The Teacher Party, part 1: we need teachers much more than they need us

Every morning, roughly 100,000 Polk County residents access seven or more hours of intense person-to-person public service from the Polk County School District. That’s 15 to 20 percent of our population. For at least half of the waking day. Every day.

Nothing compares to that level of sustained human-to-human service demand from that many individual customers. No other product or service provided primarily by human beings can match its scope. Not law enforcement. Not Publix. Not health care. Not even the military.

Our teachers do not patrol. They engage. Every day. For hours. With children. Think about the demands of engagement with your own children. Now multiply it by 80 or 100 or 150. Every day. For 6-8 hours. More if you’re a coach or band or club leader.

This demand will not diminish in the coming decades. As surely as we can predict anything about the future, it’s this: if we remain an industrialized, networked, knowledge-based society, the demand for publicly-funded education services will not decrease. The only way the demand goes down is if society collapses. Everyone should wrap their heads around that.

Teachers are the crucial delivery mechanism of this service.

All the administrators, consultants, school board members, and editorial writers could spontaneously combust tomorrow. If teachers and paras and bus drivers didn’t, kids might not even notice. Flip that around, and we’ve got nothing. Unless you believe you can sit kids down in front of hopelessly outdated computers seven hours a day and say you’re adequately preparing them for life. If you believe that, you should say so. But we don’t even coach sports teams by computer. We’re going to coach literacy and humanity and citizenship that way?

Simple raw pragmatism

I am known as an advocate for teachers.

I have many times made the moral case for creating an education model that supports them and honors the energy they bleed and suffering they endure today.

The moral case for teachers is the prerequisite for responding to the even greater moral case for supporting and developing kids as human beings and citizens. The Florida model of education offends me, morally, because it despises teachers and considers them utterly disposable. By doing so, it shows that it despises kids and considers them utterly disposable.

However, my offense is pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And the moral argument for teachers has carried very little weight in the last 20 years. Believe me, I know. Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the entire leadership class of this country has ignored and even rejected the moral case for teachers for years.

It has taken a simple, brutal business fact to really begin the wholesale rejection of the anti-teacher American model of education:

Teachers and would-be teachers, like all people, vote with their feet. And they are voting not to provide education services. We are in the midst of a slow-motion, possibly permanent, national teacher strike. And yet the demand for public-funded education is only growing.

This entirely predictable strike has hit the most vulnerable kids first, as it always does. So it’s hit Polk County hard. We have a lot of vulnerable kids here — more than we should because of our choice-based segregation of the vulnerable. But go ask your elite charters how easy it is to hire.

And yet, we in Polk County want to go to impasse with our teachers over whether their corrupt and useless evaluation system sits in a union collective bargaining contract or not. This is imagination and thinking not equal to the scope of the challenge. It is typical of the education debate everywhere.

A tired and useless debate

The modern American education debate has become almost completely irrelevant to the future of publicly-funded education. That’s because it does not reckon meaningfully with our slow-motion, possibly permanent teacher strike.

What passes for debate involves old politicians fighting about the same old ideas with same exhausted and inflexible talking points. Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump, Rick Scott, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Barack Obama. They’ve all got one thing in common. They’re all 55 or over.

They were all blah blah blahing over vouchers and poverty and charters and accountability 20 years ago. They’re still doing it now. In the same language. (Yes, even Bernie. Go look at his education stuff.) They’re not all on the same side of these topics. But they all seem agree that those topics are the hills on which we should all die for our side.

Here’s Florida’s Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran Blah-Blah-Blahing about if only we had a few more KIPP schools.

Small, dated thinking. The intellectual dead end of a failed model. If we hate and abuse our teachers just a little bit more, magic will happen. That’s been the core line of thinking of Florida/American policy makers for 20 years. These endless, useless education stalemates do nothing but tinker around the edges of the same dying test-punish-choose-segregate model that no one but consultants wants to work in. The next creative humane idea our legislators and DoE have will be the first. Tallahassee is not equal to the scale of the challenge in education.

Doubt me? Name one “innovation” in 20 years of Jebama education that has scaled. Name it. In the era of scoreboard education, only misery, segregation, consultant fraud, and the teacher shortage have scaled. Maybe it’s time to think about that.

Indeed, if Betsy DeVos could somehow voucherize everything tomorrow, all her fly-by-night “church” schools would immediately try to hire the same exact teachers at zoned schools that “choice” is designed to flee. The same human beings. That’s who our magnet schools and charter schools hire. Ask them. I have. And the magnet/charter segregation system is just vouchers without vouchers.

