Teachers Voice Concern Over Budget Cuts

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Public school teachers have been feeling the effects of measures by states and cities, to deal with their budget deficits. In some parts of the country, thousands of educators have been laid off, taken steep pay cuts and lost benefits, along with their right to collective bargaining. But, as the debate around education cuts continues, teachers say their voices are not being heard. In a roundtable discussion, guest host Farai Chideya hears from three teachers from Wisconsin, Ohio and California about how the cutbacks are affecting their work and the children they teach.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

If you've turned on the news, you've hard the outrage.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Group: Kill the bill. Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

CHIDEYA: Thousands of protesters crowded the Wisconsin State Capitol during the last month to express their feelings about a bill that would limit union bargaining rights, something that would vastly affect teachers. As tough economic times continue, many state officials are looking for cuts, and increasingly, teachers are in their sights. In some parts of the country, thousands of teachers had been laid off, taken steep pay cuts and lost benefits, even as for some, the standards they are required to meet are rising.

Now I'm joined by three teachers from around the country. Allison Pratt is a kindergarten teacher in the school district of Onalaska, Wisconsin. Michele Pomerantz teaches first grade for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio. And we have Keith Brown, who teaches middle school for the Oakland Unified School District in California.

Thank you all for being here.

Ms. ALLISON PRATT (Teacher, Onalaska, Wisconsin): Thank you.

Ms. MICHELE POMERANTZ (Teacher, Cleveland Metropolitan School District): Thank you. It's great to be here today.

Mr. KEITH BROWN (Teacher, Oakland Unified School District): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Allison, I want to start by asking you if you're surprised at this anger that's directed against teachers.

Ms. PRATT: Not at all. In the past few years, we have felt the support for teachers and our profession has gone down. Things have happened very quickly here in this state, and the worry and outrage is not a surprise to me.

CHIDEYA: So, do you feel that you almost saw things coming, that there was a sense of anger that was directed against your profession?

Ms. PRATT: Yes, I believe so. The public has been concerned about public schools, in general. And I believe that started with the No Child Left Behind quite a few years ago. Personally, I felt something coming, and have been trying to reach across the table to representatives and senators in this state for some months. And what I feared is happening.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Yeah, Wisconsin. And California, of course, also experiencing steep, steep budget crisis. Keith, tell us what a day in your classroom is like and what kind of challenges you come up against.

Mr. BROWN: Well, teaching in Oakland, California, I teach a diverse student body. I have students coming from different language backgrounds. And also, I have a lot of students coming from environments of poverty, and those are some of the things that teachers see as challenges, but we can't let that be obstacles to prevent students from learning.

For example, I'm a part of a program sponsored by the California's Teachers Association called the Boys and Men of Color program. And it's a program that's designed to provide positive learning experiences for African-American and Latino male youth through mentoring, field trips and being exposed to see different professional men of color in action.

CHIDEYA: Michele, let me turn to you. You're in Cleveland, and some people are saying that teachers are overpaid and underperforming. As we just heard from Keith, there's a lot of different things that teachers have to end up doing. But, you know, some people seem to think that your job is easy. Is it easy?

Ms. POMERANTZ: I've been teaching in Cleveland now for 20 years. And while I feel it's the greatest job in the world and I'm happy to have it, it is an extremely difficult job. And any day between the hours of eight and 2:30, I can be the nurse, the psychologist, the parental advisor, as well as the teacher and deal with things that people wouldn't consider having to deal with on a daily basis, including temperature of my room, class size, sick children, abusive parents - things that you just become accustomed to while you're trying to reach and motivate students to do their very best.

So every day is different. Every year is different. And the challenges become greater and greater. But by no means is it an easy job, nor is it something that I would trade in for anything. Because what my students do and what I do with them every day is so important and the families that I've helped for the last 20 years, it's extremely rewarding, but it's not an easy job and it's not a cakewalk. That's for sure.

Ms. PRATT: Michele, I would like to agree. So many people think that teaching only requires knowing my subject well. But not only do I need to know my subject well, but I need to know those students. Each year, I'm given 20-something new students, and it's my job to figure out their learning style, figure out their personality. And I need to do that quickly so that I'm able to present material in the way that they learn best.

And this can be 20-some different ways. I must also learn about their behavior and what makes them tick, what is their passion, so that I can relate to that and give them the material that they need in the way that they need to learn.

CHIDEYA: And you're teaching kindergarten, so that's obviously a very critical time in a child's development, Allison.

Ms. PRATT: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Let me turn to a statement by President Obama, who spoke about education reform last week. And here's a little bit of what he said.

President BARACK OBAMA: If we truly believe that teaching is one of the most valued professions in society, and I can't think of a more important profession, then we've got to start valuing our great teachers.

(Soundbite of applause)

CHIDEYA: So, Michele, do you feel like teachers are one of the most valued professions right now in terms of how people are treating the profession?

