Friday, February 24, 2017

The Buck Stops...Where?

The House Budget Committee finally got around to hearing DESE's budget presentation this week.

The budget presentation was fairly uneventful, except for a couple of sticking points where committee members were digging for more information and expressing their discontent before moving on. The first was around the budget for school nutrition programs. You don't have to spend much time in education and budget hearings to know that many members of the legislature are less than impressed with the current school nutrition program and harbor a fair amount of resentment at having to go along with it, even though only 10% of the state school nutrition budget actually comes from the state.

The grumbling took a new direction this year, as members lamented details of the free and reduced lunch program. In a state where the overall average of participants in free and reduced lunch is around 50% and some districts are well over 80%, we certainly have something to lament. (Hint: it's our shameful child poverty rate) Unfortunately, this didn't lead to a discussion about how we can eradicate poverty and alleviate stress on our struggling families. Rather, it evolved into a conversation about the old adage "there's no such thing as a free lunch", and critique of a system of automatic eligibility for families already receiving public assistance. That, however, is a conversation for another day. 

Finally, the Committee moved on to hear the rest of the budget. The next sticking point came around the discussion of charter schools and the Charter Public School Commission. With bills moving to expand charter schools anywhere in the state with no significant improvements in accountability and transparency, it was good to hear members of the committee expressing deep concern. This was a timely conversation, as it occurred the day after the state board had some difficulty in deciding what to do about a couple of struggling charter schools in our state right now. You can read more about that here

The committee asked hard questions like: Have we created a system where the department and the state board have no real authority to do anything when a school is ineffective and students are suffering? If the state board can't do anything about this, then who can? How does a school exist for several years before anyone realizes that they have no written curriculum? Why is the Director of the Charter Public School Commission being paid $147K to oversee one school and review some applications? And my favorite, doesn't this situation conjure images of chickens, coops, and foxes?

Overall, this important conversation raised the question, the buck stops...where?

It's an important question that we should all be asking our own representatives and senators right now. Who will be able to clean up the mess when we've siphoned funds away from the institutions that have anchored our communities for generations, and invested instead in an "industry" that has demonstrated more failure than success?

Right now in our state, revenues continue to fall short of our needs, and cuts are being made that jeopardize even our children's ability to get to school. This is not a time to expand privately-run schools that divert public funds without accountability to or control by local communities. Will you be in touch with your elected representatives this week to remind them of this? If you don't know who is representing you and your district in the capitol, you can find out by using the "Find My Legislator" feature on the MNEA App on your iPhone or Android device.

When you contact them, please share these four points on needed reform before any expansion should be considered: 
  • Charter boards should be appointed or elected by a public entity. 
  • Local concerns should be carefully considered before a school is approved. 
  • Charter and district schools should plan together to meet demographic changes and specialized program needs for all students in the community. 
  • Charter schools should become a part of the community's school system under the authority of the locally elected school board. 
Thanks for your time and attention to this important matter in the midst of all that you do! 

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Welcome to the Resistance

It's been a tough week y'all. At the national level, we've watched the unthinkable become reality as unqualified and morally questionable people continue to be confirmed to some of the most important posts in our country. In our state, our week began with the governor signing so called Right to Work legislation that supporters of working families have fought off for years. In our communities, the discourse continues to deteriorate and instances of bias-based violence are increasing. Even at home, the last couple of weeks in our house have brought the challenge of a deer-car encounter that totaled my vehicle, broken bones requiring surgery, and a failed Algebra test. None of these things are the norm in our house, our community, our state, or our nation. Yet here we are. It's been a tough week.

Then again, it's not every day that an agent of the establishment so beautifully provides a mantra for the resistance. To justify the silencing of Sen Elizabeth Warren's testimony against the confirmation of Sen Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell railed, "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted." 

I wonder if he immediately regretted those words, like I sometimes do when I justify something to my children and see that flash in their eyes that tells me that my own words will soon be used in my parental demise. Perhaps the regret came later, when he saw the immediate storm on social media where his own words were being used as a hashtag and a caption for pictures and stories of women who have stood against injustice regardless of the threatened consequences. I suppose it's entirely possible, though, that he still doesn't know or appreciate the giant that has been awakened. 

