The Buffalo News’ War on Teachers

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The Buffalo News’ anti-public school agenda has already been thoroughly studied and analyzed. The News even went so far as to give a shockingly strong endorsement of Carl Paladino for Buffalo school board; for the News, his animus towards the teachers’ union outweighs the tonnage of negatives. 

It is absolutely ridiculous that the public gets to vote on the approval of school budgets. No other governmental taxing entity is subjected to an annual plebiscite, and that fundamental unfairness seems lost on everybody. If school districts must put their annual budgets up for a vote, then why not town boards? The library? The county legislature? Albany? New York is a state where referenda are few and far-between, yet when it comes to funding the education of our children, we leave it up to a tiny electorate, largely ignorant to the personalities and issues, who are asked to come in on a weird election day in an off-month to vote on whether kids get the resources they need to learn. 

The reason why this happens is simple – it allows Albany politicians to play political games every year with education funding (see, e.g., “Gap Elimination Adjustment”) and avoid any blowback. It permits Albany to pass along mandates and declarations, not provide statewide funding for them, and pass the expense on to the voters in a municipality. To add insult to financial injury, it makes the rubes vote on it, too. 

The span of time from 2008 – 2015 were disastrous for the school districts in the state that rely on annual budget plebiscite. The theft of anticipated state funding due to the global financial meltdown, and subsequent emergencies with respect to the teachers’ pension system created a perfect storm of financial problems borne by local taxpayers. The implementation of a wildly amorphous tax cap system complicated matters, and further hamstrung school districts’ ability locally to make up for lost state aid. 

While the burden weighed heavily on taxpayers and school district policymakers, the real aggrieved parties are the students themselves. When financial hard times hit, the immediate divestment was in non-mandated courses and programs. When that didn’t solve the problem, personnel were let go, meaning more crowded classrooms, loss of electives, loss of AP classes, loss of enrichment programs, and painful cuts in clubs, extracurriculars, and sports. Some districts found themselves cutting entire departments.

All of this harmed not just teachers, but primarily students. They don’t get a do-over when the emergency ends. It’s fundamentally unfair for kids to look forward to classes and programs that their older peers enjoyed, only to find that they’ve vanished by the time their turn comes to experience them. 

The Buffalo News’ takeaway from a reasonably uneventful school budget vote season was offensively cynical and appalling.

The problem is in the real concern that these victories are the product of union activism, including efforts by New York State United Teachers, which has been aggressive in its largely successful efforts to strangle progress toward education reform in New York…

…Now the local teachers unions, sometimes in conjunction with NYSUT, are angling to influence or control everything from the kinds of contracts they approve, how or if teacher evaluations are implemented and the way student testing is organized. It’s a clear conflict that holds the potential to undermine education in New York.

It wasn’t all bad news, as voters across Erie and Niagara counties approved the budgets with which they were presented. Much of that was no doubt based on New York State’s record increase in education funding this year – an action that raises its own difficult issues – but the fact is that when school budgets are defeated, they do little to lower costs while still managing to penalize students. It’s not automatically bad news that these school district budgets were approved, given the nature of the system.

But the troubling fact is that New Yorkers pay more for education, pupil for pupil, than any other state and, for that, get results that are only middling. So, when voters approve these budgets they are also, tacitly and maybe even reluctantly, supporting a system that is simultaneously abusing their bank accounts and failing their children…

…Voters and taxpayers should watch over the coming weeks and months to see how these new school boards perform. The key question will be: Where do their loyalties lie?

This sort of rhetoric is absolutely irresponsible. It makes sweeping and broad generalizations, and presumes that organized teachers would act against the interests of the children whom they teach. 

To break it down further, the act of voting against a school budget should, in theory, only be done by an informed electorate. Yet, that absolutely doesn’t happen. (Believe me. I’ve heard some of the most asinine arguments come out of the mouths and blogs of the loud and ignorant “no” contingent in my town.) Most school board meetings are sparsely attended in the suburban districts, unless there’s some specific draw, like “Redskins” or an award ceremony. The act of voting down a school budget should be done only in circumstances that demand it – a spendthrift board, declining graduation rates or other indicators of quality services, for example. Anyone who advocates for a “no” vote on a school budget, absent some dire emergency, is frankly acting against society and its betterment; against children and their one shot at an education. 

When the emergency came to my town, the board proposed a dramatic hike in the tax levy – not the rate, the levy. It was voted down. I disagreed with the “no” voters, but they at least had a legitimate point. Since then, every proposed levy has come in at or below the cap. In that case, you have no business voting down a budget when the levy hikes remain well within the historical inflationary pattern; you’re just being a vandal. 