A sleeping power begins to stir

I’m 45, so I’m hardly young. But I am committed to the interests of the young. And I hope to be for the rest my life. Our national, state, and local politics despises, ignores, and infantilizes the young. Listen to it. The young absorb tremendous abuse meted out by the not young for their own good. It starts in education.

I ran for School Board in Polk County because I was sick of that. And I didn’t want to go to my grave having not really tried to change it. I expected to find a receptive audience for this message. But the extent of the receptiveness surprised even me.

Indeed, I think my campaign, sort of by accident, created a new party in Polk County: the Teacher Party. Maybe I can hold it together. Maybe I can’t. I’m not important. But this party is. Because I know how strong the Teacher Party is when it wants to be. I have seen it. I know it can scale. It is the proverbial sleeping giant.

There are more than 3.1 million active public school teachers in America.

By comparison, there are about 2.5 million active police officers and soldiers — COMBINED. Yet, which group is more politically powerful? Which group has more power to shape the policies under which they work and how they serve the public? That question answers itself.

Police and the military are the institutional base of the Republican party. Teachers and consumers of public education should be the institutional base of the Democratic party. (I understand that there are many individuals that cross that divide on both sides. I’m speaking institutionally.)

In a healthy two-party political system, these two institutional bases would operate in productive tension, correcting each other’s excesses.

But for some utterly self-destructive reason, the Democratic Party decided over the last 20 years to help the Republican Party immiserate the lives and education experiences of its own institutional political base. For nothing — except maybe a few points on a rigged national graduation rate measure that says almost nothing about the impact of education on kids’ lives.

Speaking purely as a political analyst, I consider this astonishing malpractice. And it will not change until the Teacher Party fully asserts itself and changes it. It won’t change until teachers either seize control of one of the parties — or truly create their own and take control of educational policy and funding. That can happen. Police have already done it.

Police broadly control law enforcement policy. No reason teachers can’t do the same in education. There are many more of them than there are police. And by the nature of the job, teachers have many more positive human interactions on a daily basis and over time. Teachers have bigger personal and professional networks than police. They must activate them. And they must inflict political harm on politicians whose policies show they hate teachers.

This process has actually already started. That’s the only upside to the teacher shortage and lack of interest in the profession from young people. 15-20 percent of the population demands teacher services every day — double that if you actually count parents. A semi-permanent strike is a big deal. It has provided a very meaningful work stoppage.

This strike hasn’t yet articulated its demands, though.

In the subsequent pieces, I’ll lay out some suggestions for the Teacher Party’s platform.

All of it is premised on one very simple fact: we need teachers much more than they need us. That is great political power. Once teachers recognize that, anything is possible.

12 comments

  1. Lawrence Milhorn

    You are so right Billy. Teachers are the basic need to educate our children but we also need support staff. We have old falling down buildings that with out maintenance we would not have a place to teach the children. Without food nutrition alot of children would not be fed. With out custodial who would clean the schools. With out bus drivers and attendants how would the children GT to school to be taught. With out mechanics to keep the buses in top working order how can we get them to school safely. Our secretaries how could the basic job of running a school get done. With out Para’s to help the teachers with the most needy kids how can the teachers teach. Even the administrators are needed to help run schools.

    Though the teachers are the most visible all employees have a job in educating our children. One does not work with out the other.

  2. Excellent article! I wholeheartedly agree, except many high school teachers have 180 or more students. #teacherparty

  3. Thank you again for your support of the real educators in Polk county – bus drivers, paras, support staff, media specialists, and teachers.

  4. Marcia Anderson

    Thank you for saying this. I have seen even the arts in education turn to test-based evidence of success. The same teachers in public school teach in charters. There is little difference in quality of teachers other than the percieved respect from administration and parents. Why are grades better? Because students are asked to leave if they cannot pass. Public schools have some of the best and brightest teachers. I know this, as I work alongside them daily.

  5. Jeffrey Goff

    Your vision is clear, and your commitment startlingly refreshing, sir; the vote I cast for you – and subsequent ones, if you choose to continue serving – was the best political investment I’ve ever made.

    Thanks for all you do…

  6. Keep at it Billy. You keep our voice front-and-center … It is appreciated.

  7. Denise Waggoner

    Agree…I’m a teacher…what do we do next…what’s our next ACTION?

  8. Cynthia V. Trask

    This is a great article. Teachers are doing a great job. Teachers in public schools could do a more effective job if the discipline meted out by the administration was effective. The bonus of attending a magnet/choice/church school. From what I have seen as a food service assistant and my husband as a school bus driver disobedient, disrespectful students are handed excuses for every infraction. Few referrals are followed up on and they continue to choose bad behavior. I feel like they don’t expect more acceptable behavior. If I had children in school today, they would not attend public school.

  9. I am one of the “church school teachers”. I have the same qualifications that the public school teachers have. I also have to earn my contract every year, we do not have tenior in the private schools.

    My four children are a product of the private Christian schools. All four attended my school through 5th grade, one went through 8th grade. All of my children were at least one grade ahead academically when the entered the Polk County Public School System. One of my children, who is currently attending the United States Naval Academy, one of the most prestigious colleges in our country, learned nothing new in the three years he attended middle school in the Polk County Public School System. Thankfully, Summerlin Academy was an option for him for high school. What an amazing institution!

    So, yes, our schools, teachers, paras, bus drivers, etc., are very important; however, private schools, charter schools, and Christian schools are very important as well. I choose to teach in the private Christian schools system…I get to teach. I have never had to teach to a test. I teach curriculum, compassion, about Christ our Lord and Savior, I simply teach.

    My hat goes off to our public school teachers. They do not have an easy job. However, I have heard for my 30 plus teaching career, “Oh, you just teach in the private schools.” Yes, yes I do, and I am PROUD of it! I get observed, just like public school teachers. I have to keep my certification current, just like public school teachers. Unlike public school teachers, once they get tenior, they get to keep their job, I must prove myself each and every year, I am not guaranteed a contract from one year to the next. Also, as a private school teacher, my pay is way less than the public school teachers. Yet, I choose to stay in the private system for many reasons. I am not complaining one bit about my choice. I wake up each day and feel so blessed that I get to go I to a wonderful, Christ filled school, and teach a class of beautiful children. I chose my career, I chose the private sector to teach in…I am blessed to be a Christian school teacher.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comment. And I’m sorry if the line I used seemed liked an insult.

      I WAS NOT talking about existing, fully accredited, well-functioning religious schools. I live right next to St. Joe’s. My own son went to First UMC pre-school. I think you all do a great job, and I think we all need to collaborate. I am no enemy. I promise.

      The point I was making was about what would spring up IF we voucherized everything. I’m think we’d see lots of organizations calling themselves churches and setting up shop to cash in.

      But vouchers really aren’t my issue either way. I think they’re an old and distracting issue that doesn’t really match the scope of our overall education challenge.

    • Public school teachers hired in the past 8 years do not have tenure either. We are all annual contract, so if administration is unhappy with my performance, I won’t be offered a position.

    • Public school teachers in Polk County do not have tenure. There is no magic number of years that once reached guarantees a job from year to year. In fact, as some people found out this year, they weren’t even guaranteed the same job from day to day.

      Any teacher in the Polk County School Board can be fired. It might take longer for some than others, but any of us can be fired. In fact, the only time the word “tenure” even appears in our contract is in section
      13.6 “Any teacher willfully absent from duty without leave shall forfeit compensation for the time of such absence and be subject to discharge and forfeiture of tenure and other rights and privileges as
      provided by law. When an employee fails to obtain prior approval for absence from work or fails to notify his/her immediate supervisor of his/her need to be absent and is absent for three consecutive
      workdays, the employee shall be considered to have abandoned his/her position and resigned as an employee of the Board. Special consideration will be given in case of emergencies.” Even in that section, it doesn’t make much sense. (Here’s the actual collective bargaining agreement – all 350 pages! http://polkea.org/TEACHER_contract.pdf)

      As far as this statement “I must prove myself each and every year” we have to prove ourselves every day – and then hope and pray that our students feel like doing their best on those tests that you don’t have to worry about. Most teachers would love to just be observed every year for their evaluation.

      Teaching is never an easy job, which was, I believe, partially the point of this article. I will say this: for every student who I’ve ever gotten from a private school who was above grade level, I’ve seen many, many more who were not. One student had a learning disability in Math, so the private school’s solution was to never make him do any. This was not a fully accredited private school, and it quickly went away but this is the sort of thing that could occur more frequently if we, as Mr. Townsend says “voucherize everything.”

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