As you all know, the outcry against the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education was also widespread and diverse in its voices. Unfortunately, most of the Senate held the party line and confirmed DeVos in spite of the protest. Once again, the unthinkable has become the reality. Here we are. Nevertheless, we persist.

Women and men, educators and administrators, students and parents. We will persist.  

NEA President Lily Eskelsen GarcĂ­a said “Americans across the nation drove a bipartisan repudiation of the Trump-DeVos agenda for students and public education. Today’s outcome marks only the beginning of the resistance. Students, educators, parents, civil rights and special education advocates—along with millions of Americans—are speaking loud and clear: we are here to stay…we will protect public education."

The road ahead is long and bumpy, nevertheless, we persist. 

Our own MNEA President Charles Smith wrote "We commit that as educators our voice will challenge any government official who places special interests over the best interests of Missouri children. We will watch Betsy DeVos and our elected representatives and we are ready to challenge any policy that harms students or threatens a quality education for every Missouri child."

In Missouri, moneyed interests back the ongoing push to divest funds from our public schools, and dilute already inadequate funding by spreading it among charter schools and voucher like programs that lack equity and accountability. This appears to be a priority for our state legislature and is clearly in keeping with the new national education "leadership." Nevertheless, we persist. 

Three years ago, moneyed interests tried to mess with public education in Missouri with Amendment 3 and we rallied to protect our schools and our students. We persisted, across the lines that often divide us, and challenged that which was sure to harm students and threaten a quality education for every Missouri child. And because of our resolve and dedication, we won. We won, not just for ourselves, but for our students, our schools, and our communities. 

It's time again to rally, across all the lines that tend to divide us, to watch and to challenge, and to speak out each and every time we see injustice and inequity. 

Welcome to the beginning of the resistance. I'm honored to be here with you. May we continue to persist together.

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Friday, January 20, 2017

And They're Off

I was in the elevator with a legislator the other day, a former teacher, and we were discussing the speed with which our Representatives are pushing through their priority legislation this year. Unfortunately, the House passed so called "Right to Work" and sent it to the Senate on Thursday, and is hearing HB 251, Paycheck Deception, in committee on Tuesday. They aren't wasting any time.

I asked the legislator in the elevator what she thought they might do with the rest of the session after they flew through their priority legislation. Her response was "I don't know, I've been wondering that too!"

Later that day, I got the opportunity to chat with a wonderful group of MNEA Retirees who were in the building. We were talking about the opportunities for our state and local school districts to be intentional about changes that are made under the Every Student Succeeds Act. It was noted that there may be opportunities to take some things off the collective "plate" of our teachers, so that they can spend more time truly teaching students. Someone in the room remarked that when she was asked by an elected official "what can we take away from the schools, so that students can be better educated", her response was simple. "Poverty."

I know I don't need to tell you about the effects of poverty on a student's ability to learn, or even function, in the classroom. You experience these effects every day and work overtime to try and beat the odds. As a former student living in poverty, I thank you for your unwavering commitment to ensure that all children have the opportunity to succeed.

According to the Missouri Kids Count 2016 Data Book, 21.3% of Missouri children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. In some counties, child poverty is above 40%. This. Is. Unacceptable.

Following the data on poverty leads down a path of lower educational attainment, fewer students going to college, more health problems with fewer resources to address them, and even a lower life expectancy in counties with such high poverty rates.

So perhaps this one word answers both questions...

What should our legislators be working on this year? Poverty

What can be taken away from schools to improve education? Poverty

Let's do this. Will you commit to being in regular contact with your elected Representatives and Senators this year to share with them the struggles of your students living in poverty? There is, perhaps, nobody better to tell the story of our children's struggles than you.

Make plans now to attend your governance district's Capitol Action Day this year, and please begin thinking about how you can engage your legislators at home. Let's let them know that if we want to better educate our children, we don't throw more standardized tests at them, we remove the barriers that stand in the way of their success.

