Defend Public Education

STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS TO THE DETROIT FEDERATION OF TEACHERS

Posted in Uncategorized by Nicole Conaway on January 25, 2015

STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS TO THE DETROIT FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
January 25, 2015

Fellow educators,

I have called us together for this meeting to address what I believe
is the most urgent crisis in the history of our union and our public
school system. Today, I hope to initiate a plan of action to confront that
crisis, and I ask for your support in facing the monumental challenges
in front of us. While our politicians are delivering speeches on the state
of our nation, I wish to deliver an address on the state of our own union,
and to tell the truth that our politicians will not admit.

Our lives as teachers are built upon our commitment to the
young people of Detroit. We all embarked upon that commitment
knowing that we would face great difficulties, but also believing in the
possibility that our hard work could make a difference. Some of us are
old survivors who chose to endure the many years of hardships. Others
are new to the district, and have been tested from the very beginning by
what are now some of the most degraded school conditions in the nation.
All of us, young and old, live under the constant threat that our
jobs could be the next to disappear and that our students could be further
deprived of the few resources they have left. Many are here today
seeking answers to what can be done.

My pledge to you today is not that we will find every answer or
sweep aside all obstacles at once, but that we will begin a collective
fight for our students and our schools—a fight to save public education,
to save our union, and to realize the promise of hope and progress that
our city truly deserves. I believe that our strength and our potential extend
far beyond our own numbers, because the struggle for our union is
united with the needs of our students and community. As I have said
before, I will say again: the struggle for our union is, and must be, a civil
rights struggle for the people of Detroit. We will not march alone.
In the week since my election as DFT president, I have made
regular visits to schools and talked with many teachers about where we
go from here. It was a pleasure to be greeted by the enthusiasm and
smiles of old friends and new, and all of the teachers I met raised their
own concerns and demands. Class size, job security, frozen pay, principal
harassment, special education resources and ancillary services were
regular topics. And although the challenges required to confront these
issues are immense, there is clearly an awakening sentiment that something can be done. With your active leadership and support, yes, something will be done.

We find ourselves in the vortex of a national attack on public
education. From Lansing to the White House, all of the nation’s leading
policy makers advocate cutting resources from the public schools and
diverting the funds towards charter school experiments. But the charter
mania among the elite has not been shared by the rest of the population—
out of the 49 million students attending schools that receive public
funds, 96% of the students continue to attend traditional public
schools; only 4% attend charters. In fact, in the few places where charter
schools have become widespread, their introduction was foisted
against the will of the local population. In places like Detroit and Oakland,
the outright state takeover of the district was necessary in order to
impose the new system.

The results have been catastrophic: in every charter-imposed
district, the resource deficits have decimated the public schools, while
the charters have underperformed their public counterparts in spite of
every rigged financial advantage. Instead of benefitting from the supposed
“market competition” between public and charter, the real outcome
has been to lower the quality of education across the board.
Teachers’ unions—which had been the traditional line of defense for
public education—largely capitulated in the face of the attacks, causing
membership numbers and morale to plummet. The advocates for
greater resources for our most impoverished public schools are now
mocked as “waiting for Superman”—we are told to accept the corporate
schemes of Lex Luthor, instead.

This social experiment has long since failed in Detroit and in
numerous other highly segregated, majority-black and Latino districts,
and is now perpetuated only on the basis of completely circular arguments.
They say that the takeover is needed to balance the budget, but
when the takeover only makes financial matters worse, they say that
this makes it necessary to continue the takeover. They say that the
takeover is needed to improve academic performance, but when the
takeover diminishes academic performance, they insist on applying the
same bad remedy: more takeover. They say that charters are needed to
innovate education, but when the charters only exacerbate the crisis of
education, they say that this crisis necessitates the creation of more
charters. They say that school closings and layoffs are necessary to
eliminate the deficit, but when these policies force thousands of students
to leave the district along with their per-pupil funding, we are
then told that this requires even more school closings and more layoffs.
For over fifteen years, we have weathered this continuous cycle of destruction.

There is a common saying that the definition of insanity is
doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results—we
are living in a cyclone of insanity.

Our union can and must stand against this destructive cycle;
the human cost is too high a price for our society to afford. In every segregated school district where educational opportunities have crumbled,
the claimed reduction in government spending has in fact been completely
offset by the collateral expenses of social decay. In place of the
obligation to invest in the futures of our young people, we have witnessed
instead the counterposed investment in an increasingly militarized
police force and a titanic prison industry. We have witnessed the
proliferation of urban blight and unemployment. In places like Ferguson,
Missouri, we have witnessed new urban uprisings, echoing the
same social discontent that led to the Detroit upheaval in 1967 and
many disturbances across the nation. Authorities tell us that we are too
poor to invest in quality educational conditions; the reality is that we
can’t afford not to invest in the futures of our young people. Never again
can we afford to accept the argument that there is not enough money.
Either the nation will invest in teachers and text books, or it will pay a
terrible price for urban warfare and destruction. Let us be a united
voice for hope and progress.

