“Merit Pay,” Witchhunting and
Corporatizing Public Education
Close Down the “Rubber Rooms” – Reinstate All “Excessed” Teachers!
Union Control of Hiring!
United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten after negotiating “merit” pay deal with
mayor Michael Bloomberg (right) and schools chancellor Joel Klein, October 17. “I am a capitalist
and in favor of incentives” says billionaire mayor, while setting up hit squad to fire teachers.
(Photo: John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times)
New York City teachers and students are under mounting attack by the schools chancellor Joel Klein and his boss, billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of a full-scale war on public education being waged by the Republican White House, the Democratic state house and leading capitalists such as Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. They are out to reshape the workforce to “compete in a global economy,” and for that they want to “overhaul” the schools by putting them under private control, push most students out by the 10th grade, bust teachers unions and slash spending.
Behind the talk of “standards” is a plan to standardize and dumb down education for the masses. Democrats and Republicans back the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law which really means No Corporation Left Behind. Under their two-tier system, they want to Wal-Martize the public schools and provide gold-plated Nieman Marcus education for the elite. But despite their ballyhooed “data-driven” educational reform, the data, in the form of batteries of high-stakes tests, shows that the education bosses have flunked. “Charter schools,” for-profit schools, small schools, theme schools – despite all the pressure to teach to the test, none of this has produced higher test scores. But Bloomberg/Klein and the rest of the bourgeoisie don’t give a damn.
Why not? Because their purpose is not to improve the public schools – they want to shut them down. And they are doing so by targeting teachers first. The day before national test results were announced showing that New York City schools failed to improve 8th grade math and reading scores, Chancellor Klein announced that the NYC Department of Education had set up a “Teacher Performance Unit,” headed by a former prosecutor and staffed by former principals, to drive out teachers they want to get rid of, particularly experienced teachers. The job of these professional witchhunters is to “amass the documentation necessary to oust them” (New York Times, 15 November). The DOE is treating its employees like criminals.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has called a “candlelight vigil” outside DOE headquarters in the Boss Tweed Courthouse for today, November 26, calling to “End the ‘Gotcha’ Squad” and “Respect Teachers.” UFT members should certainly turn out in strength to protest this abomination, but holding up some flickering candles is not going to stop the drive to criminalize teachers. What’s more, the UFT tops say “There is a RIGHT way and a WRONG way to ensure that teachers are doing a good job.” This buys into the LIE that poor teachers are responsible for the poor state of public education. Instead, the union should be pointing to the scandalous class sizes that Klein has done nothing to reduce, the lack of equipment, inadequate facilities and pervasive harassment of teachers by hot-shot administrators.
The only way teachers will get respect is by fighting for their rights, which requires building a strong union. And the only way the union can put an end to the victimization of teachers is by defeating the drive to corporatize and privatize public education, of which this is the spearhead. Instead, UFT leader Randi Weingarten last month negotiated a “deal” to introduce “school-based” merit pay in exchange for spiced up pension provisions (full pension with 25 years on the job at age 55). Bloomberg & Co. went for the 25/55 deal because they figure the city will save “tens of millions” by getting rid of higher-paid experienced teachers. And for the billionaire mayor, getting the UFT to agree to “performance pay” in any form is “historic and unique.”
At the Delegates Assembly, Weingarten made a big deal about how this would be “school-based,” that distribution would be decided by “compensation committees” including teachers and administrators, that schools could opt out, etc. But the bottom line is that teachers’ pay will be partly determined by student scores on standardized tests. That is a body blow against the principle of equal pay for equal work. It is the equivalent of introducing piece work instead of an hourly wage. On top of which, teachers are educators helping other people to learn, not producing widgets on a production line. At a City Hall news conference Bloomberg remarked, “I am a capitalist and I am in favor of incentives for individual people.” So he has to bend a little to get the UFT tops to sign on, he says, the important thing is the principle.
And that is a threat to the existence of the union. Imagine the kind of tensions that will be created as some teachers decide on how much a “bonus” others will get! The potential for corruption is enormous. And when all is said and done, whether you call it “merit” or “performance,” it will mean kissing up to the boss. Just watch and see what happens. Moreover, it is racist, and not only because the tests themselves have a notorious racial bias. It will encourage teachers to avoid schools in poor and minority areas which are notoriously starved of resources, making it difficult for students to prepare for tests. Oh, yes, Tweed claims the report card system takes that into account. But when elite schools like Stuyvesant High and Bard High School Early College were about to get “C” grade on their “report cards,” they got their ratings raised to an “A.” On the other hand, when teachers at Central Park East in Harlem complain about a “D” rating, although their elementary school has been highlighted as one of the best in the city, they get zip. Guess why.
