Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Only Slavery Can Save a School When Funding Dries Up?


Tilden Middle School in Philadelphia lost a number of teachers to budget cuts this year, as well as a secretary, noontime aides, and money for their before- and after-school programs. Despite the cuts, they managed to add a grief-counseling program, which may have helped kids deal with the loss of favorite teachers axed as a result of the cuts. The school also was able to maintain its extracurricular mentoring and truancy-prevention programs and tutors.

How is all this possible?

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was due to “robust community partnerships . . . a dedicated staff . . . [and] a principal . . . who feels that he can't let a lack of money strip Tilden of needed resources.”

What the Inquirer neglects to mention is that much of this is supported by volunteer labor, particularly by teachers agreeing to work longer hours without compensation, sometimes “even walking students home.”

Compelling people to work for free is slavery. Sure, these people are “volunteering” and it is certainly generous and compassionate for them to do so, but it is still free labor and it is necessary only because funding has been stripped from public education. It takes advantage of teachers’ tendency to go over and beyond the call of duty for their students. In many cases, such extra work is called “voluntary,” but comes with so much pressure from administrators and sometimes even parents and peers that it is virtually coerced. No one wants to look like they don’t care about their students. So if others are jumping on the bandwagon, many teachers will feel like they have to, as well.

It is not just teachers who do this. Gloria Johnson, a school secretary who was laid off from Tilden in December, still shows up every day as a volunteer. Johnson referred to Tilden as her family and argued that she wouldn’t stop helping her sister just because she didn’t have money. A school police officer who was laid off, also volunteers at Tilden.

Of course children shouldn’t suffer just because funding has been cut, but the solution is not to make other people suffering (e.g., the adults who care for them), while allowing those responsible for the budget crises to continue enjoying historically low income, business, capital gains and inheritance tax rates.

It is absurd to argue that grownups should be slaves or have to volunteer free labor so that children don’t have overcrowded classrooms and support services aren’t cut. What happens when those adults can no longer pay their rent, mortgage or food bills? What about their children? And what happens to their students when they eventually find paid work elsewhere?

The only sane solution to the underfunding of education is to demand that it be generously funded. Buying politicians, as the unions like to do, as well as voting and demonstrating at state capitals, have proven to be ineffectual. Ultimately, those who work in public schools have to take a stand and refuse to participate, withhold their labor, and engage in other forms of direct action in the workplace. On the other hand, continuing to work, or working harder, for low or no pay sends the message to administrators and politicians that we are doormats and martyrs, ready and willing to accept greater burdens and exploitation, so long as it might help our students.

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