Defending teachers

A few words in defense of public school teachers:

It must be said that the frustration felt by Clark County School District teachers is not only understandable, but justified. Teachers in Southern Nevada are underappreciated, underestimated and vastly underpaid. Paltry raises proffered by the Nevada Legislature over the past decade have not kept pace with the cost of living.

Think about it: The district agreed to a contract in which it pledged – wisely or not – to reward teachers for sticking around and for (at their own expense) getting advanced degrees. Then, teachers are asked to give that money back, even retroactively, because of budgetary hard times that could be foreseen when the contract was signed. But it’s the teachers who are considered greedy for simply relying on promises made to them?

The fact is, we don’t appreciate our teachers. They come to work every day to do a tough job, often without support from parents who are disengaged from their children’s education. They have to deal with language barriers and socio-economic disparities. Some are forced to work in decrepit, inadequate classrooms. They spend a portion of their salaries to buy supplies for their classroom when the district doesn’t provide adequate resources.

But let them stand up and ask to be fairly compensated for educating kids who will someday be the leaders of our country, and all of a sudden they’re the bad guys?

Full disclosure: I speak from personal experience, because my mother was a kindergarten teacher at a private, parochial school for decades. My grandfather was a math professor. And I served as an adjunct instructor at UNLV for a time. So I’ve got a little experience in this area.

Yes, there are some bad teachers. (First on the layoff list: Teachers with repeated suspensions and poor performance evaluations. Why, pray tell, are such people still on the payroll at all?) Because of union contracts designed to prevent arbitrary treatment of teachers, principals are faced with a frustrating inability to get rid of even employees who should not be anywhere near a school campus.

I’m glad, however, to say that describes a small minority of teachers.

Then there’s the teachers union. Although teacher salaries have not risen as much as they should have, the Clark County Education Association’s former executive director, John Jasonek, for years was getting paid two hefty salaries for running the union and a related foundation. He was paid more than $630,000 in 2009, which is the dictionary definition of outrage.

Oh, and excluding a Review-Journal reporter and photographer from a news conference last week because the union doesn’t like the newspaper’s coverage? That was a totally bush-league move that makes it hard to take the association seriously.

We can’t ignore that some blame from the present crisis belongs in Carson City, where the Nevada Legislature has repeatedly failed to create an adequate tax system to fund the state’s schools properly. While the Legislature did find the time in 2011 to enact modest reforms to teacher tenure (reforms that were passed with Democratic support, it should be noted), discussions about a broad-based tax system were fumbled. Teachers and the school district argue over scarce resources, yet mining companies pay a pittance while the price of gold soars, and businesses pay nothing on their gross receipts despite repeated recommendations by experts that they be taxed.

We can do better. We can get a better tax system, we can reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates. We can improve test scores. Money isn’t the only factor in that success, but it cannot happen without money.

And for those about to take to their keyboards to say throwing money at the problem won’t help, I ask this: Why don’t we at least try it first?

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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