Old habits die hard.
During my two decades as a newspaper reporter and editor, I did not join any organizations because I knew that in small Missouri towns, at some point or another you are going to have to write about them. I took pride in my independence and objectivity.
I continued that same stance through my first 11 years as a teacher in public schools. I did not join NEA or the other organization that represents Missouri teachers, the Missouri State Teachers Association.
Why I maintained that stance, I really can't say. Just an old habit, I suppose.
Seeing the darkening clouds surrounding public education, I decided last year to cast my lot with NEA.
Surely in NEA, I thought, I would find a union that would fight the good fight against those who would thrust a dagger into public education, one of the most successful social experiments in history and a steppingstone to achieving the American dream.
I want my money back.
The announcement that NEA is giving away all the political capital it has by making a premature endorsement of Barack Obama's re-election was the last straw. I read the reasons why the endorsement was made. On the surface, they seem credible.
It was noted that none of those who are running on the Republican ticket are likely to provide public education with any support. Undoubtedly, that is true. The seeds of the nightmare that is today's public education were planted by the GOP with its support of vouchers, its constant hammering on the so-called "Godless" schools and their "brainwashing" of susceptible children, and its Greek chorus of billionaires spreading the fiction that American schools were failing, when, in fact, American schools have continued to excel in all areas except those which are stricken with poverty.
So I fully understand that reason for the NEA to cast its lot with President Obama well before election year arrives.
And then you have the explanation of the how the calendar works against an effective endorsement of the president in 2012. If it is not done this year, the argument goes, the endorsement cannot be made officially until July 2012, long after it can offer any help for the president or for NEA.
My answer to NEA: Rework your calendar and show a little intestinal fortitude.
By casting your lot with Barack Obama, and it pains me to say this, you are endorsing the president who has done more to destroy what is good about public education than any president in history.
When President Bush pushed for the fatally flawed No Child Left Behind to be enacted at the beginning of his first term, it was to be expected. This was a Republican president who bought into the idea that education would function better if it were governed by the principles of big business.
After eight years of the Bush doctrine, it appeared that better times were ahead. President Obama was elected and the Democratic Party had control of the House and Senate. No Child Left Behind could be eliminated and the focus could have been properly shifted toward curing the societal problems that have made it so difficult to educate many inner-city children.
Instead the president ignored pleas to put an actual educator in charge of the Education Department and installed Arne Duncan, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, (the title providing clear evidence what direction he would take) as Secretary of Education.
After that, the president put his imprint on Duncan's Race to the Top "reform," which offered the same cures for ailing schools that the GOP and the billionaires sought. If a public school is in trouble, close it or fire all of its teachers. Offer merit pay based on the scores from standardized tests that were never intended to offer a complete (at most, barely a partial) picture of the quality of education a school provides. Pour money into charter schools, even when evidence exists that the education they offer is not any better, and sometimes worse, than that provided by public schools.
When a Rhode Island board of education fired all of the teachers at a high school with low scores, President Obama went cheerfully along with Duncan's praise of the action as "courageous" and something that would help children. Not once did either man say that there is something horribly wrong with a system that throws out all teachers, even the good, some perhaps excellent, who have devoted their lives to helping children. And how could they say anything against it? It was their plan the Rhode Island board was following.
During a town hall meeting on education last month, President Obama raised hopes by criticizing the overemphasis on standardized testing and the teach to the test philosophy that has come as a result. He noted that at his daughters' school, the prestigious Sidwell Friends, they had recently taken standardized tests and there was no pressure and it only took a day.
It's a private school, Mr. President. Your policies do not affect it one bit, but if they continue the only students who will be receiving well-rounded educations will be those who attend Sidwell Friends and other private schools, most likely at some point on the public tab.
At public schools, meanwhile, we are forced to teach to the test, offer scores of practice standardized tests, and replace the kind of education that could turn children into lifelong learners with a test prep emphasis that teaches them how to bubble in an answer but does nothing to help them think.
The president has spoken eloquently of the need for parents and students to take charge of their education. But he, as President Bush did before him, has placed the blame for these perceived shortcomings in American public education on classroom teachers.
His words praise teachers; his policies indicate his words are just words.
This is what NEA has chosen to endorse for re-election in 2012... a year and a half before the ballots are cast.
With all unions under attack, NEA, one of the few that is still doing well, had the opportunity to hold back its endorsement and perhaps gain some concessions from the president, some assurances that a second Obama Administration will not continue the destructive policies of the first.
Instead, NEA's leadership continued its recent policy of capitulating to the forces that that would love to eventually destroy public education (and the NEA itself).
Public education does not need Jack Kevorkian. It has the NEA.
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