two thousand twenty
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By John Addyman
    It’s a memory that comes to mind so easily, and always brings a smile to my face: my six-year-old daughter Elisabeth, setting up a schoolroom in our basement, chalkboard and all, awaiting the arrival of her student, my four-year-old daughter Mary Kate.
   Elisabeth, 20-some years later, is a certified New York State teacher and proud of it. She had to fight for every credit, had to manage a job and a child to finish her education, and wants to teach inner-city kids. She’s a tough cookie, and she can handle tough cookies.
   But she can’t find a job. And she’s not going to find a job this year or next year. She takes as many substitute-teaching jobs as she can, but it’s not a living. In a few months, she’s going to have to walk away from the dream she’s had since she was a little girl.
   And she’s not alone.
   Few people in this county have been to as many different school board meetings as I have in the last two weeks. Our neighbors and friends who sit on those boards aren’t sleeping well these nights. 

   Our new governor has drawn a line on a spreadsheet, making what I’m sure he felt was an equitably balanced across-the-board cut to try to start balancing the state budget. What we in the Ginger Lakes counties know now is that the cuts are anything but equitable, and our school districts have literally had the rug pulled out from under them.
   As people get upset by all the cutting and all the talk about deficits and expenses and layoffs, they look for targets for their anger. And the scapegoats du jour are the state’s public employee unions.
   Even Jim Cheney, the mayor of Phelps, chimed in yesterday with an op ed piece in the Finger Lakes Times, calling for union “cooperation” in solving the state and local school districts’ mess, repeating a song we’ve heard sung in other states: “The reality is that because of the power afforded them by state statutes, teachers and public employees (or their union leaders) will ultimately make the decision about what our schools and communities will look like, rather than elected leaders.”
   If I were a union member listening to Mr. Cheney say that, I’d ask, “Which of my pockets are you going to take the ‘cooperation’ out of, Jim?” 
   Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker told the people of his state that his “budget repair bill” wasn’t aimed at unions, but was needed to regain fiscal solvency and prevent disaster. Then after a lot of storm and fuss – and people yelling “Shame! Shame!” at legislators – the Wisconsin government did an end run around the “budget” bill and passed a union-busting law, punishing the state’s own employees. The budget is still waiting.
   Unions aren’t the problem. A tradition of earmarks, walking-around money, patronage, gerrymandering and we-know-better-than-you-do decisions in the state legislature has crippled New York State and now we’re left with the inmates in change of the asylum. 
   New York doesn’t need pressure and “cooperation” from the unions, it needs a new state charter, a new governmental organization, and a whole new cast of characters who aren’t beholding to bureaucratic interests in Albany or financial interests in Manhattan.
   Education was in trouble with the federal No Child Left Behind law that required every school district to teach to a test. If the district didn’t teach to the test, it got dinged in a very public report of “failing to make adequate yearly progress.” The standardized test has become the Holy Grail – achieve it, and all is well. Forget about all that other stuff – arts, music, humanities, citizenship, sports and community involvement: they are superfluous to The Test.
   What No Child Left Behind did was to enforce a mandate on schools. In the beginning, there was some money – inadequate, but some – to help districts handle the workload required in providing all the documentation bureaucrats love.  Then the money disappeared.
   That mandate-with-the-disappearing-funds trick was one school boards had seen before. The special education laws which require a school district to provide what can be extraordinarily expensive care for some kids started a trend. The burden of paying for decisions made in Albany and Washington shifted more and more to local boards.
It was, in reality, a form of taxation without representation…didn’t we go to war with England for that?
   Municipalities and school districts have recently been asked for large amounts of extra funding to pay for public-employee retirement-system benefits. The people managing those trust funds in Albany who made the poor investment choices that led to the funding crisis – why aren’t those people in jail for malfeasance and incompetence?
   A year ago, in the midst of an embarrassing and shameful budget process in Albany, most of us were ready to take a bus there and throw all the rascals out. Has so much changed in one year? Tell me a new governor and some Tea Party candidates have somehow transformed the attitude of business as usual in Albany and I’ll show you some prime land for development in Savannah’s muckland.
   But of course, the unions are to blame for all this.
   I get mad enough to spit when I hear someone say that.
   After five years of college, I got my degree and on one Sunday afternoon I got three offers from three school districts to teach science in their hallowed halls. I took a job in Bristol, PA, for $3,200 a year. It was 1967. There were no teacher unions.
   My wife was also a teacher. Like every other male teacher I knew – and I knew hundreds – I had a second job. I had to have one to pay the bills. My wife and I were also going to school to get our master’s degrees. She had a second job, too. We had college loans to pay off. At one point, I took a third job and held it for a couple of years.
   What I was doing was not unusual then.
   And for many teachers, it’s not unusual today.
   Two years after I started teaching, laws changed in Pennsylvania. The legislature, in its wisdom, drew a line and said, “Teachers will not be paid less than this.” As a result, my salary doubled. Unions – they were called “professional associations” then – had come to the white-collar world.
   Our teacher salaries were low because that’s what local school boards decided to pay us. And before tenure laws, if the composition of a school board changed, some teachers – especially some coaches – could find themselves out of work in a hurry. I saw it happen before unions came to education.
   Nobody going into education does so with a goal of driving a BMW 318i and having a second house on the lake. My wife and I knew what the realities were. We knew we’d be middle class, period. That was fine.
   Over the years I’ve seen school board members rewrite curriculum to suppress any “liberal” ideas. I’ve worked with principals who handed out eight-inch-think teacher manuals that demanded you stand a certain number of feet outside your classroom door when classes changed. I’ve watched legislators pass incredibly short-sighted laws that made a teacher’s job more difficult without causing any benefit to students.
   Mr. Cheney would call this heresy, but I don’t think teachers have nearly enough say in education today. All the change is coming from the top down. If teachers had command of public education, graduation rates would rise quickly, schools would be challenging and nurturing places, and the whole child’s needs would be the subject of everyone’s efforts and attention. Teachers would have their proper stature in the community, a community that would love its schools.
   As for unions, the Japanese post-World War II adopted unions, quality control, and joint decisionmaking in their manufacturing processes. And they turned the world on its ear.    Those ideas got to America in the 1970s and 1980s – soon after automakers here saw the watch-like quality of Honda motors in the 1974 Accord. Ford Motor Co. was the first to adopt the “Quality is Job One” philosophy in the mid-1980s, and today, it is the only American car company, based on the latest issue of Consumer Reports, to rate with Honda and Toyota in terms of quality and reliability.
    Are unions the cause of the fiscal problems school districts face? No, they are not. And to say they are demonstrates a can’t-see-the-forest-from-the-trees perspective about what's wrong with New York today.


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