocker warned that the cuts to schools would be both ” catastrophic and criminal.”   Florida and Texas seem to be the policy setters for bad ideas in education.  Since the effects of the Texas invention “No Child Left Behind” on K-12 are now trickling up to higher education,  we’d best keep a cautious watch on the new education policies and legislation being developed in these two states.  One can predict that Texas and Florida policies will go viral under the right political and economic conditions.

Florida Teacher Salaries Have Dropped

Thursday, Sept. 1

This week is bound to be rough.

This week teachers all over Florida will get their first paycheck of the school year.

Last session Florida legislators passed a law requiring every teacher to contribute 3% of their salary to the Florida Retirement System. Hearing about a 3% to 5% cut is very different than seeing what that cut looks like.

The other side of the story is that districts all over the state have cut teacher pay on new-hires by as much as 15%. $44,000 is the average teacher pay in the state of Florida, but some districts pay $30,000 per year. Georgia’s average teacher pay is $53,000.

It’s common knowledge that Florida teacher pay, among the lowest in the nation, was based on the promise of employer-funded retirement.  For decades, teachers have accepted changes in their employment conditions based on this promise.

A school district is often the largest employer in the county.  Cutting 3% from salaries in large districts like Orange, Hillsborough or Miami-Dade takes at least $50 Million dollars out of the local market. That’s a tangible loss to all of us.

On the most intimate level, teachers have been spending their personal money on classroom materials or more commonly, making sure their growing roster of homeless or at-risk students have what they need to thrive and learn.

Teaching in Florida has always meant a meager paycheck.  Since there have been no raises for years, that small paycheck now means supporting families at near-poverty levels.  Teacher pay stopped being the source of “extra” family income a long time ago.  Florida politicians often talk about getting paid for 9 months as an amazing freedom.  They dismiss teaching as a “choice.”

It certainly is a choice.  Things have become so difficult, that staying reflects a level of job commitment most of us will never know.

In Florida, the choice to teach after the 3% cut could mean the loss of home ownership and foreclosure.  Many of our best thinkers are being forced to choose between being able to pay the bills and the students they love.

Lawmakers told us that they had “no choice” when they cut public education by $1.3 Billion.  Florida politicians should know that “choice” can cut many ways.  After all, elections are also about choices.

The 3% teacher salary cut that the Florida Legislature eagerly imposed comes at a high price. Be honest. Does the level of teacher pay reflect the value we expect a dedicated teacher to bring to their students?

“Teacher Salaries a Victim of Budget Cuts”  (Lily Rockwell, News Service of Florida, August 30, 2011)

Stephanie Rothman has done the math. On her roughly $48,000 a year salary, the 15-year high school English teacher in Broward County barely gets by.In the last year, Rothman has had to abandon a Boca Raton home she could no longer afford, moving into a room at a friend’s house and feels “cynical and hopeless” about her financial prospects.”I love teaching, I was born to teach,” Rothman said. “But I feel there is no way I can sustain a living with just teaching. So that is why I decided to become a certified personal trainer and get a part-time job.”

Rothman is one of hundreds of thousands of teachers in Florida that have gone years without a significant raise.  Read the full article here.

Permission to repost given by the author.

Final reflections: SOS, Wash., D.C., July 31

So far, I have been disappointed with the national media coverage of the July 30 SOS Rally: there isn’t as much as I’d like to see (1). It’s as if 6,000 plus activist teachers, parents, and their allies never existed. I guess it takes 100,000 to interest CNN.  In truth, it was a rowdy, impressive bunch with teacher and parent representatives from across the nation. Speaker highlights included Greg Gower, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Texas.  His speech is not yet on YouTube,  but he inspired a crowd in  Texas recently with a similar speech.  Matt Damon’s mom is a professor of early childhood education and a supporter of SOS. She introduced Matt, and he gave a very compelling speech about the significance of public education on the development of his creativity and talent; the kind of support now threatened by No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

After the march, I talked with  Greg Gower, an activist singer who performed “Test Teacher” at the rally.  He and his companion asked the same question I’d heard at my SOS conference workshop and in personal conversations with teachers and parents throughout the conference: “Can you see the influence of  NCLB on your students?”

I’m sure that most college educators have heard about No Child Left Behind; but unless they currently have children in the public schools or happen to teach in a college of education, they probably do not know how NCLB has so successfully restructured K-12 curriculum and destroyed the “space” to teach creatively.  I didn’t.  Essentially K-12 teachers are under threat of their school being shut down.  Just  like a hostile corporate takeover, your school will be restructured and all teachers fired if test scores in English and Math do not meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) outcomes based upon standardized test scores.     Your state could have opted out of NCLB by refusing Title 1 federal funds,  but name a state that could afford this option?  This is restructuring though bribery under duress. So you get teachers, principals, and supervisors cheating on the test results as we have seen lately in PhiladelphiaNew York and Georgia.  NCLB has been devastating to teachers. The space to teach creatively has been replaced by scripted curriculum to improve test scores (fill in the bubble).  At the same time, NCLB has generated a multi-billion dollar business in testing, test prep, scripted curriculum, take-over charter school companies, consultancies, and Teach for America.  It has established a reign of terror on K-12, which is spreading into higher ed through the attack on colleges of education across the country, Lumina Foundation’s push for the national standard “Degree Qualifications Profile” in higher education, charter colleges and other forms of radical restructuring.  Lumina has paid $1 mil. to WASC, the accrediting agency for higher ed in the west, to embed these degree qualification outcomes in its next cycle of accreditation standards. No one is going to declare that public education is perfect; but high-stakes testing and  a canned curriculum based on data driven outcomes is not the answer for reform.  After nine years of NCLB,  there is data to show it has failed to improve student success.

So how are Freshmen different now  and can these differences be attributed to their education under NCLB?  Certainly there is still a significant number of Freshmen across the nation who need developmental English and Math courses to become ‘college ready.’  NCLB has not solved the ‘readiness gap’ between high school and college.   I hesitate to say that the changes I have noticed in my students, especially over the past four years,  are due just to NCLB.  It is a busy, video-game generation of high consumer culture and reality-T.V., of infatuation with gadgets (ipods and smart phones); it is a generation with a multitasking consciousness.  This is the cultural context  in which NCLB is embedded. I also must compete with the necessity of work. Most of my students work 30-50 hours  a week to support their college education, parents and siblings.  These students  often take five classes including mine. This is not the world of 1988 when I first started teaching at CSU Long Beach nor my world as an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Barbara in the 1960s.  At the same time, I know that our students can overcome  any knowledge or intellectual development gaps left by NCLB by the time they graduate in 4-6 years IF they do the work and put  genuine effort into their own academic career.  The current free market PR in higher education that touts the student as ‘consumer’ and ‘customer’ often fails to comprehend this point: real education requires depth of effort from both the teacher and the student.  It is more than simple consumption like ordering a latte from the university library coffee shop.

(1) It is true that “Democracy Now” carried a short segment on the SOS today, Aug. 1.    Media expert Alice Sunshine tells me that from her analysis of the SOS event that the coverage was pretty good, including articles in the Washington Post and Parade magazine, with possible CNN and AP coverage in some regional markets .

Recommended,  Randy Traweek’s blog post on SOS: