Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin has, in many ways, done more to do harm to the public education system in the United States than almost any other politician. The strange part of this story is that if you read Walker’s statements about education, he says over and over again that a great education system is necessary to the economic future of the state of Wisconsin. He always pairs that statement with one about money, claiming that paying for a great education system is different from operating a great education system. He claims that by reducing the cost of the education system local government officials can spend more money directly on students and actually improve the system as it exists.
Wisconsin traditionally has had one of the best educational systems in the country, which is one of the strangest aspects of Walker’s position. Why try to reform a system that is working? This year it is ranked third among the fifty states. Last year it was second.
Both of my daughters are educators in Wisconsin. Our oldest daughter, Sonja, is in the process of doing her student teaching, earning her teaching certification after working in a Catholic school, a homeless shelter, and other places as a teacher for years, and Mary, our youngest daughter, is not only a wonderful teacher, but a war-tested veteran of the Green Bay public school district. If you pay attention to Wisconsin news on education you will know that Green Bay’s school board is the most teacher-unfriendly board in the state.
Both of our daughters are depressed about their chosen profession. Like teachers I have talked to around the country, they feel the unrelenting attack on the nation’s public school system and on educators make their profession one of the most hated professions in America. Governor Walker, the drum major in front of the band of educational reformers that trumpet the genius of private charter schools and the erosion of America’s leadership in education in the world, deeply depresses them. They wonder how a man who is all about monied interests could possibly become Governor of a state with Wisconsin’s progressive history. They both question their decision to become teachers. Most of the great teachers I know are equally as depressed. They wish they had never become educators.
I do not know how Governor Walker in his heart of hearts thinks about public education. I know he has two sons enrolled in public schools. Maybe he really believes the rhetoric he spews out in aggressive soundbites and expressions of his superior-to-the-common-folk attitude. Maybe he believes magic really exists and that he is the wizard who can speak incantations and make the education system better by eliminating funding that allows teachers to live a middle class lifestyle and feel good about themselves and provides school supplies and books learners need if they are to be taught. Maybe he and Governors and politicians like him really believe that by giving all the wealth to the wealthy the poor will be grateful for their poverty. Maybe he believes that sucking wealth from the middle and poorer classes and giving it to rich business-people and speculators is the way to bring prosperity to the country. After all, if business is rich, will not jobs flow to the under-classes like manna from heaven? Even if the wealthy do not pay middle class wages to those doing those jobs and send endless streams of jobs overseas?
But the truth is that Walker is not a wizard. If he truly believes in the magic his words spew into public airwaves, he is a fool. If you starve the beast, government funded public education, then you weaken the beast and can easily, if you are not careful, destroy its spirit if not its life. I do not believe Governor Walker is a fool. I believe he has chosen to side with the uber rich class because he knows where there is butter for his bread, but I could be wrong. I cannot see into other people’s spirits and hearts.
If Walker really wants to improve Wisconsin’s education system, he needs to take lessons from the best education system in the world in Finland. What strikes scholar after scholar who has studied the Finnish system is that Finland’s educators feel as if they work in the best profession in the world. Politicians in Finland are not continually making idiotic comments about how terrible their system is. They do not require endless standardized tests and benchmarks that guarantee long-term failure, the legacy of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. They are not obsessed with accountability and making sure Finnish taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.
Instead, the Finnish people and their leaders believe that education is important and that those who deliver learning to their children and college students are among the best, most valuable people in their society. The result is simple. In Finland educators who are honored deliver an educational system that has been among the best educational systems in the world for decades.
When I was young the United States had the best education system in the world. In fact, the educational system was so good it created the largest middle class the world has ever seen and created endless streams of jobs built from innovation, industry, skills, knowledge, and strong values. It was part of the secret to making the United States the wealthiest country in the world. When I was young my parents and parents all over the country would have never dreamed that education would become a system that deserved to be attacked as wasteful and a bad bargain for taxpayers.
Teachers were honored, and if one of my parent’s boys got out of line with a teacher, boy, were you in trouble. Teachers were the knowledge bringers, the deliverers of a good future, the key to making life better for children than it was for their parents, and as such a teacher’s words and judgments were important. They delivered prosperity to all of us.
I am nearing the end of my career as an educator, and I am prejudiced, but I believe that teachers are still the key to the future for Wisconsin, New Mexico, and the rest of the country. I believe education is the key to prosperity for the United States and other countries. I believe wealth comes from knowledge and learning, not information, and the application of knowledge to creating things and getting things done.
Educators are put through endless hoops and a great deal of expense to earn the honor of touching alive the minds and spirits of the young and young adults. Charter schools and for-profit colleges and universities have not outperformed the public school systems in the United States, as crippled as that system has become by constant attacks from the uber rich and their allies who seem to think that if only they could have a little more freedom from regulations and a little more of the country’s wealth (after they control most of it anyway) then the entire country would benefit as they sit on their gold-plated toilets.
Mostly good things come from educators: They show the pathway to the world’s knowledge, whether that knowledge is ancient or new, spark alive imaginations, teach self-discipline, tell a young person who is down that they can reach for the stars, help young people believe in themselves, encourage creative fires in classrooms and society, build reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and make it possible for individuals to make a society that serves all of us. I chant a chant for teachers everywhere and that chant is much more important than the magic-wishing incantations of a Governor Walker–whether they live in Wisconsin, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. I sing the intelligence of the Finns.
Teachers are important. They do not deserve angry-eyed parents who storm in their classrooms demanding that their son or daughter is being treated unfairly when their child did not do their homework and is not earning an A. They deserve support, not demands for excellence delivered by angry school boards who cannot see out of the bubble of their own lives and concerns. They deserve recognition rather than ridicule foaming out of business people and politicians. They even deserve a middle class wage, which the uber rich can easily afford and that will serve the interests of the rich in the long-run. A rising tide still lifts all boats while a sinking tide leaves even the fanciest yachts grounded.
If this country wants to become a world leader in education again, it must first get the loudest voices condemning the education system and demanding accountability to shut up. If you want to create value, you must first value what you want to create. If you do not value what is valuable and trash it with words, it can end up in the garbage dump, and recovering what you have thrown away might be impossible.
May all educators in the United States and in every country of the world receive the blessings they deserve. My daughters are extraordinary teachers.