MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.
It's that time again, vacations and summer camps are winding down, and just under 50 million public school students are heading back to class. And this year, many of their teachers are hopping mad. Not only are they facing layoffs and deep budget cuts, many say they are tired of being blamed for everything that's wrong with public education.
As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, some teachers are so upset they're bypassing their unions and mounting a campaign of their own. Their mission: to restore the public's faith in their profession.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's hard to know just how angry teachers are these days. But remember that scene from the movie "Network" when a news anchor becomes so despondent, he goes berserk live on TV and instructs viewers...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NETWORK")
PETER FINCH: (as Howard Beale) I want you to get up right now and go to the window, and stick your head out and yell: I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.
SANCHEZ: Well, that's how lots of teachers say they're feeling these days.
BESTY LEIS: I give my heart and my soul to every single student in my classroom. And all I see on the news is that we aren't doing our job. We are constantly beat down. That's why I'm angry.
SANCHEZ: Betsy Leis is a middle school teacher from Florida.
LEIS: I don't make any money. And part of me is OK with that, because I don't do it for the money.
SANCHEZ: So how is Hollywood portraying teachers this summer?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BAD TEACHER")
LUCY PUNCH: (as Amy Squirrel) Elizabeth, you shouldn't be teaching. I mean, I can't think of anyone less suited to being a teacher.
CAMERON DIAZ: (as Elizabeth Halsey) I don't need a blackboard or a classroom to set an example. Morons.
SANCHEZ: That's Cameron Diaz in the movie "Bad Teacher."
So it's not enough that people don't appreciate teachers. They've become punching bags, says Claudia Rueda, a high school counselor in Chicago. She says if people believe this country is going down the tubes, why don't they single out the people on Wall Street who are still getting million dollar bonuses?
CLAUDIA RUEDA: But everybody seems to be talking about a teacher that is making 50, $60,000 a year. Oh, my gosh, greedy teachers. So that passion that I feel for my profession would not be taken away by fear. I think that if anything, it energizes me more.
SANCHEZ: This energy, this need among teachers to speak out is not just in a few places. It's all over the country.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alabama, wave it. There we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On Arizona, California...
SANCHEZ: The two to 3,000 teachers at this rally in Washington D.C., a little over a week ago was tiny compared to the protest earlier this year in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states where lawmakers have curbed teachers collective bargaining rights.
But organizers of this event, called Save Our Schools: A National Call to Action, saying they're different. They say they speak for classroom teachers who are not being heard. On the issue of tenure, for example, Karen Klebba, an elementary school teacher from Illinois, says the union's defense of tenure is wrong.
KAREN KLEBBA: You know, if you're doing your job and you're doing a great job, and you have an evaluative process that works then there really should be no reason to have tenure. And there really should be no reason to, you know, hide behind it.
SANCHEZ: The consensus though is this: the Obama administration's education policies are no less prescriptive or punitive than the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Law. And high-stakes tests are undermining quality instruction and good teachers, especially if test results are used to evaluate teachers or decide how much they should be paid.
JOE WILLIAMS: Testing itself is more of a means of addressing the accountability issue, despite the way it's been portrayed.
SANCHEZ: Joe Williams heads Democrats for Education Reform, a liberal lobbying group that focuses on teacher quality issues. He says no one is trying to punish teachers or make testing more important than children. The problem is that this discussion is taking place in a very polarized political climate.
WILLIAMS: The notion that education reform could get wrapped up so closely with attempts to eliminate collective bargaining it's made it very difficult to have this conversation all over the country.
SANCHEZ: But it's not just about politics, says Mike Petrilli, of the conservative Fordham Institute.
MIKE PETRILLI: The reason that these debates are happening now is because of the economy. And I think you see policymakers seeing that this crisis is an opportunity, to fix some things that have been broken for a long time.
SANCHEZ: Petrilli says tenure and seniority policies are good examples. With teacher layoffs on the horizon, how do you decide who to let go?
PETRILLI: It has never made sense to say that when layoffs are necessary, we're going to just get rid of the youngest teachers - regardless of effectiveness - how that could possibly be good for kids. That's crazy.
SANCHEZ: And yet at the beginning of the year, says Petrilli, 14 states mandated that layoffs be based on seniority, not effectiveness.
The other huge issue that doesn't get nearly as much attention is the teacher pension crisis.
PETRILLI: Many teachers teach for 30 years and then they're retired for 30 years. And for those 30 years of retirement, they're making 60 or 70 or 80 percent of their salary indexed to inflation. This is like the Social Security debate, at some point the numbers just don't add up.
SANCHEZ: That's why state lawmakers are asking teachers to put more of their own pay into their pensions and health care benefits, which teachers view as an attack on their profession.
As for the broader education debate, Petrilli and others agree, Washington will remain in gridlock. And the big education battles on the horizon are going to play out in the states.
PETRILLI: This is where the teachers unions are the strongest. And this is where you've gotten some of these bold Republican governors who are ready for a fight.
SANCHEZ: Just in time for the 2012 election.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR news.