Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I Stand with Wisconsin Workers

(This has been cross-posted at Rachel's, Rants, Raves and Recollections and will be part of the #edusolidarity project)

Since Madison, Wisconsin is burning as I blog, I must to take a moment to support teachers unions and unions in general. And I want to explain that support. Despite my own teaching and union/non-union experiences, I don't think I understood and appreciated the role of unions until just recently. These two pieces, one by award-winning Maryland social studies teacher blogger Kenneth Bernstein and the other by California English teacher blogger David Cohen, helped me to understand the importance of unions.

My parents and their parents before them, were not wealthy, but nor were they workers, unionized or otherwise (although my maternal grandfather's father was very active in the railroad telegraphers union in Illinois). My father's parents were the children of Eastern European immigrants and owned a stationary store in Brooklyn, New York. My maternal grandfather worked as a chemist for Montgomery Ward and then as a manager for an automotive parts company in Chicago, Illinois, and my maternal grandmother was a homemaker and worked as at the Hadley School for the Blind.

Besides being born white in America, my parents were lucky to have attended two of the best known public high schools in the country; my mother went to Glenbrook in Northbrook, Illinois, and my father to Stuyvesant in New York City. My mother had college-educated parents and the luck of her zipcode (though not if you ask her as she hated the suburbs) and my father had parents who, though relatively uneducated themselves, greatly valued education. My parents went on to attend outstanding public universities--my mother, the University of Wisconsin and my father, Brooklyn College. They met while they were in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

After finishing, they moved to Washington, DC, where my sister and I grew up and attended public schools, so that my father could take a job as a lawyer with the federal government, where he has spent most of his career--primarily as a civil rights lawyer at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and then as a litigator and energy efficiency regulation counsel at the Department of Energy. My mother had been a linguist but couldn't find a job in her field (her specialty was semitic languages--she was a generation early on that one).  After learning about my father's work at HEW and watching him in court, she went to law school and became a labor, civil rights and school finance lawyer. I imagine they could have gone to work for any white shoe law firm they wanted to, but they gladly chose civil and public service. While we weren't rich, we lived a comfortable middle class life.

Among other topics they discussed at the dinner table, I definitely recall my parents grumbling about corruption and obstructionism in unions, but they always believed in their importance. When I went to work for DCPS, I was ambivalent about joining the Washington Teachers' Union--I really didn't know much about unions. Despite some of her negative associations, my mother informed me I should join, that it was the right thing to do. Even then, I never developed union pride; for one, I certainly didn't enjoy funding WTU President Barbara Bullock's collection of fur coats and silver candlesticks.

I found my experiences with "management" much more pleasant and reasonable when I taught in public schools in Albemarle County, Virgina, a right-to-work state, but I don't think that had anything to do with not being unionized or not having collective bargaining power. And I did join the Albemarle Education Association chapter of the Virgina Education Association. I can't say they ever did anything directly for me, but nor did I have the need to ask them to. Many other teachers I've spoken to have described the organization as both toothless. I imagine they feel that way since teachers' salaries in Virginia are approximately five thousand dollars below market, being especially low where I live and have taught in Central Virginia. But at the very least, the VEA serves as a good resource for educators and lobbies to improve the working and learning conditions for teachers and students.

I always took for granted my middle class upbringing, which is becoming less and less possible, as middle class wages decrease and expenses increase. With all that's going on in Wisconsin, I have come to appreciate that my parents and I have been able to live a comfortable middle class life because of what labor unions fought for in the first place: fair compensation, safe working conditions, and a decent standard of living in exchange for a job done. Their fight increased wages and other forms of compensation, such as benefits and pensions, and improved working conditions for all of us.

That's why I attended the Rally to Preserve the American Dream in Richmond, Virginia, this past Saturday (pics thanks to Virginia Organizing  here) and that's why I will continue to fight for the working and middle classes and for the poor to get out of poverty. Does that mean I think that unions are uniformly or inherently "good"? No. Does that mean that I think that people who don't do their jobs should be able to keep them? No. But I don't have blind faith in the free market, either. Unions serve as a check on unfettered capitalism, and capitalism has certainly been recently unfettered. Unions are the only bulwark right now between fascist capitalism and regulated capitalism. Without the unions, we will have no middle or working class at all, only a few powerful rich and many, many poor.

The more progressive Democrats can't don't this alone, however. Traditionally more conservative members of the working and middle classes must stop voting against their own economic self-interest. Instead of asking "why should others get decent wages and healthcare insurance when we don't?" they need to fight for such basic themselves, like yes, Obamacare, and stop allowing themselves to be the lackeys of tax-dodging, overseas-job creating corporate interests who are doing nothing to advance working peoples' quality of life. Furthermore, while I have been heartened to see neo-liberals such as ObamaDuncan, and some DFER types speak out in support of the right to collective bargaining, they are in part culpable for the attacks on America's middle and working classes and their unions. Neo-liberals and centrist Democrats, their rich patrons, and their mouthpieces in the media have been busy embracing disastrous and crude education reform policies such as those of Michelle Rhee and thoughtlessly bashing teachers and their unions in the process. In doing so, they have weakened the Democratic party and middle and working classes as a whole, emboldening Republican leaders such as Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Scott and their oligarch overlords, with their ruthless free market ideology, to make a well-orchestrated and dangerous grab for power.

