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Guest blogger Scott Mullin grew up and attended public schools in San Diego County. He has been teaching for 17 years — including two in Costa Rica — and is now working in San Diego Unified schools. He holds degrees in anthropology and Latin American studies from San Diego State University. Mullin has two children attending public schools. These are his reflections, not mine, so if you have burning questions or comments, please contact Scott via email at quoniambebe@gmail.com. Or post a comment here on the blog.

There is a darkening image of teachers that many in our society work hard to mint as the prevailing picture of those who labor daily to educate the young. It stands out in stark contrast to the image of teachers that I grew up with.

Our leaders have — I suspect with self-serving ideological and financial motives — intentionally sought to damage the respectful image we had of teachers. The formation of this gray cloud over public education goes back to 1983, when President Reagan published “A Nation at Risk.”

There are two ingredients that predate this image of educators: Ayn Rand’s selfish individualist capitalism and Milton Friedman’s market fundamentalism. Rand believed that only self-serving individual creativity rewarded with money could deliver a more perfect world. Friedman held, following Adam Smith, that there was an invisible hand moving human economic endeavor toward the greater good. He believed education manipulated by government was ineffective.

The two collided in 1963, when Alan Greenspan shared his ideas in Ayn Rand’s The Objectivist Newsletter: “It is precisely the ‘greed’ of the businessman, or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer.” Applied to educational systems, this meant that only through capitalist market-styled competition could schools perform to their potential. This greed motive is pushed as a replacement ideology for public education.

Instead of paying teachers based on education and experience, the self-described innovators hold merit pay to be a key solution. By dangling dollars before the teacher, creativity would flourish. Test scores would soar and achievement gaps disappear.

Charters are another variation on the business model in education. The basic premise underlying the charters is that each school, though publicly funded, is autonomous. They are business-like and compete for students. Ideally, charters have long waiting lists, whereas under-performers wither from under enrollment. California allows corporations to run charter schools for a profit.

Lately, all of this has come into question. In recent testimony given to a U.S. House Committee, Alan Greenspan backed away from his contention that self-interest protects shareholders’ saying, in the context of the Great Recession, that he was in a “state of shocked disbelief.” He could not believe greed had not insulated our economy from its current shocks.

Some associated with the publication of A Nation at Risk have become self-doubters, yet they maintain their ideological paths in education. They hold that it is the greed of the teacher and not societal altruism that will unleash a renaissance in the edification of our youngest citizens.

Michelle Rhee, of Washington, D.C. schools, believes that teacher greed leads educators to greater instructional output. Using free market language she says, “If you are a truly effective teacher you are going to get paid a whole lot more money.” Further, she says, “One of the things we are going to see over the next few years is a real focus on teacher quality and human capital in schools.”

Where will this money come from? And when referring to me as a teacher, please leave the capital off of human. Here in San Diego there is a line dividing the discourse between the free marketeers and the concerned humanitarians. Accordingly, you either fight for the unionized laborer or struggle to keep the business model at the forefront in the classroom.

Earlier this year the Union-Tribune published an interview with SDUSD board member John de Beck. He noted that our board has been a business- or a union-friendly majority depending on who spent more cash to elect its members, the inference being that members of the board serve either one or the other set of interests. I believe our trustees to be more intelligent.

Perhaps it is true that it is not good for one sector of our community to have too much sway with the board. Unfortunately, the discourse stalls when there is a need to go beyond the false business vs. labor dichotomy. To this point in local debates regarding education, a melding of views has not emerged with a message that unites San Diego in the interest of all our children.

Whatever emerges and holds local sway, it will have to accept that teachers are not greedy. It is true we need to pay our rent, put gas in the tank, show up to work in professional garb and put food on the table. But as long as greedy self-interest serves as the driving ideology of reform models of our schools, I worry we are headed for a great recession in public education.

— SCOTT MULLIN

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