“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
This phrase has accompanied many a report on how to improve and reform public education in America and, of course, policy statements from education associations that support the work of teachers.
To a large degree, the phrase is not just pithy but also has the ring of truth. It seems like basic common sense. If classrooms are not equipped with textbooks, computers, and other technology and supplies necessary for educating America’s youth so they are prepared to take on the work necessary for our society to operate and serve the population’s needs in the 21st century, how can teachers optimally help students learn as they need to?
And, of course, for classrooms to be optimal learning environments, our public schools also need to be able to recruit and retain the best and brightest among us, right? After all, who do you want teaching your children? To achieve this end requires ensuring the profession earns a respectable salary and working conditions are supportive and empowering.
This phrase is effective in reminding us that issues of education and of labor justice, of workers’ rights, go hand in hand.
After four years of Trump’s presidency and the shameful and deleterious antics of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, having Dr. Jill Biden accompany President-elect Joe Biden into the White House will be a breath fresh air, promising a proper seriousness when it comes to educational policy, including a respect for the rights of labor.
Dr. Biden recognizes the interconnectedness of these issues, as exemplified in her tweet from last November:
Linking the right to organize, as well as teachers’ salaries and working conditions, to the fight for quality public education seems like a fresh idea in Washington D.C. because this type of thinking has been not just absent in Trump’s administration, it has been roundly, even savagely, dismissed in favor of a brutal assault on public education, on teachers’ rights, and on the students’ civil rights.
The sounds of Trump’s silence on public education and teachers’ working conditions were audible to the point of being deafening when in 2018 teachers from West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado effectively engaged in mass strikes the likes of which our nation has not witnessed since the 1930s. Trump said not a word to acknowledge or in any way address both the lagging teacher salaries in those states or the woefully low levels of funding for public education which was also a major, if not primary, impetus behind the teachers’ mass actions. The silence continued in early 2019, which witnessed massive teachers’ strikes in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland for similar reasons.
Trump’s 2020 proposed budget slashed education funding by $7 billion, and his proposed 2021 budget followed up with a $6 billion cut. DeVos has repeatedly endorsed policies that enable funding typically channeled to America’s public schools to be diverted to private schools.
And she has fought repeatedly against civil rights protections, or enforcement of protections, for transgender students and students with disabilities as well as for DACA recipients.
Perhaps exemplary of DeVos’ long and damaging four-year reign as Secretary of Education is her participation in Trump’s ongoing assault on the rights of federal workers and their unions. In 2018, Erica Green reported for The New York Times, federal labor mediators advised DeVos and her department that they were likely in federal violation of law in their curtailing of workers’ protections and their right to access union representation.
David Borer, counsel for the union, stated at the time, “It’s a real spoke in the wheel in the government’s attempt to destroy federal sector unions. This was the first salvo in what’s become a broadening assault on federal unions, the rights of federal workers.”
DeVos’ attack on union rights echoed the myriad anti-union statements riddling Trump’s budget at the time.
It needs to be pointed out that, of course, this attack on unions, on workers having the right to representation in the world and the right to organize, is consistent with efforts to undermine democracy we see being carried on ever more intensely these days by the Trump administration and the Republican Party overall. The attack on unions needs to be understood as an attempt to deprive workers of the right to have a say in their workplace, where they spend a good portion of their time. To suggest that we have democracy-free zones, in this case the nation’s workplaces, in a democracy is just a violent contradiction, a bill of goods Republicans have for too long been selling Americans at steep price.
But more to the point here—pardon my digression—is that in the realm of education, anti-labor policy is actually anti-student, anti-education. In this regard, DeVos is the Secretary of Mis-Education.
On her way out the door, she has been urging the very colleagues she has assaulted to resist changes to her policies, telling agency employees:
“Many of you know well that most everything in this town, when it comes to education, is focused on schools — not students. So, let me leave you with this last plea: Resist. Be the resistance against a familiar force that will distract you from doing what’s right for students.”
And here we see what is either DeVos’ iniquity or stupidity—or perhaps the unhappy combination of the two. Students are educated in schools by teachers. We must give schools the proper means to meet students’ needs and allow them to excel, and that means also recruiting, retaining, and supporting quality teachers, enabling them to have autonomy and exercise their expertise and creativity in serving students. It means having counselors and nurses on staff to take care of children.
What does she think it means to focus on students, if not make sure they have quality teachers, optimal teaching and learning environments, and attention to their health, mental and otherwise?
Ironically, DeVos’ tenure is best characterized as a constant assault on students. Last January the
American Federation of Teachers read more