Today, the Bull Moose Movement has the pleasure of interviewing Shamus Cooke, a trade unionist and writer, whose most recent article, “Why Teachers’ Unions Matter,” details the charter school movement’s efforts to demonize teachers, break down the Teachers Union, and usher in a free-market school system.
BM: Shamus, the charter school movement is no longer a solely right-wing talking point. President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg and others have embraced. But who are the players behind the charter school movement? Where is the money for all these new charter schools coming from?
SC: When it comes to charter schools, there is no shortage of money. Corporate think tanks and the private foundations of the elite— most notably Bill Gates— have channeled immense resources into making charter schools a reality. Rich investors are throwing money into this new industry, so as to profit off the dismembering of the public education sector. Also, many charter schools are publicly funded, through “vouchers” and now Obama’s Race to the Top program, which shifts funding from the public to the private education sector, with the purpose of further undermining the pubic sector.
BM: The Teachers Union remains one of the strongest in the nation in part because their work cannot be outsourced, though charter schools are a similar threat. Most charter schools do not allow their teachers to unionize and many have rigid “teaching to the test” curricula. Do you believe, that as a result, there is a difference between the composition of charter school teachers and public school teachers?
SC: There are likely many excellent teachers working at charter schools. However, most charter schools have less stringent certification requirements than the public sector. The lower wages that non-union charter school teachers are paid ensures that the best teachers will remain in the public sector.
BM: Observing my own friends entering the education field, it seems that that charter schools, through outreach efforts like fellowships, are working hard to bring top talent into their schools. Do you believe that charter schools will come up with other incentives to draw top teachers to their schools, even without unions?
SC: The recession and the state by state budget crises ensures that charter schools will have many upcoming chances to recruit top teachers to their schools. The thousands of teachers that are losing their jobs across the country in public schools will have to work somewhere. Also, the charter schools created to attract wealthier students will have extra resources to lure teachers to their schools.
BM: You’ve written about the many problems with President Obama’s Race to the Top plan. How does President Obama differ from Candidate Obama when it comes to education policy?
SC: Here’s a quote from candidate Obama: “What I do oppose is using public money for private school vouchers. We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”
President Obama is of course doing the exact opposite. His Race to the Top plan awards billions of dollars in public money to states that abandon public education and set up charter schools.
BM: On a related note, how does President Obama differ from President Bush when it comes to education, both on a budgetary and policy level?
SC: There’s very little difference, except that Obama is more blatantly anti-public education than Bush. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top are complimentary policies, though Obama’s plan is far more dangerous to public education. Obama is still using NCLB to target schools as “failing,” while Race to the Top shuts these schools down to open up charter schools. It’s a one-two knock-out punch.
BM: The biggest concern most liberals and moderates express with the Teachers Union is the notion that the union protects “bad teachers” from being removed. In New York there’s much chatter about “rubber rooms”- teachers receiving full pay for not teaching while awaiting the results of their disciplinary hearings. You have written, “If teachers cannot be protected by seniority, then pro-union teachers will be targeted and fired.”
Could the teachers union find room for compromise by increasing the amount of time it takes to attain tenure, as a method of weeding out ineffective teachers?
SC: It has to be mentioned first that the public discourse over “bad teachers” is entirely politically motivated and corporate financed. The media and corporate think tanks have created this controversy and blasted it to every corner of the country. Actually, what is remarkable, is that there are any good teachers. Everything is wrong with the system, but the teachers are being scapegoated. For example, the training teachers receive is entirely inadequate. Then they are often placed in overcrowded classrooms. Now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, the curriculum is being transformed into just teaching to the tests. This makes the curriculum unimaginative and boring, which in turn creates discipline problems while not really teaching children how to think. If a teacher is truly bad, this should be identified during their probationary period. Otherwise they should be offered the training and support they need to allow them to improve their performance. Teachers, just like children and the rest of us, want to do well, but when they are placed in impossible situations, then, of course, it becomes impossible to help them.
BM: At the Bull Moose Movement, we seek to empower communities by providing them with the real facts about corporate influence in policy. What kind of efforts are being made to reach out to communities through civic education, rather than just protests like the March 4 demonstrations?
SC: I would argue that demonstrations and rallies are an excellent venue for educating people about these issues. Plus, these latest demonstrations and rallies that occurred in San Francisco for example, were huge. It has been reported that 15,000 people came to that rally. When these kinds of large mobilizations take place it sends a powerful message to those in power, that winning the vast majority of people to the cause of defending public education is within reach. So an even larger education campaign is desperately needed as well as an independent political action campaign that seeks to unite the majority of working people around a common solution. Because many unions have not endorsed such an idea, public consciousness of these issues is being controlled by the corporate media. Lately, however, I have noticed an increase of awareness around the issue of public education. March 4th was an important step in the right direction, which is leading to further student/teacher public employee organizing as has been seen recently in California. Student groups are popping up around the country to organize in defense of public education. The movement is in its embryonic stage, but it is growing rapidly.
BM: Teachers have much of the summer off. What kind of activism can we expect from teachers in the coming months?
SC: I would hope that teachers would work more closely with other public sector workers to promote progressive tax measures— on the rich and corporations— so that social services, transportation, and education can be fully funded. The movement’s success depends on the creation of these kinds of coalitions.
BM: What sorts of actions can we participate in to support and strengthen the Teachers Union?
A: Teachers need to be more involved in their unions. Unions are strongest when their members are active and organized. Through their unions teachers can demand that actions be organized, and that the union prioritize educating the public about Obama’s Race to the Top. The increasing amount of school closures and fired teachers offers plenty of opportunities to organize demonstrations and increase community awareness of the issues.
BM: What alternatives can progressives provide to the current reforms?
SC: The best alternative is strengthening our public education system, which has been starved of funds for decades. This requires that taxes on the rich and corporations be raised on a state and national level.
BM: Many people are not aware of how great the threat of educational privatization is right now. What would a privatized system look like and how far are we from it?
SC: A privatized education system would look much like our privatized health care system: quality at the right price. The rich would receive a quality education and the poor would receive the barest minimum, if anything. The charter schools that currently exist for poorer populations are inadequate to say the least, often crammed environments with minuscule resources. We are still a long ways from a fully privatized system, but Obama’s plan is changing things very quickly. If he is not stopped the public education landscape will look much different before his first term is up.
BM: Last question- if you could pick any public school system in the United States, even from a different time period, what would you describe as the pinnacle of public school education?
SC: I’ll answer the question in more general terms. The pinnacle of public school education was when it was best funded. Most of the infrastructure for our nation’s school was put into place in the first half of the 20th century. Taxes on the rich and corporations were much higher than they were today. Now, funding for infrastructure is non-existent; taxes on the wealthy have been steadily lowered, starving education of funding.
Thank you, Shamus, for taking the time to speak with us and your commitment to a strong public educational system. At the Bull Moose Movement we are always looking to exchange ideas with folks working on the ground with their communities, so feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com.