Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sad, but true--I don't think teachers are very politically minded or generally mobilized to fight for important issues

This is a follow up to a previous post discussing whether education issues actually affect how people vote.

My two broad points:

1. Teachers generally do not follow the legislative session closely, do not contact their legislators about issues, and do not feel extremely comfortable arguing policies or even articulating their stories in public forums. This sometimes prevents legislators and the public from knowing the real picture of everyday teaching, the good and the bad of public education in Utah. That’s bad.

2. The corollary to point #1 is that teachers and the UEA are not some huge, powerful political machine as described by some legislators and commentators trying to portray themselves as the underdog or victim in disputes over education policy. (Much less the PTA. It always makes me shake my head that people try and argue that the PARENTS who would join a parent-teacher association would somehow be biased in favor of teachers in the supposed conflict of interest between teachers and students. People sign up for the PTA not because they want to be involved in their children’s school, but because they suddenly feel an untrustworthy longing to help teachers? Their $5 membership in PTA somehow makes them enemies of their own children? That’s stupid. The PTA on a local level is about as grassroots as it gets. Can’t you just admit that these people can honestly like their public schools and pursue policies strengthening those schools to benefit all students?) Sure, there’s a small politically active core of teachers in the UEA. Yes, there are individual teachers who are angry and individual teachers who are informed and politically active. But when they try and pawn off the voucher defeat as solely because of the UEA vote or blame legislative defeats on teachers, it’s a political strawman meant to energize those who have a negative view of public school teachers. That’s good…or to say, the understanding of that reality is good when legislators try the “pity poor me” defense when attacking public schools against the will of the electorate.

I have tried to follow local politics and especially education issues much more closely in the last year. Before, I think I was more like the typical teacher or person in general. I would be aware of big issues that showed up on the front page, but couldn't usually give you names, bill numbers, history of the conflict, etc. I knew more about some national issues than local issues and thought more about the presidential campaign than local elections.

I know other people and other teachers have similar feelings and it kind of makes me sad now that I see this huge disconnect between our state leadership's perception of public education and reality. We as teachers need to be talking to people and making our experiences known, but we get too busy. On the other hand, I totally understand. Like many good people, work takes a lot of time to do it well and we often want to spend time with family and pursue our outside interests in our limited free time. I have personally had a lot of difficulty balancing all of my responsibilities this summer.

Two examples of teachers I know and current education controversies in Utah:

First, I was talking to another teacher at a meeting in June soon after school ended. He is an excellent teacher, highly respected by students and teachers alike for being very effective at teaching his subject as well as making his classroom an inviting place to be. We were chatting before the meetings began and I asked him what he thought about the education omnibus bill. He had no idea what I was talking about. I believe that would hold true over the whole district—there would be more teachers who haven’t heard of the omnibus bill than who have.

Second, I was taking classes this summer with a bunch of highly motivated teachers seeking their Masters Degrees, and our small talk often consisted of educational issues. I didn't talk to all of them about it, but no one I spoke with had heard of the 20 million dollar merit pay bill that passed the legislature this last year. And as far as I know of my school's faculty, only the couple other guys I talk to about politics had heard about it as we started our meetings in August.

Teachers rarely if ever win political battles—the UEA or a sympathetic legislator might hold a press conference, the papers will cover it, a Dan Jones poll will reveal for the umpteenth time that Utahns in general support higher funding for public education, and…the legislature will still do whatever it wants and rarely suffer an election night defeat because of it. Or to repeat myself, here is part of a comment I made in the discussion of a post I wrote about the UEA (with one corrected typo):
But that illustrates the true lack of power of the UEA (My point #1). They make a lot of noise and get news coverage...and what? Senator Dayton mentioned how mad she felt over the UEA's "paving over the backs of students" ad campaign a couple years ago. (The legislature assigned tons of surplus to transportation in '06 when polls and the UEA wanted more for education. I feel we direly need both and it's a tough call, but I definitely believe that many legislators have a personal grudge against education.) The legislature was pilloried in editorials and in polls, but the money still got assigned to roads, none of the Republicans got ousted (well, PCE picked off a few anti-voucher Republicans, but with other Republicans), and business went on as usual. Polls support giving more money to education all the time, but legislators know that doesn't translate to the ballot box. How many teachers are there compared with habitual Republicans like my dad? The UEA has some token influence and gets some publicity, but the public only got really mad and acted with the rich money grab of vouchers.
The empirical evidence of my observations is the results of the elections so far this year. Behold the (non-)power of the education lobby! I wish that teachers and public education concerns did have more influence on some of these races, but right now we’re just one more loosely affiliated group of semi-frequent voters with little quantifiable power.


Cameron said...

Good points on activity level of teachers. My father is a teacher, but not all that politically active either.

I think where most of the criticism comes from is the amount of money, and therefore influence, the UEA/NEA organization has. It might not be individual teachers out there, but their union

UtahTeacher said...

But what I'm saying is that I think the union influence is exaggerated and demonized, especially in Utah, where I wish teachers actually did have some influence. How many UEA endorsed candidates win? They may get some donations, but I don't think many individual teachers even know which candidates are endorsed in most cases, let alone feel obligated to cast their vote in that direction. And the teachers don't even make a dent in the races of legislators who just abhor us like Senators Stephenson, Bramble, and Valentine. Even Rep. Grover's primary vs. Lisa Shepherd which I had high hopes for, a vice principal who votes lockstep with the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican party and advocates vouchers (I know from personal sources that his accounts of teachers holding that against him are true--I'm very glad I don't have to work with him.) vs. a strong school advocate and PTA member--close, but no cigar.

The UEA is not some monolithic power bloc, but a very disparate group of teachers and interests trending in my opinion towards a low interest in politics.

The bad thing here is that UEA gets all of the bad press and bad-mouthing of the Autoworkers' unions or something comparable, while NOT gaining that many of the supposed benefits of the union. Don't get me wrong--I appreciate UEA much, much more now than when I began working as a teacher. But it's a lot of bark with little bite.

The organization and network of the UEA helped immensely in gathering the signatures state wide for the voucher referendum, but even then, the victory was because the average Utahn supported public schools and saw vouchers as a particularly obvious and elitist attempt to harm them. The teachers facilitated, but ultimately didn't have the power to win that vote alone. If they actually had power, other issues they felt strongly about such as class size and the omnibus bill would make waves like vouchers. Unfortunately, I would bet a majority of Utahns aren't familiar with even the basics of the current omnibus dispute.