The “Teacher Performance Unit,” with a name right out of George Orwell’s 1984 newspeak, is Big Brother incarnate. A whole unit specializing in scapegoating teachers! What’s next, the “loyalty review boards” that fired NYC teachers wholesale during the McCarthyite witchhunts? Teachers and all school personnel should demand that this “Gotcha” Squad, as Randi Weingarten accurately dubbed it, be abolished. But even that won’t stop the witchhunters at Tweed. They’re on a crusade. Last August, Klein spent an entire segment on the Charlie Rose show on “public” television bashing teachers. And when teachers in District 79 complained about the reckless “reorganization” of GED and other alternative programs, which “excessed” hundreds into the limbo of ATR (Absentee Teacher Reserve) status, turning many excellent tenured educators into substitute teachers, Klein told the Daily News (3 September), “we should be able to terminate those employees.” Now the would-be Terminator has his termination squad.
What to do about it? Obviously holding candles is no answer. The Independent Community of Educators (ICE), an opposition group in the UFT opposing Weingarten’s Unity Caucus, has dissected the threat of “merit” pay and the “gotcha squad,” but its response is to use the grievance procedure and to plead “ICE To Randi: Fight Back for Real This Time.” Won’t happen. From “No Child Left Behind” to “merit pay,” the UFT/AFT leadership has gone along with the bipartisan drive for corporatizing the schools. The AFT leaders don’t call for abolishing NCLB, as even the NEA does, but only to “get it right” by amending the law (which they helped write). So why do they go along? Because the union leadership is beholden to the capitalist system, and in particular to the Democratic Party (although this didn’t stop the UFT from giving a John Dewey award to Republican Pataki).
The AFT has endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, who has long supported the corporate school “reform” agenda, including “school-based” “merit” pay. The UFT endorsed Democratic Eliot Spitzer for New York State governor, who as attorney general slapped a multi-million dollar fine on Transport Workers Union Local 100 for daring to strike in the face of the union-busting Taylor Law. Since getting elected, Spitzer pushed through a budget with a big increase in funding of charter schools, another anti-union device. Weingarten is rumored to have ambitions for higher office if the Democrats win next year. But whether or not that is the case, from long-time UFT/AFT leader Albert Shanker on, the union has played a key role in carrying out the policies of U.S. imperialism, including supporting the Vietnam War and helping fund Polish Solidarność, Ronald Reagan’s favorite “union.”
plan corporatization of public education. NYC mayor Bloomberg
(left) meets with real estate magnate Eli Broad, November 2007. (Photo: Diane Bondareff/AP)
The “merit pay” scheme is initially supposed to be funded by private money, to be provided in particular by one Eli Broad. This southern California real estate mogul has made it his mission to run public schools according to “the classic American business model in which a powerful chief executive runs roughshod over a weak governing board” (“Eli’s Experiment, East Bay Express, 10 October). He has taken as his laboratory the Oakland, California school district, which is under state control despite overwhelming community opposition. Broad, with his assets estimated at $5.8 billion, making him the 42nd richest person on the planet according to Forbes magazine (19 September), is a major donor to the Democrats and Clinton in particular. He is also a partner of Microsoft magnate Bill Gates and other top U.S. executives in the Business Roundtable, who have cooked up a program to run public schools by private contractors. It was designed by Gates’ Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which includes Klein as well as CEOs of Viacom and Lucent Technologies, the head of the National Association of Manufacturers and other business bigwigs.
To defeat the corporate onslaught against teachers, students and public education in general, the Internationalist Group emphasizes that it is necessary to oust the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and forge a new leadership of the unions. Such a leadership must base itself on the class struggle, not class collaboration. It must be a leadership that breaks with the Democrats and Republicans (as well as minor bourgeois parties such as the Greens and the Working Families Party which act as shills for the Democrats) to build a workers party that fights for a workers government. Class-conscious teachers should understand that the attack on them is part of the bipartisan war program which goes from Afghanistan and Iraq to the looming trade war with the U.S.’ imperialist allies and rivals. It is for that clash that Bloomberg, Broad, Gates and their fellow tycoons are preparing, by regimenting public education for war, whether it is sending military recruiters into the schools, arresting students and even school administrators, and setting up a “gotcha squad” to get teachers. We must defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war “at home.” n
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