Ms. POMERANTZ: Well, I think that their perceptions are a little off, and I think that the economic crisis that we've gone through has made everybody a little bit less tolerant of people that do get paid any type of amount of money. And I agree with President Obama and feel that if we value our children and we give our most precious commodity, our children, to our teachers, then they should be valued. And I am proud of President Obama's ways of looking at education and ways to value teachers more, and also to expect more from teachers.

I'm not opposed to teachers performing better. I'm not opposed to students performing better. And I think that we have to do better to raise the graduation rate, close the achievement gap and do more with our students so that we can show the world - who have been hurting lately - how great our teachers are and how much we can do with so many less and with families that are struggling.

CHIDEYA: We're talking with our teachers' roundtable. Our guests are teachers Michele Pomerantz in Ohio, Allison Pratt in Wisconsin and Keith Brown in California.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: We need to take a short break. When our conversation continues, we'll explore the financial burdens on teachers and whether teacher tenure hurts or helps public schools.

Stay with us on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, I share my thoughts about how the families in the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up are fighting to save themselves and the city. That's in a few minutes.

But first, we continue our teachers' roundtable discussion. As teachers come under fire from budget-cutting state and local governments, what do educators themselves have to say about their work and public perceptions about them? Our guests are Allison Pratt, a kindergarten teacher in the school district of Onalaska, Wisconsin, Michele Pomerantz, who teaches first grade for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio, and Keith Brown, who teaches middle school for the Oakland Unified School District in California.

Keith, I want to ask you about money. Many teachers are spending their own money to buy supplies for their students. Have you ever found yourself in that position? And if so, why?

Mr. BROWN: Yes. That's true. Teachers often use their own money and resources to provide materials and needed resources that may not be available due to a lack of funding. I just want to bring something that happened in Oakland recently. There was a break in in a classroom, an elementary school, where several rooms were vandalized and a computer and equipment were stolen. And it's the teachers that came together to try to raise money to make sure that students have resources that they need to learn.

And the teachers, they're going out to websites such as DonorsChoose.org to be able to get the resources that students need. And this just shows the importance that teachers have in the community, in making sure that our children have resources that they need to learn.

Ms. POMERANTZ: Keith, I'd like to agree with you. This is Michele again. And in Cleveland, I mean, we're looking at daily making purchases, including basic supplies such as soap, toilet tissue, pencils, paper. The amount of money that we get in salary, there is such a great deal of it that goes back into our students' classroom, whether it's to provide basics or to provide enhancements.

Many times in our Cleveland schools, we're purchasing things that the students should come to school with. We're - and we're even going so far as to purchase milk for parents. We're purchasing things that are required for our students to be able to come in, have a full belly and be ready to learn that school day.

So whether it's basic needs or something like technology, like computers, we are the ones that are the bring or the gap that are filling in the gaps for these students and families. This is the teachers that are doing that.

CHIDEYA: I just want to drill down a little bit more on some of the critiques of how the profession of teaching is working or not working. There's this persistent critique that it's very hard to get rid of ineffective teachers, and even some teachers agree with that. Michelle Rhee, the founder and CEO of Students First and the former chancellor of the D.C. public schools was on this program a few months ago, and here's what she had to say about teachers and seniority.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Founder and CEO, Students First): The problem that we face in public education today is that, essentially, tenure for teachers means that you have a job for life, regardless of performance. And that is an adults-first policy, not a students-first policy.

CHIDEYA: Now, Allison, let me turn to you. Again, you're in Wisconsin, and I understand that you consider yourself a fiscal conservative. So, given that, do you agree that large numbers of teachers might just have to be fired, given our budget crisis?

Ms. PRATT: Well, it's going on. It's going on right now. May I add that I serve as a local union president. I serve as secretary of my UniServ, which is a regional union called the Coulee Region United Educators. And I also am an alternate to the WEAC board of directors. And WEAC is the Wisconsin Educational Association Council, which is our state union.

I disagree. It is a myth that the teachers union makes it impossible to get rid of a bad teacher. In every contract, at least in my state, there are provisions to get rid of a teacher who is not performing adequately. But these provisions, this step process needs to be implemented. And it is not up to the union to put that into place. It is up to administrators.

Ms. PRATT: Allison, I wanted to add on, in Cleveland, the union - Cleveland Teachers Union has worked together with the district to have a program that helps police their own teachers. If a teacher has gotten an unsatisfactory evaluation, then they will be given a mentor. And if after time and due process, that mentor, with the teacher, has not improved, then that teacher will no longer be able to work for the Cleveland Municipal School District. We are trying to become a union that is not known for defending the indefensible.

Every teacher wants a quality teacher in the year - in the classroom next to them. So we are making sure that we put our money where our mouth is, and we are trying to improve teaching overall. And in Cleveland, it only takes three evaluations, whether you're a 30-year teacher or a first-year teacher, in order for you to be non-reappointed. So that is a myth in the Cleveland area.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. So, Michele Pomerantz...

