ONE BIG UNION

5/3/06  

                A merger at last!  One great union speaking for education workers throughout the state.  In Rochester this past weekend, NEA/ New York delegates to the organization’s Delegate Assembly overwhelmingly ratified a constitution for a merged organization to come into being in September.  Ratification by the NYSUT convention is all but certain, the idea of merger being much less controversial among their members.   

            Merger has been a dream of PCT members since 1982 when our delegates to the NEA/ New York convention introduced a resolution calling for us to reach out to other education unions to map a common agenda.  We couldn’t even use the word merger in those days.  Even our resolution received intense debate and passed by the slimmest margins.  It’s taken all these years for people to realize that their miniscule differences in the way they run their unions and their even narrower policy differences are dwarfed by the need to unite to confront the attack on public education in our state and nation.  For the first time in many years, school employees will be able to speak with one voice to their elected representatives and the public they all serve.  

            Having one powerful voice, however, won’t count for very much if we don’t use it to speak truth to the powerful.  We need to use that voice to agitate for a new commissioner of education, a learned person who knows the difference between higher, legitimate academic standards and scores on commercially prepared tests.  We need a commissioner and state education department to work with us to close what E.D. Hirsch refers to as the “knowledge deficit,” the tragic end result of a system of education run by people who do not understand that children cannot develop academic skills in an intellectual vacuum but only by building their knowledge and using what they have learned to learn more.   For too long we have acted as though there was a serious debate between educators teaching students what educated people are expected to and need know and those who believe it doesn’t matter if kids know the times tables or the vocabulary necessary to pick up a serious newspaper and be able to understand everything they read.  There is no serious debate.  No one has the right to inflict ignorance on a generation of children.  

            We need to speak with one powerful voice about the necessity to end the use of the highly regressive property tax to fund education.  The current tax scheme leaves too many “property poor” districts with inferior school systems through no fault of their own.  Property taxes are a malignancy that erodes the public’s support for its schools and pits taxpayers and school employees against each other even though both struggle to pay the taxes to support the schools in their communities.  The mighty roar of more than half million members of the merged union must reverberate through the corridors of power in Albany demanding a fairer way to finance our schools, one that gives all students a fair chance at a quality education.   

            Above all else, we must develop an agenda to fix the public schools and use our voice to advocate for it.  While there are many districts that need vastly increased financial resources to meet the needs of their students, there is more to fixing the public schools than money.   It’s bad enough that the public’s confidence in our schools is waning. Worse, and related to the former condition, is our lack of confidence that we know what we are doing. Why else are we constantly changing what and how we teach?  I submit that educating America ’s children to be resourceful, responsible and resilient people does not require a myriad of educational programs produced by those who escaped the classroom for entrepreneurship.  It doesn’t require all the pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo that gushes from the mouths of the educrats running our schools, many of whom know little or nothing about the art of teaching.   We can collect enough data about our students to crash all the hard drives in all our schools and still not have institutions that teach our children to read and write well or know culturally where they come from and how they fit into our society.  Our agenda must be inextricably tied to freeing teachers to teach, allowing them to practice their art without having to pretend to be mental health specialists, builders of self-esteem, facilitators of resume building and pretense that passes for education in too many of our schools.  It must also spring from a belief that no matter how culturally and economically deprived children may be, they at the very least have the potential to overcome their circumstances with the aid of committed teachers.  

            I am encouraged that now that we will be in one big union, that union may advance such an agenda.  The new leadership of NYSUT has already begun to up its profile in progressive ways.  They are clearly talking about issues like the achievement gap with a passion that seems refreshingly new.  I’m excited about joining with them in our struggle to save public education.

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