Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

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Welcome to sunny Puerto Rico.

The ocean is a gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees wave gently in the salty breeze. And in the distance you can hear percussion, horns and singing.

The protest has begun.

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Residents of this United States territory have been fighting freshman Governor Alejandro García Padilla’s efforts to close public schools, privatize those left and shackle teachers to the same corporate education reform schemes that are crippling schools on the mainland.

This Tuesday island educators are asking parents not to send their children to school. Teachers plan to conduct a one-day strike to protest legislation that could be passed the same day to further cripple the Commonwealth’s public education system.

“On November 17th we’ll be giving our lesson’s outside our classrooms,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the teachers union.

“We’ll be in front of our schools early in the morning and at 10:00 a.m. will march from Congress to the Governor’s Mansion in San Juan. This is one of many activities that we’ll perform in defense of public education. We will not accept these precarious impositions and will fight back.”

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The protest is in response to Project 1456 which would close more than 380 public schools. The government has already closed 150 schools in the past 5 years.

This would force many students into even more overcrowded classrooms. Thousands of children would have to be relocated to schools far from their homes.

But that’s not all.

The proposed legislation would also privatize 15% of those schools left standing. Unlike the mainland, Puerto Rico has no charter schools. Teachers went on a 10-day strike in 2008 which only ended after the island Secretary of Education Rafael Aragunde signed an agreement promising not to open any charters.

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If privatized schools opened on the island, parents might have to pay an additional fee for services they now enjoy for free. Amenities like lunches and even tuition may have to be subsidized by parents out of pocket.

Moreover, it would collapse the teachers retirement system, Martinez says. Charter schools would not deduct employees payments to the pension system so it might not be able to remain solvent.

Project 1456 would harm teachers in another way, too. It would enact a punitive evaluation system where 20% of educators value would be based on students standardized test scores. Any teacher with a 79% or less would have two years to improve or be fired.

“Teachers will have no rights,” Martinez says.

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The proposed legislation has already been approved by the Commonwealth Senate. It’s main author Sen. Eduardo Bhatia is pushing for the House to fast track it for approval.

Discussions began in the House last week.

Protesters were there on Wednesday. They stood up in the government chamber and walked out en mass when it was brought up for discussion. Eighteen of them wore white T-shirts spelling out the message “Our Schools Are Not For Sale.”

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Inside the House, presidents of private universities testified in favor of the measure.

“Obviously they want to become administrators of charter schools on our island,” Martinez says.

Outside the building, protesters held their own emblematic hearing on the matter. Community members, teachers and parents testified in the open air about how this legislation would hurt children. They ended with a symbolic vote against it.

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Puerto Ricans are not alone in this fight.

Jitu Brown, a community organizer from Chicago and Director of Journey for Justice Alliance traveled there to stand in solidarity with those fighting for their schools. Brown participated in a 34-day hunger strike in his hometown a month ago to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close the last open enrollment school in his neighborhood.

“This beautiful, breathtaking place is marred by ugly U.S colonialism and privatization of public services on steroids!” says Brown of Puerto Rico.

“I was blessed to spend time with powerful people fighting for a better world. Big ups to your warrior spirit, discipline and hospitality! Where we struggle, we can win! If we don’t struggle, we are guaranteed to lose.”

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The plight of Puerto Rican communities also inspired support from the Badass Teachers Association, a group of more than 56,000 educators, parents, students and activists.

“The Badass Teachers Association stands in strong solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are fighting for the very foundation of their democracy – the survival of their public school system which is under assault by the 1% who seek to close it up and deny Puerto Rican children a right to an education,” says Executive Director Marla Kilfoyle.

Protesters are getting the word out. They’ve already handed out thousands of fliers. Today they plan to drive in a large caravan across the island.

“We’ve got a bunch of cars with sound equipment,” Martinez says.

“We will go to all the communities near our schools in different regions asking parents to support the strike on the 17th.”

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Much of the the island’s financial woes are imported from the mainland. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

As a result, tax revenues to fund public goods like education are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills by as early as 2016. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

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“That’s why the Teacher’s Federation and other teacher unions allied together to fight back against the attack on our education system,” Martinez says.