Mr. BROWN: So Michele and Allison, they both are speaking to the fact that teachers - they don't want ineffective teachers in the classroom, because as a teacher, you want to work in a positive learning environment and have colleagues that you can collaborate with. So I think the issue comes that we need to have good professional development for not only newer teachers, but also for teachers that have been in the classroom for some time to be able to provide the necessary support, professional development, training, modeling, coaching, and give teachers the opportunity to improve and practice their craft.

And if they go through the steps and fail to show improvement, then, yes, those teachers should find some other profession. So, just the whole notion that teachers have a job for life and that there's such thing as tenure is totally not true. The whole issue is about having a process, a due process, for all teachers.

Ms. PRATT: In this state, we have...

CHIDEYA: Let me actually turn to the question of pensions, which is, you know, tied up with how some of the conversation is evolving right now. And Allison and Michele, you both are working with your unions and you both are making a case for responsibility of, you know, as you say, monitoring your own.

Ms. PRATT: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: But, you know, Allison, a lot of private employers don't provide pensions anymore. Some can't afford to. Some choose not to. Why should states or taxpayers be expected to continue pensions for state employees, as well as local employees?

Ms. PRATT: These benefits have not just been handed to us. It has been a long process of getting to that point. I have given up pay in order to have those other benefits, in order to get that retirement package from my district, in order to get 80 percent of my insurance premium paid. I have paid 20 percent for years.

I have given up pay on the pay scale in order to build to those levels of benefits. So in that negotiations process, things have been given up. I have sacrificed.

CHIDEYA: So you're saying that it's not just a handout, that you have, you know, made some decisions as a profession about what you're willing to negotiate for.

Ms. PRATT: What is important, yes, what is important to us - and it just so happens that those benefits are the things that we have picked out that are important.

CHIDEYA: Well, before we say goodbye, I want to ask each of you to offer your advice to legislators and to the public about what needs to be done when it comes to education reform and balancing budgets.

I'm going to start with you, Michele. What should people keep in mind?

Ms. POMERANTZ: Well, I would hope that everyone would keep in mind that it, when we go to the bargaining table, it is up to the district and the union to work together to come up with a compromise and to remember that when we are making that compromise, we are not just negotiating about health care and wages. We are negotiating about class sizes, room temperatures, things that affect the social and emotional growth of students. So while we can talk about sacrifices and we do sacrifice in wages and health care and retirement monies, please keep the opportunity for negotiation and collective bargaining open, so in good times and in struggling times, we can - teachers can be the voices of those students and families.

CHIDEYA: Keith Brown, what would you tell people to keep in mind?

Mr. BROWN: Just to keep in mind that it is through unions that teachers have a collective voice to lead the way in education reform, such as things that we've done in California, like the Quality Education Investment Act, which led to smaller class sizes, additional counselors and better training for teachers and principals. That's a way that the unions work with the community to improve our schools. And we must look at public education as an investment in our students and in our classrooms and to make education a priority for our students.

And Allison Pratt, again, you are Wisconsin, where many of these issues have come to the fore. If you are talking to, let's say, a parent who is concerned about all of the different services that face cuts, how do you tell them to take education into consideration, along with everything else?

Ms. PRATT: Well, politicians and the corporate leaders claim that they want to reform education. But it's impossible to see how this campaign against teachers will advance that goal. We need to build that working relationship between our school boards, our administration and the community. There's no high-performing nation and this world that is reducing the status and the rights of teaching and the teaching profession like is happening now.

There are high-performing school districts, especially in my state. Why are we not looking to see what works there and introduce those techniques into school districts that need help? Our professional learning communities, our collaboration techniques, RTI, Response to Intervention, these are all techniques that work. And they - districts around here are using those techniques to achieve great graduation rates, and that's why we have the support from some of our communities that we do.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank you all so much. We've been speaking with Allison Pratt, a kindergarten teacher in the school district of Onalaska, Wisconsin. She joined us from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Keith Brown teaches middle school for the Oakland Unified School District in California, and he joined us from Youth Radio. Michele Pomerantz teaches first grade for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio, and she joined us from member station WCPN.

Thank you all for your time today.

Ms. POMERANTZ: Thank you.

Ms. PRATT: Thank you.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

Ms. POMERANTZ: It's been an honor to be with you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: At TELL ME MORE, we will be celebrating National Poetry Month in April. In an occasional series called Muses and Metaphor, we'll combine two passions of this program: social media and poetry.

We'd like you to go on Twitter and tweet us your original poetry, using fewer than 140 characters, of course. We'll air our favorites. Tweet us using the hash tag TMM Poetry. You can learn more at the TELL ME MORE website. Go to npr.org and click on the Programs menu to find TELL ME MORE. Again, the Twitter hash tag is TMM Poetry.

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