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May 04, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Guest Opinion: What's behind incessant attacks on teachers? Guest Opinion: What's behind incessant attacks on teachers? (May 04, 2005)

by John Barton

When Daily News Editor Diana Diamond wrote a column on teachers March 3 I felt an obligation to respond, and did.

But Ms. Diamond wanted edits that I felt would severely weaken my perspective. Further I had real concerns about the author of one column editing the rebuttal. Then Palo Alto High School students picked up the issue and posted my original response in The Voice, Paly's online news service at http://voice.paly.net.

This triggered a continuing buzz at Palo Alto High School and among teachers, parents and administrators.

The response, particularly from teachers, has been overwhelming, with many continuing to write me with words of "lifted morale," "finally a voice of support" and stories of group readings and applause.

This response has led me to some serious thoughts on why teachers, and other public-service workers, are under such attack typically -- but not always -- from the right.

It also has helped me realize more deeply how teachers personally feel the attacks.

First let me separate "attack" from reasonable criticism and debate. In an open society, we all have the right and responsibility tocriticize shortcomings and offer suggestions for improvement and growth of our education system, locally and statewide.

But I do not condone broad-brush attacks on an entire profession as a legitimate or constructive contribution to the dialogue on education.

It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that changes be made to tenure and pensions but unreasonable to suggest that teacher pay and teacher organizations stand in the way of progress. After all, how will slashing teacher benefits cure the system's ills? Such rhetoric is demagoguery, not democracy, and obfuscation, not discourse.

In recent weeks I have spent time reflecting on this issue and re-reading some of the attacks (I was not able to re-read Ms. Diamond's piece as it mysteriously disappeared from the Daily's Web page for a time) I am left with two general areas of reasoning, both having to do with ideology that seems to drive many of the attacks.

One is that the political right sees -- and fears -- a growing bond between the business community and education, particularly in growth industries such as high tech. In many areas strong coalitions are developing between business and education, formal or informal.

Political candidates are beginning to court those coalitions. In my own race for the State Assembly last year I was one of the first candidates, in a multi-candidate race, to be supported by both the business community and teachers' groups.

This alliance is in many ways a natural one. Businesses need a well-educated workforce and a quality public-school system to attract the highest quality employees to their locations.

But pension programs, teacher tenure and teacher schedules can be twisted to appear inconsistent with modern business practices and thus used as a pry bar to split that nascent alliance. Business is a strong Republican base and any affection by business towards public education, which is seen as a Democratic issue, may be threatening to the right.

But there is another element at play. When closely examined, most attacks on teachers have little logic -- as teacher pay, teacher pensions, and teacher tenure are not the core causes of problems in education.

Yet teachers are the face of education, especially with children. To attack public-school teachers is to attack public education, and thus I see these attacks highly ideological.

A public education, for some, is no longer a "public good" but rather a public service that may or may not be of value -- better achieved in the private sector. The ideologues on the right who see an "ownership society" -- but only for those with the means to own -- may see no need for public education any more than they see a need for Social Security or any other social safety nets. More than that, they see public education as a threat to their efforts to force all of us -- our society and communities -- into the confines of their own narrow notions of the world.

I have arrived at a very sad question: Have we reached a point where our commitment to a public education, for each child, is as an idea no longer valued -- on the right or the left?

Whether the attacks on our teachers are intended for political gain or for ideological purposes does not matter because they would never occur if we, collectively, were still committed to the idea of a public education. It is a great American tradition, this notion that each generation has an obligation to educate the next in the skills, ideas and issues that help make that generation productive citizens.

Yet why would Governor Schwarzenegger feel that undermining tenure, reducing pensions and slashing funding are politically marketable when we have broad political and structural problems these "solutions" don't even begin to address? Why would a former federal Secretary of Education call a teacher's union "a terrorist organization"?

It haunts me that so many teachers feel so isolated that they feel compelled to write me saying in various ways, "Someone is finally standing up for us!" In short, why do we tolerate the disrespect of teachers and teaching?

Perhaps we have cut too much here, regulated too much there and tested too much over there. Perhaps we have become a community inured to hits on education and too preoccupied to see the results.

But at its core a public education is the continuity of our democracy, the foundation of our economy and the future of our children, collectively and individually. And when we attack its elements for political gain or ideological satisfaction we undermine its value and ultimately build a politics that is, oxymoronically, "long-term visionless."

It is not too late to push back. We need to tell our politicians and our community leaders that we want a first-rate education for all children. We must demand better funding, improvement of infrastructure and quality pay and benefits for school employees.

And, finally, we should demand an innate respect for those who dedicate a huge portion of their lives to educating our children.

John Barton is a Palo Alto-based architect and chair of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education. He can be e-mailed at jbarton@bartonarchitect.com.


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