“As you can see, we’ve been busy.”

If Project 1456 is passed by the House, the union is considering a general strike.

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Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Commonwealth Secretary of Education Rafael Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

Protesters stormed the Senate in October when Bhatia first introduced Project 1456.

“Senators decided to approve it without discussion because they did not want to listen to teachers chants and indignation,” says Martinez.

“Senator Bhatia has become the symbol for privatization under this administration. He has never been in a public School. He has no bond with it. He’s a demagogue.”


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Broken Promises! Pennsylvania Republicans Ready to Renege on Pension Deal Even if It Means Breaking the Law

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Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering breaking the law.

In fact, they may have already done it.

The reason? Pension debt.

The Commonwealth owes an estimated $50 million in unpaid pension obligations to state employees.

Instead of doing the responsible thing and paying off the state debt, Republican legislators are trying to rip up the bill and pay whatever they want.

If you or I did that, they’d put us in jail. But I guess the rules are different in Harrisburg.

As a public school employee, I work for the commonwealth. So do the state’s troopers, judges, university staff, etc. When I took this job, I signed a contract. I agreed to certain things (i.e. teaching, keeping up my certification, etc.) if the state agreed to certain things (i.e. pay, benefits, etc.).

But now GOP lawmakers – I don’t mean to be partisan but it is ONLY Republicans – want to renege on that deal.

Let’s say I came into school one day and said, “You know what? I just don’t feel like teaching today. But you still have to pay me.” No reasonable person would expect the state to cut me a check.

I need to live up to my end of the bargain. Otherwise, the state doesn’t have to give me one dollar.

And I have no problem with that. I love teaching. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.

But the state has to live up to its end, too. That goes beyond common sense. It’s one of the key principals of any civilized society. Each party to a contract has to abide by the agreement.

That’s really the issue – breach of contract. Legislators want to reduce benefits for both new employees – which is shortsighted but legal – and current employees – which has NEVER been permissible.

This isn’t just my interpretation. When lawmakers in Oregon and Illinois tried to rip up their state employee pensions, their state Supreme Courts ruled it unconstitutional.

State constitutions in both Oregon and Illinois specifically prohibit violation of contracts. Pennsylvania’s state constitution has an almost identical provision.

1+1=2.

That is not serious lawmaking. It’s theater.

This legislation has already passed the state Senate with all Democrats and one Republican voting against it. If it somehow were to pass the state House (which is by no means a sure thing) and if Gov. Wolf signed it into law (which he has said he would NOT do), it would go straight to court.

There would be no cost savings. In fact, the state would have to spend additional taxpayer money to defend legislators’ disdain for their own laws and 370,000 state workers.

So why do it?

Politics.

Gov. Wolf has proposed a budget that would right the wrongs of the previous Republican administration. Among other things, Wolf would restore $1 billion in annual cuts to public schools.

With this, we could reduce class size by rehiring the 25,000 teachers we unnecessarily sacked four years ago. We could ensure all children get arts, music, science labs, foreign languages, sports and extra-curricular activities. Even amenities like school nurses and guidance counselors could be restored.

But from the moment the governor made this promise, Republicans have vowed to oppose it. They had no problem four years ago voting to cripple our state education system. The result: Pennsylvania has the most inequitable school spending in the nation.

The commonwealth spends only 36.1% of the cost to educate students. That’s far below the national average of 45.5%, and ranks 45th in the country. The remaining cost is absorbed by local property taxes. Not only does this put an enormous tax burden on residents, it ensures schools in richer communities are better funded than those in poorer ones.

In fact, Pennsylvania has the worst disparity in the nation between dollars spent on rich vs. poor children.

But our Republican lawmakers are refusing to do anything about that…

Unless!

Unless the Democrats allow them to pilfer state workers pensions.

Republicans are holding the budget hostage to this criminal pension scheme.

Realistically, they need no help in the House and Senate. They control both bodies and in theory could pass whatever they want. However, this is the first year we have a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, so they need to bargain with him.