But voting “no” to send a “message” to the district or to Albany about how schools are funded is so pointless as to be disgusting, ignorant, and harms no one but the students. If you want to change the system, you don’t do it on the backs of students and teachers, you do it through electing good people to go to Albany, where these decisions are made.

Let’s talk about the teachers, and how the News scapegoats them here; or, more accurately, shames them for having the audacity to fight for good pay, good benefits, and the best for their students. As a friend Tweeted, 

Seriously. The nerve.

The Buffalo News promotes and puffs its support for “education reform”.  This is a convenient euphemism for the expansion of quasi-public charter schools, more reliance on student testing as a barometer of teacher effectiveness, and for floppily-defined “accountability”. It assumes several things; that teachers are lazy, unmotivated malcontents, that all public schools are failing (or, as described above, “middling”), and that the greatest threat to education is the notion that public school teachers have no right to organize or bargain collectively with the boards of education that run their school districts. 

On the matter of charter schools, they operate outside the traditional public school rules, but rely on them for funding. They get to pick and choose the students they take, unlike traditional public schools, and teachers are seldom unionized or subject to union rules. These schools may have a useful purpose in a failing district, but they are wholly unnecessary in one that performs well; much less one that exceeds expectations. They are an emergency response unit; a last resort. 

Unions endorse political candidates all the time. When it comes to school district races, I don’t think unions expect anything more than a fair hearing and good faith. A lot of what I see from anti-public-education activists reveals that teachers can expect neither. Is an expectation of good faith and fair dealings too much for New York’s tested, certified, and degreed squadron of teachers to ask? The News thinks so, and this is succor to the vandals. 

Do New Yorkers pay more for education, per pupil, than other places? Yes, we do. We also outperform the majority of those places. If we’re looking statewide, a lot of that high cost can be ascribed to the cost in New York City – a notoriously expensive place. But why taint every district in the state as unreasonably expensive and “only middling”? This is fundamentally unfair and untrue. You lump in the inexpensive, excellent districts into that equation and that fuels the malcontents who think that teachers are overpaid with excessive benefits and don’t deserve any of it. When you have a cheap, good district is that “yes” voter “supporting a system that is…abusing their bank accounts and failing their children”? How shamefully irresponsible. Furthermore, it costs more to educate kids in distress, whether it be poverty, family instability, or special needs. Denigrate the cost of education, and you essentially declare it pointless to do what’s necessary to help our most vulnerable children. How heartlessly despicable can you get? 

Would it be too much to ask for the Buffalo News simply to exhort people to get involved in their school districts, attend board meetings, ask questions, demand accountability, and vote in such a way that reflects the realities of that district’s cost and performance?

I guess so. It’s much easier to simply scapegoat teachers and their union and paint every school as a wasteful failure. 

In New York, we remunerate our teachers better than other states. Consider, 

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again…

The starting salary varies in New York district by district – in some places perhaps even lower than $39,000 – but a veteran teacher can make close to $100,000. Is that offensive? These are people with masters’ degrees and over 20 years’ experience; as the article says, they make 14% less than similarly situated people in the private sector. That’s why their benefits are better – to attract and keep motivated, bright people to deal with the first ten years’ worth of “middling” salaries before getting larger bumps in pay as they gain more experience. 

…every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Lack of support and respect. Even the Buffalo News perpetuates the myth of the teacher as a conniving, overpaid failure. How do you think the tea party will use that every May? The Buffalo News and the so-called “reform” advocates consistently rely on divestment from public schools and treating teachers more harshly – lower pay, demonizing the union, and reliance on test scores. While complaining about spending public money for public education, it completely misses the point of what we’re trying to achieve here as a society. 

If we want world-class schools and results that aren’t just “middling”, maybe divestment and demonization aren’t the best way to go

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a minimum of $150,000.

So, what do we want? Do we want excellence? If so, are we prepared to pay for it? If excellence is the goal, are we prepared to re-invest in public schools as part of a nationwide educational Marshall Plan? We get the results we’re willing to pay for. The teachers and their unions aren’t the problem – we are the problem. Our trans-generational obsession with running things that aren’t businesses “like a business”, and our societal refusal to pay big bucks for things we need and use – like roads and schools, lead to “middling” results, rather than world-class ones. 

It’s high time the Buffalo News stopped scapegoating teachers while pushing its privatization agenda, when the solution to the problems it identifies are pretty much the opposite of what they propose. 

After all, the article I quote above that advocates for teachers to be treated less shoddily was written in 2011. We haven’t learned a thing in that time. That’s some poor educating on the part of our community voices and elected officials. 

This is serious stuff that affects kids’ lives in a very real and palpable way. It would be helpful if the Buffalo News’ editorial page treated education policy with thoughtfulness and respect, rather than half-baked, semi-informed tea party rhetoric. 

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