It's time for neo-liberals to do what's best for children and their families by changing course on their wrong-headed education policies. To do this, they must end their collaboration with corporate-sponsored union busters. You can't do what's best for our nation's children if you're crushing their parents and teachers in the process. If neo-liberals really want our children's futures to be bright, then they must fight for a quality of work and home life that will make that possible. Unions, for all of their imperfections, do that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perhaps NOT Diversity University, No Longer: Wesleyan Responds!

Although I have other posts for my series on teacher, I mean, teaching quality in the queue, I'm going to take a little break (okay, it's been a long break, but my kids have been sick and there's been lots of "snow" days) to post the letter I got from my alma mater, Wesleyan University, in response to this post and open letter I wrote to them back in December. 

I must say I was heartened and stand very much corrected both by the comments made by a fellow alum on the original post and by the information in this letter. That being said, the last paragraph really disappointed and discouraged me and lends credence to my criticisms in the original post of how Wesleyan brands itself (to me, gratingly so) in self-righteousness. I'm sure that Ms. Vasiliou was just telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. But, alas:

a) it is not Wesleyan that gave me my zeal for social justice and public education--it is my family and upbringing--and I found it rather presumptuous to assume otherwise.

b) I am more troubled by than proud of the high number of Wesleyan graduates who go into Teach For America. I myself applied to be a corps member in the organization when I was a senior (and was rightly rejected), but recently I have come to see TFA as highly problematic on a number of levels--as a mechanism to improve teacher quality, ideologically, economically, ethically. I explore all of this in a commentary  I recently finished and am currently shopping around to larger publications (any takers?!?!), which is to say you'll see it on my blog in a few weeks when it, too, is roundly rejected :)

Here's the letter:

Dear Rachel,

As the current director of the Wesleyan Fund, I’d like to provide some information about two concerns you discuss in your 12/1 blog entry: Does Wesleyan help or hinder educational diversity and access? and Why does the University ask alumni for financial support?

Wesleyan’s commitment to racial and economic diversity and access is alive and well, backed up by our longstanding policy of need-blind admission with full aid support. In the current first-year class, for instance, 34% of admittees are students of color and 14% are the first generation in their family to attend a four-year college.  Of all students now on campus, 18% are federal Pell Grant recipients.  Not only do we admit applicants without regard to their financial means, we actively recruit low-income students through their schools and in collaboration with programs such as Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, and most recently QuestBridge.  (Adjusted for size of school, Wesleyan has enrolled more Prep for Prep graduates than any other college.) You may remember that Wesleyan offers scholarships to talented graduates of the local community college, and we also have dedicated scholarships for veterans in need of aid.  The Admission Office doesn’t admit students unprepared to be successful with the level of work required here; instead, they suggest to low-income students with apparent high potential that they take advantage of post-high-school “bridge” programs with financial aid that several secondary schools offer, after which they can reapply to Wesleyan. 

Acting on these principles entails high costs. About 18% of our total annual operating budget goes for financial aid. This year we will spend $41.3 million on scholarships. Wesleyan does not give merit scholarships; all of our scholarship funds are reserved for students from families requiring assistance to afford college. The university meets the full demonstrated need of every enrolled student, through a combination of grants, loans, and work-study jobs.  Under policy announced by President Roth three years ago, grants were increased, so that no student now graduates with more than $19,000 in loan debt.  Loans have been totally eliminated for Wesleyan students with family incomes of $40,000 or less (the Pell grant criterion): these students receive scholarship grants covering their full need.  Even students paying “full” tuition and board are partially subsidized by the University, because the fees charged cover approximately 71% of yearly educational cost. 

Where does alumni support come in? We make up the costs not covered by tuition mainly through contributions to the annual fund and to the endowment.  Far from being wealthy, Wesleyan operates with an endowment one-third to one-fifth the size of those at other leading colleges. Surprisingly to some alumni, third-party surveys have shown that Wesleyan graduates essentially have the same spread in income as our peer colleges.  But, while our higher-income alumni give at comparable rates to alumni from those other schools, Wesleyan is behind when it comes to mid- and lower-level income alumni giving.  Our top priority is financial aid, and we have to mobilize more of the community to make sure we have the funds that need-blind admission requires. 

It’s great that you are idealistic about education. Many other Wes alumni share your dedication.  In recent years Teach for America has been the number 1 first employer of our new graduates.  We’re proud of educators like Kira Orange Jones ’00, the regional director of Teach for America in New Orleans, and Jessica Posner ’09 and Kennedy Odede ’12, who built and are running the first free school for girls in the largest slum in Africa-- Kibera, Kenya.  Alumni like these tell us that their Wesleyan education played a large role in inspiring them and preparing them with the skills to make significant changes in society.  I hope that observation rings true with you, too.

Pam Vasiliou

UPDATE I: I forgot to mention that while I was a student at Wesleyan, they phased out their teacher certification/education program. I remember my fabulous RA was one of its last participants. Anyone have more information on this? I would much rather see Wesleyan re-institute some kind of teacher training or education program or just do something on a bigger scale to get their students to think about being teachers rather than outsource that to TFA. But, then again, perhaps they do. I've been uninformed before. . .

UPDATE II: A reader just pointed out that Wesleyan University professor Claire Potter, a.k.a. the Tenured Radical, did a terrific post on TFA on her blog. I read her blog, but somehow missed this post. Hmmm, she makes many of the same points I did in my piece. Only better. Maybe I can't get mine published because it's already been said.