Funny when Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches, they didn’t have the guts to do this alone. Once it failed, who would they have had to blame?

That’s the reason for this elaborate hoax of a bill. They know it’s illegal. They know it won’t make it through court. They know it won’t save the state a dime because it will never be enacted.

But they are putting on a show for the voters.

Look how hard we tried to save the state money, but the Democrats (i.e. Wolf) wouldn’t let us do it. Look how hard we tried to increase school spending, but the Democrats (i.e. Wolf) wouldn’t pass our pension bill so we just couldn’t do it.

Excuse me while I go vomit all over myself!

How did we get in such a situation?

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for 17 years.

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Both the state government and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. And state workers made all their payments. They put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, lawmakers have the gall to act like they have no idea where this cost is coming from!?

You ran up the bill! Time to pay! But instead of doing that, you blame the hardworking men and women who do all the state’s actual J.O.B.’s. And you practice Al-Qaeda tactics against labor, teachers and students!

Is that too harsh?

Who else holds people hostage to their demands?

This is terrorism as governmental policy. Our course of action should be the same with guerrilla extremists at home as it is with those on foreign soil: We don’t bargain with fanatics.

Gov. Wolf has a plan to pay off the pension debt. It’s nothing fancy. It’s the same kind of advice you might get from your accountant – or your mom. Refinance, reduce costs elsewhere and pay your bills.

That’s certainly a more sound strategy than holding a knife to workers and kids.


If you live in the commonwealth, please write your Senator and State Representative asking them not to support the GOP pension plan and to pass Gov. Wolf’s budget.

NOTE: This article was also published on the Badass Teachers Association blog. I also talked at length about this subject on the Rick Smith Show.

BONUS VIDEO:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhUPs6SJQMc

Check Your Wallet! You Too Can Be An Expert on Teacher Tenure!

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It is IMPOSSIBLE to fire a bad teacher.

Unless of course you document how that teacher is bad.

You know? Due process. Rights. All that liberal bullshit.

Thank goodness we have tech millionaires to stand up for the rights of totalitarians everywhere!

A slew of Microsoft wannabes is taking up the mantle of the bored rich to once again attack teacher tenure.

They claim it’s almost impossible to fire bad teachers because of worker’s rights.

You know who actually is impossible to fire!? Self-appointed policy experts!

No one hired them to govern our public schools. In fact, they have zero background in education. But they have oodles of cash and insufferable ennui. Somehow that makes them experts!

I wonder why no one wants to hear my pet theories on how we should organize computer systems and pay programmers. Somehow the change in my pocket doesn’t qualify me to make policy at IBM, Apple or Microsoft. Strange!

But that doesn’t stop millionaires and billionaires with nothing better to do than try to increase their already skyrocketing profits.

It’s disgusting. They’re nothing but wealth addicts looking for a new score by stealing whatever crumbs have fallen to the floor that the rest of us need just to survive.

Time Magazine, which decided to put this non-story on the cover for Nov. 3, should be ashamed. But something tells me the editors could care less about things like facts, truth, integrity…

These are the same folks, after all, who propelled Michelle Rhee to fame on their infamous cover with the then-DC-schools chief holding a broom to sweep out all the bad teachers. Oh! That worked out so well! Cheating scandals, anyone!?

But instead of any apology or retraction for their faulty journalism, one can imagine the following conversation at Time’s last editorial meeting:

Editor 1: I’ve got a great idea for the cover! How about a bunch of know-nothing idle rich talking out of their asses!?

Editor 2: Brilliant!

I know I’m just a teacher and I don’t have millions in the bank, a bulging wallet or even a platinum credit card – but let me try to draw on my poor more-than-a-decade of experience in the classroom to explain.

1) Tenure does not mean a job for life. It just means you have to follow due process before firing a teacher. Many other jobs have similar due process rights for their workers that they don’t call tenure. Unfortunately that leads to the belief that teacher tenure is special or unique. It isn’t.

