public schools, public goods

Winterhaven School at Brooklyn School, Portland, OR

The ongoing frontal attack in the U.S. on public school teachers (of which I'm not one) appears on the surface based in jealousy and ignorance. How many of the rest of us can just stop going to work until our boss agrees to pay us more as the Chicago teachers did? How many of us have three whole months off in the summer? How many of us can take off all the bank holidays on the calendar? How many of us end our workday between two and three in the afternoon? How many of us even have pensions anymore, let alone unions to fight employers for such benefits? That's the jealousy part talking: "We don't have those perks at work, so why should they?"

Brooklyn School Auditorium door

The ignorance part spreads wider and deeper, like an iceberg. How many people know that Portland Public School teachers (or at least those at the school I work at) must sweep and mop their own classrooms, hefting the mini chairs upside-down on top of the desks each afternoon like waiters and servers swabbing down restaurant or cafĂ© floors after closing time, because the PPS janitorial service only covers daily trash pick-up? How many people know that public school teachers like my step-aunt, who works at a school down in Woodburn, Oregon, spend two-to-three hours each day at school after the kids leave grading papers and preparing for the next school day, and then another two or three hours at home doing more of the same, which puts my step-aunt's official workday far longer than that of the average Joe—except that she also gets up at 4:30 a.m. each day and spends much of each Saturday grading papers and preparing lesson plans for the next week.

How many people have tried entertaining 30-plus kids for six hours a day, nine months out of a year, let alone instruct them in reading, writing, science, geography, history, and math at the same time? How many people know that for many of the school's-out holidays kids have, teachers are still at school, conducting parent-teacher conferences, attending required in-service (training) meetings, calculating grades, writing up lesson plans, and so on? How many people know that public school teachers voluntarily spend a good chunk of their yearly earnings on supplies for their classrooms and lessons to make school more fun or lessons more effective? How many people know that a full-time, 11-month teacher credentialing program at Portland State University (the Graduate Teacher Education Program, GTEP) costs upwards of $21,000?* How many people know that many public school teachers around the country—like their fellow public servants, fire fighters and police officers—cannot afford on their salaries to buy houses in the districts in which they work? How many people know that teachers are paid less on average than those with similar experience and education levels in other professions, or that 46% of new public school teachers, after all the time, energy, and money invested in their own career training and dreams, leave the profession within five years? How many people know that 62% of teachers work second jobs? How many people know that many experienced teachers, having lost much of the creative flexibility, autonomy, and administrative support they formerly had as teachers, are quietly slipping out of the profession (see, for example, comments here).

classroom grow light, Brooklyn School, Portland, OR

Those of us who went to public school had teachers we loved, teachers we liked well enough, and teachers we hated. I adored my slim and pretty third- and sixth-grade teachers who encouraged my love of books and writing, who let me stay indoors reading during recess with a book, rather than shoving me outside with my loud, sweaty peers. They made me feel that being a bookworm wasn't such a bad thing, after all, despite what the other kids said. But I detested my wrinkled fourth-grade teacher, who traced in red pen over my handwriting on all my compositions with her perfect cursive script (cursive writing now an antiquated skill that many schools aren't even teaching anymore); no assignment for red-lipsticked Mrs. R. was ever good enough. And I couldn't stand my roly-poly, curly-haired eighth-grade English teacher who, for reasons that still escape me, left my name off the recommendation list for high school Honors English, which meant I had to fight to get into the Honors English class as a freshman, after sitting bored in regular English for an entire term learning how to spell words I'd known since elementary school. But just because a few truly harmful teachers—bad apples—exist, does that mean public school should be gutted in favor of private or charter schools that, despite Wal-Mart's pro-charter marketing campaign via the films Waiting for Superman and Won't Back Down, have not proven themselves better education providers when funding is comparable?

Woodstock Elementary School, Portland, OR

I'm currently a private employee working within a public school, tutoring children one-on-one, most of whom are ESL/ELL, in phonemic and visual processing, the foundations of reading. Most of the children's faces I see in the halls are Latino, while the rest are white, African-American, African, Asian, and biracial. Most of the children qualify for the free breakfast program. The older, low-slung school sits in a poor neighborhood in North Portland.

A private employee, funded by a private foundation, I don't have to attend any of the school in-services or parent conferences, or do any grading. I watch the classroom teachers around me from an outsider's perspective. As I pass in the hall, I see them sweeping their classrooms. They smile "hello." I see their potted plants and colorful posters and room decorations that all seem to say, "Isn't the world beautiful and amazing, and isn't learning fun?"

The public teachers arrive earlier and stay later than I do. They get paid more. But I wouldn't want their job, especially when segments of society are vilifying them for an incompetence I don't see. How can a child whose native language is not English possibly read or perform at a standard-English grade level until her language skills catch up to native-speaker children? How much individual attention can one teacher provide when she must divide herself among 30 other children? And what about the effects of poverty? There is such a thing as a free lunch—and breakfast—for these kids because if a child goes to school hungry, how can she possibly learn anything?

To understand the public versus private education debate, just follow the money. Who's going to benefit when teachers unions are busted up? The scapegoating of public school teachers is calculated and intentional, the populace being whipped into a tarring-and-feathering state by ultra-conservative groups, those funded in the background by the likes of the Walton family and the Koch brothers, who, jangling the billions in their pockets, intend that everything public should be privatized. And waiting on the sidelines, like vultures, are the venture capitalists, those who will profit when public education falls.

*Note: This was the figure quoted to me during an informational session on campus in 2009 when I was exploring career options, an amount which no doubt has increased in three years. At the time, PSU claimed this was the lowest-cost teacher training program in the Portland area.

Edited to add: A less personal, more formal analysis of the situation described in this post can be found in Jeff Faux's article titled, "Education Profiteering: Wall Street's Next Big Thing?"

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