I’m an eleven-year veteran California teacher, now in voluntary exile from the public K-12 system. Politically, I’ve registered as “refuse to identify” on the California ballot for the past three years. I hated Gray Davis but voted for Camejo, not Arnold. I’m pro-labor. And with two days to go, I’m still tempted to vote for Prop 75, the so-called “paycheck protection act.” I'd like to clarify why.
In years past, I happily paid dues for union representation at the collective bargaining table, even though my district (like many) is essentially a “closed shop” which doesn’t bother with member recruitment anymore. It’s the extra money, approximately thirty-eight percent of the now $927 annual paycheck deduction for my former colleagues, that bothers me still.
Where does all that money go? Let’s say where it doesn't. In the past ten years, neither the National Education Association nor the California Teachers Association has resisted corporate interest in the public money pots of compulsory education. I don’t mean Coke machines and advertising on the Internet, but the bedrock of schooling: curriculum, standards, instruction and assessment.
That’s what makes “Stop 75” ads comparing union and corporate donations to political candidates and parties frankly laughable and even disturbing. In fact, union dollars haven’t used their muscle to advance a coherent, anti-corporate agenda under the status quo.
The National Business Roundtable’s impact on standardization in schools has stood publicly un-critiqued by unions. Neither NEA nor CTA has scrutinized, in any coherent way, the current testing and reporting system. They’ve bought into Orwellian euphemisms like “collaboration” and “professional learning communities"--phrases which belie increasingly top-down, scripted, multiple-choice models of learning. Unions have at times traded teacher pay for professional autonomy and told teachers they will not support “insubordinate” defiance of unconscionable testing practices. Even with heavy access to the Democratic Party, the NEA pressed for more funding of the No Child Left Behind Act, rather than an overhaul and re-examination of school policy.
While both NEA and CTA advocate for important medical benefits, salary, tenure, and retirement investment, they don’t press for more funding of ongoing teacher education. I’m not talking about some in-house training workshop run by district lackeys, but subsidies for serious study, writing and research. (I know, I know: it’s pie in the sky for the lowly schoolmarms.)
No union resources have been used to raise awareness about the financial interests at stake for industry lobbying giants such as the Association of Test Publishers and the Association of American Publishers. I haven’t read a single critique of how public schools are used as a marketing platform for assessments in the wider business world. No foray of union voices clamored when the nonprofit Educational Testing Service was granted a virtual monopoly on test administration and reporting in California from Grades 2-11 in 2002--and then was commissioned to develop, administer, and score the California High School Exit Exam. No one complained when Grey Davis, in his final election year, abruptly allocated millions for a quick buyout of newly-minted books with the California standards branded into the margins. (Then-CTA-President Wayne Johnson outed Davis for soliciting campaign money as trade for political support--but why was Johnson surprised?)
When I attended the 2005 annual Association of Test Publishers conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I saw representatives from Microsoft, Vantage Learning, Thomson Prometric, ACT, Harcourt, The College Board, Linux, Caveon Data Forensics, Pearson VUE, and Educational Testing Service. Even Famous Amos of chocolate chip cookie fame was there, singing and playing a kazoo onstage. The absence of educators, state and local school board members and other officials was noted for the record at least twice. But they moved on without us. And there were no union watchdogs at the table.
Ironically, the main reason given by most supporters of Prop 75 is that “unions have an agenda.” What agenda? My problem is that the teachers’ union--at the highest and most prominent level--has provided very little organized vision and resistance.
The teachers’ union knows better than anyone that a textbook isn’t just a textbook anymore, and that information and test graft are easily the new wave of public waste. We need more sophisticated arguments than simply “Our kids need books!” or “We love kids!”
I’ve seen pictures of CTA President Barbara Kerr beaming with the Gubernator before and after his election. Under her leadership, the union agreed (with reservations?) to permit the “borrowing” of $2 billion that never got returned. Current union ads whining about Arnold’s “betrayal” would be sad if they weren’t so infuriating. Did CTA--bankrolled by the rank-and-file--really believe The Terminator would be a true advocate for education? That union compromises hadn’t already set the stage for a smile and pat on the head (or the behind)?
What teachers need is organized civil disobedience and coherent philosophical leadership, not pretenses of “reform” inside a complacent system. Make unions rally the rank-and-file. Make unions stand up and defend their expenditures.
Then I’ll happily and proudly write an extra check.