2) Teachers are Evaluated Based on Student Test Scores. This is ridiculously inaccurate and unfair. Standardized tests do NOT effectively measure student learning. They measure family income. So teachers who have richer students have generally more favorable evaluations than those who teach the poorest and most difficult children. Value-Added Measures, as these are often called, have been labeled junk science by national statistical organizations. They violate a basic principle of the field that you cannot use a test designed to evaluate one factor as a way to evaluate an entirely different factor. Removing due process would make the teachers who serve the most at-risk students, themselves, unfairly at risk of losing their jobs.

3) Firing the “least effective” teachers doesn’t improve education.
I know this goes against common sense, but facts are facts. If you fire someone, you have to find a replacement. Ideally, you want a replacement who will do a better job than the person being removed. However, this is incredibly difficult and expensive. Half of teachers who enter the field leave in 5 years. It’s a tough job that many people just can’t handle. Moreover, it takes a long time to get good at it. A much more cost-effective approach is providing high-quality professional development. You can’t fire yourself to the top. Yes, if a teacher has no interest and doesn’t improve after multiple attempts to help, then it may be best for that person to seek employment elsewhere. But it’s not step 1!

4) Tenure Protects the Most Experienced Teachers. Without it, veteran teachers could not compete with new hires who enter the field at a lower salary. In the long run, it costs less to keep and train veteran teachers than hire new ones. But administrators and school directors often only see short-term gain. Without due process, veterans would be in danger of unfair firing to increase the short-term bottom line. This would reduce the quality of education kids receive because they’d be denied a wealth of experience and talent. Moreover, who would enter a field that only values new hires? There’s no future in such a job and it would just be a repository for a series of temps with no other choice than to teach for a few years before moving on. Teach for America, anyone?

5) Tenure Allows Teachers to Innovate. With due process, teachers can more easily make decisions based on what’s best for their students and not what’s politically acceptable. They don’t have to give the school board director’s son an A just because of his patronage. Kids actually have to earn their grades. And if a student doesn’t like a teacher, he can’t destroy the adult’s career by making a baseless accusation.

But to know any of this, one would have to possess some actual information about the field. That takes experience, not big money.

For some reason, the same people who are investing heavily in privatization just can’t see it. The people who champion for-profit charter schools, toxic testing and Common Core can’t wrap their heads around the concept. All they see are dollar signs of public money meant to pay for the public good being diverted into their private bank accounts.

Human suffering? Educational outcomes? Struggling students?

Who gives a shit?

Teachers do. That’s why they’re trying so hard to get rid of us.


This article was also published on Diane Ravich’s blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

As a member of the Badass Teachers Association, I subsequently helped craft a response that was published in Time Magazine.

Raiders of Your Lost Pension

Ever wonder why corporate education reformers praise Teach For America temps so much and want to find more ways to fire veteran teachers? Here’s one potential answer in their own words:

 

“…it is theoretically possible for rapid staff turnover or aggressive organizing efforts by a cohort of Teach For America entrants to give newer employees the upper hand…”

 

In other words, a newer (read: ignorant) employee is a malleable one. So say the authors of a conservative think-tank paper on how to better raid teachers pensions. New employees don’t know better than to let their pensions be raided.

The 2009 paper is called “But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There…”: The Politics of Teacher Retirement Plans by Frederick M. Hess and Juliet P. Squire. It was published by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and is freely available on the Internet. AEI is a private, conservative, not-for-profit think-tank dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics and social welfare. AEI scholars are considered to be some of the leading architects of the second Bush administration’s public policy and include Lynne Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Newt Gingrich.

The paper suggests we should reduce pension benefits for teachers and public employees so as to be “fiscally responsible.” I don’t mean to suggest that all corporate education reform efforts are motivated by an urge to reduce teachers pension benefits. I merely suggest that this paper shows how many of the disruptive attacks on our public schools of late follow the pattern outlined here. One could easily see an effort aimed at privatization, for instance, following a similar turn.