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

In Case Nobody Told You (It's National Teacher Day)

Just in case nobody told you, today is National Teacher Day. Hopefully you know that because you've received nice emails saying thank you from the parents of the student you quietly took care of when they forgot to send a snack and a pillow for reading day, or your students have given you hand made cards to show their appreciation. Maybe the administration was nice enough to put treats in the teacher workroom for you, or the PTA arranged a full fledged snack day. Perhaps you have a shiny red apple sitting on your desk as a small, but heartfelt sign that you've made a difference in somebody's life. (is that still a thing? and where did that tradition come from anyway?)

Or maybe you don't know it, because you have been so busy grading papers, entering grades, and preparing your students for this year's round of standardized testing that you're completely out of touch with the outside world. You've barely had time to keep up on social media with your grandmother's favorite cat pictures and your nephew's prom. It's the time of year that you don't read any emails that don't scream urgency on the subject line; and you're 12 episodes behind on your favorite show. I know how you feel. I think it feels a little like the legislature in the last several weeks of session. 

Whether you knew it or not, before you read this post, you know it now. So thank you. Thank you for everything that you do every day to present your students with the information that they need to have the best possible opportunities in their lives. Thank you for committing yourself to a job that doesn't pay you what you're worth and often comes with more complaints than appreciation. Thank you from a former student whose life you may have saved, and a parent who entrusts the two most important people in my life to your care and instruction every day.

Thank you and I'm sorry. I'm sorry that, even though I try all the time to open their eyes to the incredible efforts that you make to do what you do, I failed to tell them to say thank you today, and to wish you a happy national teacher day. But rest assured, that even without me telling them, they'll know soon enough. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think back fondly upon the teachers who made such a huge impact in my life, and I know that's true of many of you as well. 

Just a while ago, I was sitting in the Capitol Grill eating my lunch and listening to a couple of 70ish year old men reminiscing with great joy about their best teachers in elementary school. This had nothing to do with National Teacher Day, it's just something that happens all the time. They spoke the names of those teachers that will never be forgotten, some 60 years after they sat in their classrooms, and gave detailed accounts of their memories. That's the kind of impact you are making today. So thank you, and Happy National Teacher Day!

I leave you with this. Grab a tissue and watch this group of former students say thank you to a teacher who made a difference in their lives; and know that you have made a similar impact on your own group of former students.

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Did He Really Just Say That?

Spending my days at the Capitol often results in random notes typed here and there, scribbled on a piece of paper hastily, or tucked cleverly away in the notes app on my phone. These are not notes for my to-do list, or contact information for someone I need to remember to call. They are, rather, notes that fall into the category of "Did He (or She) Really Just Say That?"

Among my recent favorites are these:
"The schools in my district are making out like a bandit." (in a discussion on the need to fully fund the current formula, rather than lower the target)
...and this one...
"If teachers make more money, are they going to teach better?" (in debate on a bill for a state-wide minimum teacher's salary)

So, about the first one. You know those memes you see on Facebook that have a ridiculous quote followed by the words "said nobody ever"? Truly, in this time when the needs of our students are so great and the input by our state so insufficient, it is difficult for me to imagine someone saying such a thing out loud. But they sure did. An informal survey of my educator contacts, from districts in both poor and wealthy communities, seemed to suggest that most of you are still buying supplies that should be provided, and have students with needs that aren't being met, largely due to a lack of funding and resources.

And then there's the issue of pay. NEA data shows that from the 2012-2013 school year to the 2013-2014 school year, Missouri dropped from #38 to #42 in average teacher pay, with the average salary dropping from $47,517 to $46,750. Perhaps "if teachers make more money, are they going to teach better?" is not the question we should be asking. Perhaps the question should be "if our teachers do one of the most difficult and one of the most important jobs in our state, why don't we value them more?"

