by Christopher Paslay
“The economic and political landscape for public education, and for the people who work in our public schools, is as dangerous as I have ever seen. In the guise of ‘reform,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘shared sacrifice,’ and ‘belt tightening,’ efforts are under way in a number of states to gut collective bargaining, weaken public employees’ pensions, and offload public schools and services to the private sector. It could take years—if not generations—to recover from the deep and continuing cuts to public education. And many so-called reforms gaining traction will eliminate teacher voice and move us away from the goal of ensuring that all children have access to the excellent education they need to succeed in life.”
These are the words of Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, in her recent article “Your voice is essential to combat this crisis,” published in this month’s issue of American Teacher. Weingarten goes on to call on AFT members and their allies at the national, state, and local levels to combat these threats through political action and promoting ideas for constructive change.
Weingarten’s focus on the threats against public employees is not new. All across America, the fight to defend public services is being waged on many different fronts. Interestingly, though, not much is being said about what actually caused the collapse of the nation’s economy and set in motion the circumstances that are wrongfully being pinned on schoolteachers, police, fire fighters, and public servants in general.
National polls show the majority of Americans think public employees make too much money. These polls also reveal that many Americans think public workers are greedy—that they are unfairly enjoying health benefits and pensions at the expense of overextended taxpayers. Although there is no denying that many states are facing legitimate budget deficits, the notion that schoolteachers are greedy and overpaid—and a root cause of our nation’s financial woes—is absurd to say the least.
Public workers and their unions are not responsible for our country’s current economic recession. To the contrary, it is the private sector that is largely to blame. Accountants on Wall Street did their fair share to “cook the books” and disrupt the American stock exchange something awful. Overinflated assets and underreported liabilities—not union greed—set the stage for the collapse of public pensions, hedge funds that had been stable for decades because millions of hard working public employees had been paying into them their whole careers.
In addition to corrupt Wall Street accountants, both the real estate market and mortgage industry gamed the system and literally brought the American banking system to the brink of total collapse. Phil Gramm, the ex-Texas senator and economic advisory to John McCain, was a major architect of the legislation that was a true catalyst to our country’s financial meltdown.
In July of 2008, right before John McCain fired Gramm as his economic advisor for calling Americans “whiners” and denying the existence of an American recession, I wrote about Gramm’s sordid economic past and the need for McCain to cut ties with Gramm in a Philadelphia Daily News commentary:
“The collapse of the real-estate bubble, also known as the ‘sub-prime mortgage meltdown,’ has clear ties to Gramm. In December 2000, at the urging of lobbyists from Enron, Gramm pushed through Congress the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
Known as the ‘Enron loophole,’ this law protected financial institutions from overregulation by the government. In essence, it opened the door for something called ‘credit default swaps,’ and allowed many Americans with bad credit and no money to get mortgages they had no right receiving. Of course, when these same Americans defaulted on their mortgages, the result was billions of dollars in foreclosures.
The Commodity Futures Modernization Act is also associated with rising gas prices. Critics argue that this legislation is responsible for driving up the price of oil because it exempts energy speculators, who make trades electronically, from the regulation of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In other words, big banks are free to manipulate the price of oil by buying huge blocks of energy futures and driving up demand.
Not to mention that the ‘Enron loophole’ was a major factor in the Enron scandal, which wrecked the California electricity market and cost consumers billions. . . .”
Of course, Americans have short-term memories. Amazingly, in the span of several years, we’ve forgotten all about Enron, Phil Gramm, credit default swaps, and the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Somehow, in our out-of-sight-out-of-mind society, we’ve been duped into believing that public employees—schoolteachers, police, fire fighters and their greedy unions—are primarily to blame for the continuing mess that is known as today’s economy.
Through clever politics, the corruptions of the private sector have been transformed into the sins of public servants.
As Randi Weingarten suggests, these kinds of accusations are indeed dangerous. Although public servants must make some sacrifices and do their part to help revive the economy, schoolteachers should not be attacked and manipulated by government officials in an effort to forward political agendas.
And as the title of Weingarten’s article states, the voices of public servants are essential to combat this crisis.
Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of “The Village Proposal,” to be published this fall.