Because we are educators, we also care deeply about the philosophy
of the education system in which we work. We are practitioners
of pedagogical theory, and earned our positions through careful study
of the accumulated methods for facilitating learning. We cannot ignore
the fact that the governing philosophy being imposed on our district is
not based in any tested educational method, but instead derives from
crude economics. The current regime is almost entirely based on the
privatized, cheap and narrow schemes of the conservative economist
Milton Friedman, rather than the proven science of traditional pedagogy.
The cheap and narrow focus is not only a theory for reducing government
spending, but it is also a theory about the position in society
for which our students are being trained.

The current regime in Detroit has stripped from the schools
nearly all humanities, creative arts and music programs—the hallmarks
of a liberal arts education. In their place, technical and vocational training
have taken priority. The theory of the regime has been to guide the
hopes of students away from the attainment of a top university education,
instead fixing their career paths towards lower-paying, less-educated
sectors of the workforce. Even the prescribed teaching schemes
cater to these backwards priorities, replacing creativity and critical
thinking with rote memorization and scripted test preparation. In the
EAA schools, many students barely receive any education at all—they
spend all day in front of a computer screen, following mindless instructions
like robots. Soaring class size also transforms schools into sweatshops,
diverting attention away from learning and squandering time
and energy on the taxing maintenance of discipline and order.
History teachers should recognize this regressive shift in priority
as an extension of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Over one
hundred years ago, Washington argued that the pursuit of full equality
in black education had been an error. “It is at the bottom of life we must
begin, and not at the top,” he said. His pragmatist theory governed the
Tuskegee education machine in the South, training young black men to
enter only those occupations which were acceptable to the old Jim
Crow system. Many thousands of black Americans fled the South, migrating
to Northern cities like Detroit in search of better jobs and education.
This was the origin of the black community that still resides in
Detroit to this day. But now, in the face of a national wave of attacks on
education, there is no North to which our community can escape. With
our backs to the wall, our only choice today is to stand and fight.
If our community is to thrive, this will require restoring the
promise of equal, quality education and Martin Luther King’s dream of
an integrated America. Education is the cornerstone of a democratic
society. Education is the litmus test for the democratic principle of
equal opportunity. Education ought to be a sacred obligation to the future
of our young people, and not a tool for private profit for the benefit
of today’s robber barons. Our role is not simply to prepare our students
for a career, but to enable our students to exercise their freedom and to
pursue their happiness as equal, educated citizens. In order to fulfill
that role, we must be better organized together to defend our students
and ourselves.

I intend to rebuild our union from top to bottom. Among my
first initiatives as your president, I will immediately begin the recruitment
and training of building representatives at every school where
there is a vacancy. I will work to ensure that teacher grievances receive
effective responses, and I will commit the weight of union leadership to
defend our representatives against all forms of principal harassment
and subversion. Under my presidency, teacher grievances will no longer
be swept under the rug; they will take priority and go to arbitration. Although
our contract is weak, we can do much more to enforce its provisions
that can offer some relief to our members. Building representatives
will be trained to conduct grievance campaigns and rebuild
teacher leadership in every building. Achieving smaller class size is absolutely critical—so many teachers labor under truly flagrant excesses,
and this problem compromises teaching and learning throughout the
district. The subjective and capricious evaluation system must also be
challenged. Teachers must receive their evaluation results and fall
teaching assignments before the end of the school year in June, with
appeals to be heard immediately afterwards. I pledge to restore monthly
meetings for our members, and to restore our union office as a professional
and functioning resource. I further intend to build organizing
campaigns to bring the EAA and charter school teachers into the DFT,
rebuilding our numbers and repairing the fragmented state of education.

I intend to rebuild our active capacity such that, in the event that
our members wish to use our most powerful weapon—the strike—we
will be in a strong enough position to win.

At all times, I will maintain an unwavering connection to our
students and community members, as well as to fellow union activists
across the nation. It is my hope that we can serve as a national model
for the defense of public education, inspiring teachers everywhere of
the possibility to stand up for our schools.

Today is a new beginning for the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
At a time when the very existence of our union is at stake, today is also
the most important turning point in our union history. We face a difficult
road ahead. I hope that today we can begin discussing and voting
on a program of demands, and that our members can now thrive as active
participants and leaders in a democratic decision-making process. I
accept your mandate to lead this union to fight for the quality learning
conditions that our students and teachers deserve. But I cannot succeed
without your help. Join this fight, and together we can strive for
the brightest future for the city we love.

Steve Conn delivers State of the Union Address to Detroit Federation of TEachers

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