Who’s the Boss of Me?

I want to scream. To rail against the Gods. To resurrect Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi and Abbie Hoffman and….I don’t know who all else–anyone who can organize an insurrection.  All because the currently pending legislation impacting teachers in Ohio (and other states) is fundamentally wrong–and I’m not talking the ethics, or the economics, or how I believe it would impact education. I’m talking about the core intent; a major paradigm shift is occurring in the business of education, but it’s being shrouded in warm, fuzzy concern about student achievement and fair use of public money.

So here’s my question: who is my boss? I’m a teacher, I am paid from public money. No debate there. But all these laws coming at me with the speed of Darth Vader’s X-wing, are they coming from the people who are actually “my boss?”

That’s such a tangled question that modern education should be on the Maury show to determine who the Daddy is. That’s a crucial question, though, in any discussion of laws impacting education.  It’s easy to agree or disagree with any specific point in bills such as Ohio’s SB5, and it’s even reasonable to discuss if teacher’s working conditions, compensation, and accountability are in line with their counterparts in the private sector. Those may be vital discussions. But lumping hundreds of pages of diverse points in one bill–and adding on with the “budget”–then giftwrapping it in the flag….that’s not a discussion. That’s punitive with a hidden agenda, fueled by marketing and prejudice.

Here’s the issue, as simply as I can explain it: in America, the educational model is based on local control. Individual school boards can hire or fire as they wish–yes, the teachers are licensed by the state, but the decision whether to hire lies with the local board. Also, local boards can apply for special licenses for people who don’t have traditional credentials.  The power is local.

Likewise, the basic budget of a district is raised from local money–traditionally, property taxes, but sometimes other taxes are available now IF THE LOCAL VOTERS AGREE. Note, the power is local, and it’s one of the very few types of taxes that voters have a say on. I can’t vote to send money for wars, or farm subsidies, or universal health care, but I can to decide if my local school gets more money.

However, most districts can’t make it on just what the local voters are willing to give, especially poor districts. So a long time ago–in the late 50’s, maybe?–states realized that they could offer needed funds to districts, with a few logical, easy-to-live-with strings. That’s grown and continued till many districts couldn’t exist without the state money–and the state conditions. But in the legal chain of command--the state does not control education. They offer money for specific programs, they provide funds to compensate for poor or handicaps students–in districts like mine, they provide a sizable amount of money, all coming because of specific criteria or expectations. In real terms, there is built-in accountability for those tax dollars; those funds go away if the criteria isn’t met or changes.

The state has tests that students must pass to get an official certificate, true, and they have specific classes that are required for graduation as well. However, LOCAL CONTROL gives a great deal of leeway about what those classes teach. As long as the students pass the Ohio Graduation Test and take the right core curriculum, there’s no oversight as to what textbooks are used, what projects or units are covered, how students are assessed and graded–public education is NOT standardized beyond teacher licensing and OGTs, in actual practice.  Even the state standards and benchmarks are guides, often unrealistic, and often impossible because of student achievement levels, time,  or educational supplies available. Again, local control, local oversight.  State money has come with strings that add layers to that, but any school solvent enough to not get specific money also can avoid specific strings.

More recently, add the federal government to the party. Same process, only they don’t currently have one test, one model–they have all the No Child Left Behind requirements (most unfunded or underfunded at the local level, but with strings that make the states respond), then Obama’s Race to the Top grants…another whole level of fun.

Imagine education on the Maury show, with grandmas, step dads, maybe-daddies, and a whole family tree of dysfunction arguing over how the baby is to be brought up, with the mom standing there confused and powerless, but knowing that at 3 am when the baby’s crying, she’s going to be alone in the dark.  That’s the business of education as we are trying to practice it now.

When the state report cards come out, who’s blamed or praised? The local principals, teachers–the people on the front lines. We know that bottom line, the local district in in control. Bad teachers can be fired–I’ve seen it happen. There’s a process to protect them, yes–but in Ohio, getting rid of a bad teacher is fairly simple.  Likewise, the unions don’t get higher teacher  pay than the district can offer; teachers in poor districts generally get paid less than teachers in richer districts. That’s basic economics with built-in limits. Teachers are NOT running up the state budget.  If a specfic neighboring district would hire me today, I’d get over $8000 more than I get now per year. And they’d pay more of my health insurance. I wouldn’t be any better as a teacher; the price merely reflects the district budget.

Teachers do not cause the state economic hardship. Teachers’ salaries are determined locally, and paid largely out of local funds. The local school board can’t offer more money than the have in their budget. Teachers are more subject to the vagaries of their local economy than other “public” workers for that reason.

I have more issues with bills like SB5, but at the core, there’s the problem. I’m not hired by the state. I’m not responsible to the state. These bills slyly shift from local control to state control–but only the aspects that they want control of. If we’re going to change the paradigm, we need to do away with the current mirage of “local control” to create a cohesive, effective state-wide or nation-wide educational system.  Then it would be clear who the boss of me is.

Throughout their investigation of Watergate (google it, children….), Woodward and Bernstein were repeatedly told by their informant, Deep Throat, to “follow the money.” He insisted that if the reporters would do that, the source of the power and the problem would become clear. Woodward and Bernstein brought down a whole presidential administration by using that theory.

Trying to apply that to modern public education doesn’t work; there are so many checkbooks waving around that it’s nearly impossible to untangle the specifics in many district. But underlying it all is this: the people who sign my paycheck are not funded directly from the state or federal dollars. Officially, local control and local dollars are the bedrock of our public schools. Bills like Ohio’s SB5, which micro-manage a huge list of issues that have always been under local control without formally, officially transferring the entire educational system to the state government, are out of line because under current laws,  it’s just NOT their job. I know who my boss is–and it’s not Ohio governor Kasich.

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