For one thing, the first question suggests that teachers aren't already doing an incredible job educating our students in conditions that are less than supportive. Secondly, it seems that there is a problem of language in all of these conversations. Take, for instance, the goal of the state in the funding formula. The goal is to be able to meet an "adequacy target". This target suggests that it will be enough for the input from the state to be enough to educate students to a "satisfactory or acceptable" level. On the other end of the equation, the state is looking to districts and educators to produce learners at 100% proficiency, which means "a high degree of skill; expertise". Never mind the law of averages, the complete inadequacy of standardized testing to assess real learning, and the effects of trauma and poverty in the lives of our students! In other words, our state government continues to fund adequacy and expect proficiency; and when it doesn't look like that's happening based on a snapshot of our students on one particular day, all the fingers get pointed at you.

I'm sorry. It's just not fair. But it's also not a narrative that we have to accept. It may be time to invite your elected officials to spend some time in your classroom. Ask them to stand in a room full of children with many needs and few resources and to repeat that "making out like a bandit" comment. Ask them to look into the eyes of a child experiencing trauma or hunger at home and explain to them how they should always perform at the "proficiency" level on those one-day, high-stakes tests. Share with them the things you'd love to do in your classrooms, but can't, because you lack the resources; and even if you had the resources, you wouldn't have the time, because you have to spend too much valuable time on test prep. Ask them if you really need to teach better, or do more, to be worthy of a living wage that reflects the importance of the work that you do.

It's not enough to assume that the folks making decisions about things like school funding and accreditation have all of the information that they need to do that well. Quite often, they don't. So we continue to work to be that voice. Hundreds of you have made it to the Capitol this year on a Capitol Action Day to talk with your legislators. Many more of you haven't been able to get away; but you can have those conversations at home, too! I hope you can find a few moments to reach out and share the awesomeness of what you do, and help a little in changing that narrative. We really can ensure great public schools for all students, regardless of their zip code, if only we can get everyone to see what you see every day!

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Better Together

I started my day Thursday at a breakfast for the local Faith/Labor Alliance. In this space, local union members and people of faith gather to share a meal and to share information on the issues that they are facing. It's about building solidarity and community, and about our interconnectedness. I attend this breakfast every month and was, in fact, one of the original organizers working to bring this Alliance to our community. Today was an extra special day though, as the featured speakers were talking about our issues, as public employee educators and education support professionals.

Our own Peggy Cochran and AFT's Luanna Gifford eloquently shared the concerns raised by the impending threat of a veto override on HB 1891 (Paycheck Deception). Some folks in the room didn't know much about the bill or it's negative impact on Public Employee Unions. But others were well aware. The private sector union members in the room have been in the fight with us, walking the halls of the Capitol every day, and doing what they can to help ensure that the governor's veto is sustained. These breakfasts, where we slow down long enough to listen to the stories and struggles of our faith and labor friends, remind me that we're better together. We have far more strength and influence when we can bring our friends along with us!

Another reminder of how we're better together happened on Wednesday of this week at our Capitol Action Day. It was great to see a number of members from three locals in the Capitol, ready to advocate for great public schools. It was even better to see that there was a group of future educators who are in relationship with the members of the Parkway NEA, and who are being introduced early to the need to advocate for their vocation, their students, and their schools.

Parkway NEA members and future educators from Maryville ready to advocate for great public schools
 Just like public sector unions need to be connected with private sector unions to stand in solidarity in the fight for the rights of all workers; future educators need to be connected with current educators and shown the power of our collective action to be protectors of public education. In the same way, retired educators need to stay connected with those who are currently teaching to share wisdom and support, and to add to the collective voice. Our connectedness and willingness to work together can only make us better. Sometimes we just have to step out of our silo and realize that we are not alone. There are people in our communities who care deeply about public education, too. Are we connecting with them? Are we inviting them to work alongside us to fight for students, teachers, and schools? There's no better time than now to start cultivating those relationships!

