Who Changed the Color of My Collar?

education-is-a-right-not-a-privilege-blue-unisex-teeBy Peggy Wuenstel –  I am entering the last two years of my career as a Wisconsin teacher.

I have already started culling the accumulated store of worksheet files, teacher resource books, and half-finished projects and blogs like this one. It is happening at a time when the Wisconsin legislature is also trying to dismantle my profession, reframing it as a non-profession, with greatly reduced or non-existent certification, degree requirements, salaries and benefits. In what they describe as an attempt to help rural districts meet licensure requirements, they sought to lower Wisconsin standards for teachers to the lowest in the country. If these lawmakers had done their homework, they would have discovered the multiple paths to teacher licensure that would allow these districts to help educators obtain licensure.

The core problem is not that licensure is too difficult to obtain, it is that living and teaching in these rural communities is not well compensated enough to draw the qualified applicants. Those who espouse the capitalist way know the answer; raise the wages and benefits and you will attract workers, teachers, and professionals. Eliminating a licensure requirement will not draw teachers to these jobs, but it could turn people who live in these communities who have never had a desire to teach into someone willing to stand in front of a classroom because they can earn a paycheck. It also means that the legislators in Madison feel that these children are not entitled to the same level of education that kids in the more populated areas receive. It is a sad state of affairs when leveling the playing field means reducing the level of education for everyone instead of helping those who need help to rise.

In so many ways, this seems to be the vision of those directing educational policy today. When studies indicate that voucher schools do not perform as well as public schools they do three things: reduce the standards for public school teachers so that they are at a similarly low level to the competition, divert badly needed operating funds from public to voucher schools, and silence the voices that do the studies, report the results, and propose ways to make schools better. They strip public employees of their rights to bargain and shine a light on working conditions, inequities and areas where change is needed. They propose eliminating tenure for university professors and then seek removal of professors whose research does not meet a political litmus test. They systematically tear down a system by defunding, defaming, and defrauding, and then claim that it is failing.

Despite what you may hear from outside the educational community, teacher expertise matters, and that doesn’t change because politicians don’t want educators to question, dispute, or talk about what is happening in government. People who need a paycheck and can be fired for speaking out will quiet their rhetoric to feed their families. The American form of government depends on an educated electorate. It begs the question of what current power brokers want when they strip the people with the least access to education of their right to vote, undermine the systems that educate them, and silence the most educated among us.

We have to see this as a broader assault, not on us as individuals, but on a system that guarantees an education to all. It is what has made our system unique, what makes comparisons to outcomes from other nations less than accurate. Equal access to education, for the poor, the differently able, the non-native speaker, changes the overall pool of results. It also changes our country. Schools, despite how much they may want to, cannot change a poor child into a middle class one.

They can turn a hungry child into a tot ready to learn because they had breakfast and lunch. They can move a teen from isolation to knowing someone who connects and cares. They can transform an apathetic seat-filler into a motivated learner. They can turn a child with no knowledge of English into a bilingual speaker and thinker.

We have to stop focusing on what we are not doing as a society and start focusing on what we can do. We have to stop making sure no one is getting something they don’t deserve and make it our mission to create a place where  everyone has what they need. We need to rewrite our concept of fairness into one that seeks to make sure we are able to respond when there is something missing that we can collectively heal, whether that be in natural disasters, new business start-ups, keeping the heat on, or the streets safe for children to play on.

We are never going to move forward if what we are working for is for people to keep a stranglehold on what they have, and for those who have the most to put their treasures away under lock and key so they don’t get shared with the world. When you hold on to things too tightly, like cut flowers or hamsters, you crush the life right out of them. We are doing that to teachers, to schools, to American society. These collars, whether they are blue, white, or chains, strangle us and keep us from being and doing what we can to contribute, succeed, and value what we have.

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