Anti-teachers union StudentsFirst spent nearly $1 million on Michigan ads so far in 2011

I have a new piece up at A2Politico where I look at the Michigan Republicans attacks on teachers in our state. I also look at how, although teachers are fighting back, politically-speaking, they are also working hard to make things better for our schools, particularly the ones facing the biggest challenges.

Teachers unions are also working to help poorly-performing districts improve their programs. Last year, the National Education Association (NEA) started the Priority Schools Campaign. This campaign aims to bring all education stakeholders together to help failing schools.

Through our Priority Schools Campaign, we’re promoting increased professionalism and systemic education reform in some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools; what we call priority schools. Partnerships between schools, school districts and educators are a largely untold story, especially to many people exposed to a steady diet of attacks on unions. But across the country, in community after community, collective bargaining and other forms of consensus and collaboration are transforming public education…[participants include] National Education Association members working in lower-performing schools, NEA staff, state affiliates and locals, parents, community leaders, education advocates, policy makers, and businesses.

This week, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel [pictured with crutches] visited Michigan as part of NEA’s “2011 Back-to-School Tour.” During his five-day, seven-city tour, Van Roekel is visiting a number “priority schools” and stopped by Romulus Middle School which had received a $5.3 million grant as part of the federal School Improvement Grant program. One of the efforts by the NEA’s Priority School Campaign was to help get a millage passed to support the Romulus school system, a millage that had been twice defeated prior to the NEA’s involvement.

While in Michigan, Van Roekel took time to meet with local administrators, teachers, parents, and other union & community leaders to discuss the benefits of collaboration. I spoke with him and Steve Cook by phone.

“It’s great to get out into these schools and meet face-to-face with the people working hard to improve them,” Van Roekel told me. “The minute you walk into these priority schools, you can feel the energy and you can see that things are getting better. You see the effect of what money can do when combined with cooperation & collaboration between administrators, teachers, students and parents.”

Teachers working with school administrations, parents and the community to improve schools. It’s not sexy. It’s not confrontational. But it’s making a difference. In Romulus, the new funding has allowed them to improve their technology program & equipment and to revamp their curriculum. But, that doesn’t make the news.

Despite the NEA’s effort to draw attention to the “Priority Schools” initiative and the fact that Van Roekel met with the editorial boards of both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, the only mention of it from either newspaper was a post on the News’ blog The Watercooler, where the focus is on the MEA’s Cook calling Right to Teach “revenge.” Sensationalism! Confrontation! [The picture above is from Van Roekel’s meeting at the Free Press. Editorial Page Editor Brian Dickerson is the one reclining]

As I said, teachers helping solve school districts’ problems in our state isn’t sexy or titillating. So it doesn’t make the news. What makes the news are the efforts of Republicans to demonize our educators as costly parasites on our society, self-interested “more than greedy”, leeches forcing our schools into bankruptcy.

But the Republicans aren’t the only ones getting in on the demonization of the teachers of the next generation of Americans. An independent group disingenuously calling itself “StudentsFirst”, led by Michelle Rhee, has been working diligently to move schools from the public sector to the private sector. They are out to destroy teachers unions across the country and to privatize as much of the school system as they can.

How involved have they been in Michigan? Astoundingly involved, as it turns out.

An organization that supports eliminating or limiting the significance of teacher tenure reported spending nearly $900,000 on advertising in Michigan during the first seven months of 2011.

The StudentsFirst spending was mentioned in a report Wednesday from the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The national education group advertised in Michigan this year as lawmakers made changes to the state’s teacher tenure system.

Legislation that will make teacher performance the key factor in awarding tenure and deciding layoffs in districts instead of seniority were signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in July.

StudentsFirst reported the most spending of any group in Michigan for the first part of 2011 on its lobbying expenditure forms, but 95 percent of that $951,018 was for television and other advertising — spending that likely didn’t have to be reported to the state.

StudentsFirst wasn’t just the top spender against teachers. They were the top spender on lobbying in Michigan PERIOD (pdf).

By contrast, the teachers union spend a third that amount defending themselves against the Republican and StudentsFirst attacks.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating:

In any rational society, teachers are not considered “costs.” They are considered assets….Republicans have done an amazingly effective job of turning the public’s perception from seeing teachers as valuable assets to seeing them as parasitic leeches on the jugular vein of society. Rather than valuing them for the important role they play in our society — that of educating our children — they are now coming to be viewed as a “cost,” something to be cut when times get hard.

We have cut their pay, increased their healthcare co-pay amounts, reduced their retirement benefits and made it nearly impossible to bargain on their own behalf. And yet we expect them to effectively educate our children. We do this to help pay for massive tax cuts for businesses. And then we expect them to come to work each day, stand in front of the next generation of leaders and scientists and parents and doctors and trash collectors and make them ready to take their place in society.

Meanwhile, we scream collectively that our schools are failing our children.

I’m not sure how doing all of the things we are doing to our teachers constitutes “making our schools better,” to quote Speaker Bolger. What I do know is that a society that devalues its educators is destined to slowly circle the drain until it glugs down into an empty, fetid tub of ignorance and stupidity.

We are at a turning point in our society with regard to the education of our children. What is happening in Michigan and in Wisconsin to our teachers is going to be our nation’s future unless we act soon. We cannot continue to cast teachers as a “cost” to be cut whenever possible. We must turn around our country’s way of thinking about our educators and their value to society. Because, if we don’t, we will become a nation of uneducated fools. When that happens, our destiny will be controlled by the countries that do value education, not by us.

Check out my A2Politico piece HERE.

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