In graduation season, I always remember the first time I saw one of my grade school teachers at the grocery store. Until then, I had assumed all teachers lived in castles alongside unicorns and other magical beings.
After all, teachers were not mere mortals. They were the saints who looked after my intellectual and emotional well being day after day while my mom and dad, already exhausted by parenting, toiled away at work. They were the mentors who introduced me to world history, poetry and the wonders of fractions. They were heroes.
Of course, teachers weren’t exactly treated like heroes. It turned out, the public school teacher I saw in the grocery story wasn’t shopping there, he was working there -- a second job to make ends meet. Teachers were then, as now, saddled with enormous responsibility but atrociously low pay. But at least they could be assured decent benefits and pensions -- not a cozy existence but reasonably comfortable. That plus the reward of public gratitude for selflessly schooling a generation of future entrepreneurs, artists and scientists.
But now they get little pay, their benefits and pensions are being slashed and they’re being widely attacked as the problem with our education system today, rather than the solution.
Geez, America, way to show gratitude.
Those of us who received a quality public school education thanks to talented and invested teachers should be smart enough to figure out what’s really going on.
If big business wants to hoard even larger shares of our national wealth, it has to get government out of the way -- the one institution in America that prevents corporate abuse while using tax dollars to try and level the economic playing field for small businesses and working families.
So, long before even I was in grade school, big business began an all-out assault on government -- to kill social service programs that help working families but increasing government subsidies that unfairly help big business. Americans weren’t always skeptical of the value of government. Big business worked scrupulously to try and teach us that warped lesson.
Whether it was welfare benefits or highways or affordable housing, corporate media and lobbyists have effectively chipped away at public trust in government. Despite decades of clear government success at building the middle class through the GI bill, public works spending and quality public education, the very fact that you -- yes, you -- are probably reading this and scoffing at the idea that government plays a constructive role in your life is evidence not of reality but of the success of corporate anti-government messaging.
I can’t help but think that our teachers, who worked so hard to instill critical thinking skills, must be very disappointed in all of us.
Consider Michelle Rhee. The former head of Washington, D.C.’s public school system has been going around the country blaming teachers -- and particularly teacher’s unions -- for our education woes. Yet education problems are the same in states with unions as states without.
But Rhee is blaming teacher’s unions to disguise her real agenda -- privatizing our nation’s public education system so that big business can make a dime off your children. (It’s no accident that Rhee is linked to the vehemently anti-public education Betsy Prince DeVos, whose brother Erik Prince founded Blackwater.)
The goal, frankly, isn’t to improve public education but to destroy it. For instance, in Ohio Rhee is pushing a charter school “reform” package that is actually a corrupt giveaway to private school operators (who just happen to be big conservative donors). Under the guise of opening public schools up to competition, Rhee and Republicans in Ohio are actually limiting the number of charter schools in the state and granting almost exclusive control over charter schools to a small group of handpicked corporations. Meanwhile, pending legislation would exempt these corporations from the accountability, transparency and oversight requirements that apply to public schools.
To be sure, teachers unions aren’t perfect --- their often stubborn defense of blatantly incompetent teachers only makes it easier for people like Rhee to point the finger their way. But at the end of the day, teachers unions are made up of teachers -- women and men who have invested their entire careers not in getting rich but in making the world a better place by educating the future generation of leaders. Are we really going to blame them for our education problems and pretend that for-profit education companies are somehow the well-intentioned solution?
Teachers want to improve our nation’s public education system. Big business and people like Michelle Rhee want to destroy public education and government as a whole and reap greater profits for themselves. Yet somehow we’re celebrating people like Rhee as the heroes of education reform? I know I was taught better than that.
Sally Kohn is a community organizer who writes frequently for Fox News Opinion. She is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab.