Friday, April 12, 2013

NEA Sheds Crocodile Tears for the Poor

President Obama has sent his budget plan to Congress, hoping to appease Republicans by slashing $400 billion from Medicare and other health programs (according to NEA Today) and cutting cost of living increases for Social Security recipients. Not surprisingly, Republicans are saying this isn’t enough and they have no intention of supporting any tax hikes, whatsoever. Some pundits are referring to the process as Obama negotiating with himself.

Needless to say, the cuts will hurt seniors and the poor the most (but on the brighter side, the wealthy will be able to continue to enjoying record low tax rates and subsidies for their businesses). These cuts could also have a trickle-down effect on schools. By stripping away some of the safety net for poor families, children will inevitably feel some of the cuts, which could lead to increases in malnutrition, untreated medical conditions, premature births, stress and elevated levels of cortisol, and other factors that can impair cognitive development, memory and learning.

National Educators Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel criticized the plan, saying:
“Right now the focus should be on protecting and increasing benefits for our seniors, not pulling the rug out from under them . . . Social Security belongs to the people who have worked hard all their lives, contributed to the program, and relied on the promise that they and their family will be able to collect benefits that accurately reflect the cost of living when they retire. . . Any budget proposal must be balanced and fair by demanding more of the wealthiest and corporations while staying true to our nation’s commitment to seniors and those most in need.”

These comments are little more than crocodile tears coming from a man who earns close to $400,000 per year in salary and benefits and who will likely be set for life with a comfortable retirement, thanks to his members’ dues. While he may in fact feel sympathy for the poor and seniors, he is completely unwilling to do anything about it besides making a few impotent complaints—and certainly nothing that might jeopardize his income, status or personal freedom.

If NEA was a fighting union, if it really gave a damned about the wellbeing of America’s poor families and children (or simply wanted to see significant gains in educational outcomes), it would mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to protest the entire budget debate vigorously, with direct action, civil disobedience and even strikes. The NEA is the largest union in the country. It has vast resources and could have significant influence on policy if it were to move away from its unreliable and weak strategy of lobbying and campaign financing and start exercising its true power: its members’ ability to withhold their labor.

One reason why the NEA will not do this is because it does not want to offend its darling in the White House. Despite the fact that Obama has done nothing to reduce the damage caused by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and actually worsened it with his Race to the Top (RttT), he continues to pay lip service to the notion of improving public education (which seems to be sufficient to mollify many on the left). In fairness, his budget proposal does include an additional $75 billion to fund pre-school for all low- to moderate-income 4-year-olds. Yet for many middle class families, the only preschool options available are expensive private schools that suck up large portions of their disposable income. Obama’s budget will provide no relief for these families. More to the point, since we know that pre-K programs have significant benefits for children’s long-term academic success, why not extend the existing free public education system to include all children, starting at the pre-K level? This would have the additional benefit of allowing many parents to get back to work without having to lose a large chunk of their income to overpriced private preschools.

Van Roekel is also probably pleased with the supposed billions of dollars that will go toward education jobs to replace those lost due to the sequester cuts. However, jobs, in and of themselves, are nothing to support, particularly if those jobs are for low pay, with poor benefits and unreasonable demands or lack security. Why not increase unemployment benefits, welfare and other safety net programs to a level that provides all Americans with material security and comfort until they get back on their feet, instead of continuing with the cynical and punitive system that provides only a fraction of what one needs to survive and only for a timeframe that is insufficient for finding another decent job?

Additionally, why strive for putting teachers back in front of 30-40 kids per classroom, which is all that will happen with Obama’s proposal? Why not demand sufficient funding to bring all high school classes in the country down to 20 students per teacher, and the lower grade levels down to 10 or 15 students per teacher? This would not only create a lot of jobs, but it would provide teachers sufficient time to attend to the individual and diverse needs of their students; identify physical, emotional or academic problems before they spiral out of control; and provide more engaging, student-centered, inquiry-based lessons and rely less on canned curriculum, bubble in tests and rote memorization.

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