Proud Parkway teachers with former students who are now future educators
There's no doubt that we're better together. I wonder what would happen if we were all intentional about working to build support networks around our public schools, and our individual classrooms? What if every active educator reached out to one future educator, one retired educator, and one member of the community who is passionate about education, and shared issues and concerns affecting their own classroom, and invited those people to become advocates alongside them? In each instance where that occurs, the power of one becomes the power of four; and it's as simple as one person cultivating relationships with just three other people (people who share the same interests and passions, making it that much easier). Will you give it a shot, and see if it doesn't start to change the culture of support around your school? I bet we'll discover, again and again, that we're better together!

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Home Stretch

Yesterday the legislature headed out for spring break. As they finished up the day's work you could tell that spring was in the air. The week was filled with tasks that at some points felt like spring cleaning. The House stayed late Tuesday night clearing the "Third Reading of House Bills-Consent" calendar. Many of these bills do things like name memorial highways and the like. Not exactly ground breaking legislation, but important all the same.

In some not so routine moments, the House made history this week, according to Budget Committee Chair Rep Tom Flanigan of Jasper County. Motions were made and sustained by a 2/3 vote to override the governor's withhold of funds ($500,000) in the 2015-16 Budget for this year's Scholars and Fine Arts Academies, as well as a withheld line item in the Mental Health Budget relating to Brain Injury Waiver Services. The ability of the legislature to take these actions are a result of Amendment 10, which passed in 2014. You may not remember Amendment 10, as it was on the same ballot as Amendment 3, which we were all focused on defeating. The ballot language for the amendment read: "Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to require the governor to pay the public debt, to prohibit the governor from relying on revenue from legislation not yet passed when proposing a budget, and to provide a legislative check on the governor’s decisions to restrict funding for education and other state services?" It was the last part of the amendment that the legislature invoked this past week for the first time in Missouri history.

There were lots of questions about procedure...How will this information be transmitted to the Senate?...What will they do with it when they get it?...Is there any guarantee that the money won't just be withheld again?...There weren't many answers, making it clear that nobody was too sure how to navigate these uncharted waters. And the actions weren't without opposition and warning. Rep John Carpenter, Minority Caucus Vice-Chair, repeatedly warned "if you break it, you buy it.", suggesting that the legislature could no longer point fingers at the Governor for not funding important programs, and suggesting that this makes it clear that the power to fund or not fund really is in their hands.

Speaking of funding...the House passed out the budget bills on March 10, but they've been slow to get on the hearing schedule in the Senate, partially due to the fallout in the Senate resulting from the use of the "nuclear option", forcing vote on SJR 39 after Senate Dems made their own history with a 39 hour filibuster. It was beginning to look like the Senate might not pass any legislation for the rest of the session, but near the end of the week, they began to operate a little closer to normal and have some floor debate. HB 2002, the bill that funds Elementary and Secondary Education will be heard in the Senate Appropriations committee the week that the legislature returns from Spring Break. At that point, there will be 7 weeks remaining in the legislative session. It's the home stretch and there's much to do!

In the meantime, there's still Paycheck Deception. Assuming that a veto from the governor is forthcoming, there's work to be done to sustain the veto. This bill, passed by both chambers with just enough votes to override a veto, is one of many steps intended to chip away at the rights of public employees to organize and to collectively bargain. We, at MNEA, know that we are stronger together, and that we can't let anti-labor interests chip away at the collective bargaining rights that have been hard fought and won in this country. Do you know how your Senator and Representative voted on the paycheck deception bill, HB 1891? Would you take a moment this week to let them know that you're watching? If they voted no, they need to hear a hearty "thank you"! If they voted yes, they need some encouragement to change their vote and sustain the veto.

As you think about contacting your legislators, consider these questions: What does it mean to you to be an MNEA member? How does it make you a better teacher in your classroom? And why is it important that you are able to continue your membership without unnecessary, cumbersome renewal requirements, when the system in place right now works?

The Missouri Legislature will come back next week, and will be on the home stretch, much like all of you, who have probably just entered your 4th quarter. What are your hopes for the legislature in these last weeks? What are your hopes for your students in these last weeks? And how are those hopes related? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Until next time, remember why you do what you do, teach with all you've got, and know that you are creating a better world, one student at a time!