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Protect the American Union by Supporting Public Schools

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America's public schools are ground zero in the movement to reframe American politics and public policy from one of common opportunity to individual gains.

Policymaking used to embody the notion that the good of the people was the good of our Union. Today, policymakers seemingly subscribe to the notion that what is good for a few is good enough, even if at the cost of our Union.

It's time to call out these policies and the politicians who promote them for what they really are: modern anti-Unionists.

While arguing for programs and policies that weaken schools, rarely do they mention that most successful Americans of all races, ethnicities, religions and professions were and are products of our American public school system. This vast majority of citizens prove that when we invest in our public systems and employees, they work and produce high outcomes.

But each day seems to bring a new example of leaders undermining our Union and public schools.

The resurgence of state voucher proposals is shocking even longtime supporters by syphoning needed resources and expanding access beyond impoverished families from schools that are trying to educate all students. Pennsylvania state legislators will soon vote on Senate Bill 1, which would spend three-quarters of a billion dollars on a voucher program that will benefit fewer than 10 percent of that state's low-income students.

These plans also weaken efforts to track school success. The major academic accountability measures we have spent decades developing do not follow students into the private-school setting. Because the private schools are not required to report student outcomes, we have no way of knowing if low-income students sent to for-profit private schools with public dollars actually learn.

To help justify spending cuts and vouchers, these anti-Unionists demonize teachers unions while ignoring that Massachusetts -- one of the top states for education -- is strongly unionized and that many struggling states in the South are not.

Yet, while promoting more accountability for parents, teachers and young people, the anti-Unionists reject accountability for investing in the infrastructure and public systems that allow the majority of parents, teachers and children in our Union to flourish.

Since the rebirth of these anti-Unionist policies during the Reagan Administration, America has grown the largest wealth gap in 50 years. These days the top 5 percent owns more of the nation's net wealth than the other 95 percent combined. These policies ignore the connection between strong public education systems for all and livable wages for working-class Americans.

For example, to meet the labor force needs in an increasingly global marketplace, by 2018 New York will need to fill about 1.8 million job vacancies requiring postsecondary credentials.

Under former Chancellor Joel Klein, the New York City school system paid private entities to operate public systems, laid off teachers and promoted new charter schools over investments in traditional public schools. The result? Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, of the 100,000 students in ninth grade in 2002, just 4,300 are estimated to have graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 2010 -- a dismal 4 percent.

Adding 50 charter schools won't solve this systemic challenge, nor will laying off 6,600 teachers, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently proposed. Nor will allowing a millionaires' tax -- that could generate as much as $5.5 billion -- to sunset while simultaneously cutting $1.6 billion from the education budget, as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing.

For the United States to be a global leader in postsecondary education by 2020, it will take a higher level of accountability from teachers, parents, our youth and policymakers to maintain our Union. One cannot advocate anti-Union sentiments and be pro-child any more than a business can pay no taxes but say it supports America's economic growth.

Rather than institutionalizing education policies that lead to poor outcomes for our Union, each sector below must do its part to put us on a forward path toward opportunity for all. Here are some suggestions on what each sector can do:

Federal Government - The U.S. Department of Education must reject the urge to adopt and continue ways and policies that potentially benefit only a few: Under Race to the Top, a handful of states won much-needed aid while most lost or did not participate. It appears that the same competitive approach will be used to disburse new early education funds. How does the Union win when so many states lose?

Governors and State Legislators - Invest our limited public dollars in what's proven to work: high-quality early childhood education, ensuring that students read at grade level through 3rd grade, supports for recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers, extended learning options, college preparatory curricula, and equitable instructional resources.

Teachers Unions - We must ensure that experienced teachers are in our most challenged schools. Teachers unions must help develop objective systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness, so that strategies used by excellent teachers can be identified and shared within teacher learning communities, schools and districts.

Media - Media should go beyond anecdotes of single schools that serve hundreds to focus on solutions to the problems facing millions of children. When someone espouses cutting taxes during education budget cuts or attacks teachers, reporters should ask: "How do you propose retaining excellent teachers?" or, "Do you have a plan to financially support under-resourced districts?"

Business Community - Corporations must invest in the public education system by supporting opportunity to learn endeavors such as supports for teaching and learning and mentoring. Smart, targeted investments in public education benefit all. Without these investments the talent pool needed to increase innovation will not exist.

Philanthropy - We are part of the problem, too. Let's stop using the wrong metrics to guide our social agenda. Let's work together to develop an Opportunity Index that looks at graduation rates, suspensions and expulsions, unemployment and incarceration rates to measure whether a city, state or our nation is moving closer to our 2020 opportunity goal of ensuring all children have access to the same quality schools, teachers and educational resources.

The People - We have conceded too much to political parties and politics. In the past, neither Republican nor Democratic parties allowed politics to override the patriotic call for America's future. Today, key actors in both parties have allowed politics to supersede patriotism. Thus, labor, civil rights, grassroots advocates, and faith leaders are once again being called to be the last defenders of opportunity -- the protectors of our American Union.

Our Union's public schools and working-class population have been neglected and the results are evident in a lower quality of life for an increasingly large group of Americans. In the narrative of the 21st century, the historical problems of the minority are becoming the mainstream problems of the majority -- more challenges with fewer opportunities. Rewriting that narrative begins with supporting public schools -- this is the battleground we must fight on to save our Union, the progress of our nation and our children.