Occupy Furlough

Passing in the hallway, my direction with respect to my colleague came to symbolize the glass half-full versus half-empty that characterizes so many of our exchanges with each other.  I was complaining about the usual stuff–Red Ribbon Week, in this case–but the talk quickly turned to our school’s API.

Yes, I agreed, 815 was good–but the school remained in Program Improvement (PI) thanks to our failure to reach AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) amongst students considered as part of the Lower Socioeconomic Subgroup (SES).  

I had to remind her, the economy is still headed south, it’s not like that subgroup is going away anytime soon.  And, now we have verified proof from the US Census Bureau.

Children from all race groups were added to the poverty population since the 2009 ACS, including children reported as White (507,000), Black (259,000), Some Other Race (99,000), and children of Two or More Races (160,000).

So much for the idea that just by focusing upon our “children of color” (Words to that effect that were used when our school first officially learned of our AYP.) was going to see our test scores rise enough amongst that SES subgroup to carry us out of PI.  Kids of all color are much poorer as a group in 2011.

Last week, on Veteran’s Day, USC professor Stephen Krashen sent this letter to the Los Angeles Times.   He hit upon a common theme he emphasizes quite often:

Middle-class students attending well-funded schools score at the top on international tests. Our overall scores are mediocre because the U.S. has a very high level of child poverty, with 21% of children living in poverty, compared with high-scoring Finland’s 5%.

High poverty means inferior healthcare, inadequate diet and little access to books, all of which have devastating effects on school performance. Our problem is poverty, not a lack of standards.

Rather than spend on standards and tests, let’s invest in protecting our children from poverty. This would raise test scores; more important, it is the right thing to do.

With Thanksgiving week upon us, inevitably talk at the dinner table (depending upon which side of the family is going to have us over for dinner) will turn to the economy.  To that end, the LA Times’ main editorial this morning had to this to say about the California budget mess:

It’s not merely in Sacramento but in city and county halls and in the voting booth that Californians continue to demand that they get more but pay less. Every other state makes paying back its bond obligations its top budget priority, but for California, bonds come second after education — and yet the triggers are set to cut a week out of the K-12 school year and $200 million from a public higher education system that was once the world’s envy. Cuts in the education and development of the next generation of Californians lay the foundation for a duller, poorer and less accomplished state in the near future.

As for those supposed lazy freeloaders — in actuality the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly — when did we let go of our conviction, once a bedrock of California values, that caring for people in need was a moral obligation?

California is a wealthy state, with enough money and brains to create a future of opportunity and achievement for the next generation. As we face these new triggered cuts and even deeper cuts in the coming year, Californians must now show whether we still have sufficient regard for each other and for our successors to invest a little more today for an abundant, and sustainable, future.

While any number of my teaching colleagues are happily proclaiming pleasure at our week off this coming week, the reality is that I will not have my students for 3 instructional days.  Of the 3, one of those days was contracted to be “student-free” so that I could finish my report cards and prepare for student conferences, meaning I will have 2 days of my school year taken away as furlough days;  not only do I lose the instructional time, I am also not being paid.  Yes, I get the excitement about the family time, but the budget cuts means that if I am not careful, I make decisions to go spend money I won’t be getting by virtue of the fact that I’m not working thanks to the furlough day in the first place.  In other words, I’m not going to be celebrating the “wonderful” time off with the family over the coming week until at least Wednesday afternoon at around 3pm, which is where I began my Thanksgiving Break the 14 school years prior to this one.  Prior to that time, I’m just going to hunker down, finish my report cards, and try not to spend money.

But beyond my immediate situation, this is beyond me just complaining about losing out on paydays.  As a career choice, my entire occupation is about the future–the kids in my classroom.  While it might seem like 2 days aren’t going to make or break the students’ potential progress, factor in the other distractions that arise when the school punts instructional time as we near Winter Break, and those are hours unencumbered by said distractions that I am not going to have as we race towards state testing in April and May.

In the midst of the nationwide focus over the real aims of the “Occupy” movements, a friend asked me to try to explain to her what the actual aim of the protests intended to get. I didn’t quite know how to answer her at the time, especially considering how badly the UC Berkeley administration (and later the UC Davis chancellor) were handling the circumstances on their respective campuses.  While I likely still can’t answer her question directly, it’s pretty obvious that the status quo we have in this country now, is something these protestors, in particular the college students, definitely don’t want.  These circumstances are untenable for our society as a whole.  As scary as it might seem for people when approached with the idea of income redistribution, it’s not so much that income would be “redistributed”; the idea of the “1%” shows us that the money’s already been moved, leaving the rest of us to argue and hurt each other over what’s left.  And it’s hard to think of the future, if we’re barely getting by in the present.  But we’re also denying to our future, those advantages that I came to expect in the past.  Bill Moyers in The Nation. sums it up:

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood says that our nation discovered its greatness “by creating a prosperous free society belonging to obscure people with their workaday concerns and pecuniary pursuits of happiness.” This democracy, he said, changed the lives of “hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”

Those words moved me when I read them. They moved me because Henry and Ruby Moyers were “common laboring people.” My father dropped out of the fourth grade and never returned to school because his family needed him to pick cotton to help make ends meet. Mother managed to finish the eighth grade before she followed him into the fields. They were tenant farmers when the Great Depression knocked them down and almost out. The year I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway to Oklahoma City. He never took home more than $100 a week in his working life, and he made that only when he joined the union in the last job he held. I was one of the poorest white kids in town, but in many respects I was the equal of my friend who was the daughter of the richest man in town. I went to good public schools, had the use of a good public library, played sandlot baseball in a good public park and traveled far on good public roads with good public facilities to a good public university. Because these public goods were there for us, I never thought of myself as poor. When I began to piece the story together years later, I came to realize that people like the Moyerses had been included in the American deal. “We, the People” included us.

We, who have reached our middle age years, have to remind ourselves of how we’ve gotten where we are in our own lives.  We’ve had advantages over our own children by virtue of what was in place in California and in the United States in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, as we grew up.  We came to have expectations that we hoped our own children would have as they grew or are growing up.  But somehow, we’ve allowed any number of televised and radio talking heads over the past 20-30 years to convince us to close the door to the middle class that our parents took us through, ostensibly to prevent readily identified “freeloaders”–to use the LA Times’ term–from encroaching upon our own circumstances, all while we enabled income inequality to reach the levels it has reached.  And when we closed the door to others–read poor people and people of color–we’ve also made it difficult for our own children to aspire to virtually the same advantages we took as our own birthright.   Ultimately, in a public education setting, if I am charged with the responsibility to teach American culture and values to the next generation, in light of this shuttered doorway to the American dream–how can I continue to talk of America as the “Land of Opportunity”, when self-reliance and hard work are needed these days just to find work?

I guess I can’t.  Especially when I am given even less instructional time than I am supposed to have.  The paradox is frightening:  my occupation is considered party to the American idea of mobility through education–that very mobility cherished by Bill Moyers above–and yet as a public employee, I am seen as a barrier to that middle class dream, since my income and my occupational infrastructure are costing the state of California too much to be able to afford.  Even for someone with my inherent cynicism, its wearying to consider how I am the ally and the enemy simultaneously.


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