Take note of the best political environment from which to attempt such an approach and compare it to what we’re seeing today:

 

“…embrace a “starve-the-beast” strategy. Since there are temptations for legislators to spend and unions to demand any available dollars, there is a perverse discipline implicit in funding shortfalls that dampens the urge to ratchet up benefits. In other words, the fiscally responsible course of maintaining healthy reserves can be regarded as an invitation to political irresponsibility.”

 

In other words, if you provide less funding to public schools, legislators will be more prone to cut things like teacher pension benefits. Moreover:

 

“When those moments emerge, reform-minded legislators and advocates have the opportunity to harness public opinion and frame benefit increases as irresponsible, craven, and kowtowing to “special interests.” Of course, the effort to manufacture such a moment can fall flat... which is why reformers must use fiscal crises as opportunities for promoting measures to modernize benefits and deliver responsible fiscal stewardship…” (Emphasis Added)

 

Notice the fiscal crisis doesn’t even need to be real. The authors suggest manufacturing such a crisis is perfectly allowable. It’s only cautioned against because the public might not be fooled. But if you can divert funding away from schools say with big business tax breaks or make it look like schools really have less funds than they really have, that’s still okay. How many times at the state and federal level have we seen this happen!?

Another way to grease the theft from teachers pensions is to divide-and-conquer. Specifically, the authors call for bribing veteran teachers at the expensive of new hires:

 

“…there is a persistent need to buy off, or in more decorous language, to “grandfather,” current teachers and retirees when promoting change. This is due not only to legal limitations but because unions will fight bitterly to protect the benefits of current members while, whatever they say, less passionately protecting those of future members.”

 

The authors think new employees can be better convinced of the benefits of reduced pensions benefits because:

 

“…newer teachers are by and large younger and generationally much more familiar with a highly mobile job market than are teachers who entered the workforce two decades ago. Existing pension systems are a legacy of the industrial era, a time when employees routinely stayed with one employer for decades or their entire career—and where benefits premised on long service were the norm. Today, decades in the service of a single employer is no longer the expectation for talented college graduates.”

 

So new employees have lower expectations. When hired by a school district, they don’t expect to be in the classroom very long before transitioning to their next job somewhere else. This certainly sounds like Teach For America temps, but it doesn’t sound like any public school teachers I’ve ever known. Moreover, it’s hard to see why this would be desirable from an administrator’s point of view. Wouldn’t you want knowledgeable, dedicated staff who devote their careers to the students in their charge? I guess that just costs too much. It wouldn’t be “fiscally responsible.”

However, the most pernicious element of the divide-and-conquer strategy may be that it’s just subterfuge. The authors clearly admit that at the end of the day they don’t care about veteran employees, new hires, administrators or even the public. They only want to provide plausible deniability:

 

“Finally, modifying pension systems requires addressing concerns of veterans who will feel cheated out of what they’ve been promised, organizing and selling advantages to younger educators and to recruiters, and designing systems that are clearly more responsive to public concerns and to the challenges of staffing schools—so as to provide plausible cover to reform advocates.” (Emphasis added)

 

Notice that none of this has anything to do with making schools better, providing better outcomes for students, parents or the community. The only concern here is to push forward a corporate education reform agenda – in this case reducing teachers pension benefits. There is no discussion of how this might impact student learning, only in how it would affect the bottom line.

To summarize, this paper advocates the following corporate education reform strategies:

 

1) Firing veteran employees and/or replacing them with TFA recruits helps the corporate reform agenda because it replaces the staff with more ignorant, malleable employees that can be more easily persuaded to accept changes in the status quo.

2) School funding shortfalls are excellent opportunities to enact changes that would not be considered when things are going smoothly.

3) There’s nothing wrong with creating a funding crisis if you can get away with it.

4) New employees don’t expect to be treated as well as veteran employees and thus can be more easily manipulated.

5) At the end of the day, this is all cover for pushing through the corporate education reform agenda.

 

So there you have it in the words of the corporate education reformers. If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall, this was your chance. You can read the whole paper here.

Sadly, there is plenty more available on-line. It just takes a strong stomach to get through all of it. But it only takes a moment with a newspaper to see it being conducted right under our noses.