What are teachers doing?

IT CAME AS A SURPRISE to learn this week that New York doesn’t rank as one of the most debt-ridden states. By one new measure, this state comes in at a mere 18th overall nationwide. So can we stop wringing our hands now and forget about the state budget crisis?

Not if you’re a teacher. For teachers the reality of the state’s huge budget deficit is about to hit home. The New York State School Boards Association estimates that as many as 14,800 teachers will lose their jobs statewide under the governor’s budget proposal. The total number of school district job cuts throughout this county, based on what school boards have planned for right now, comes to more than 150, a shocking number considering the county already has unprecedented unemployment.

We have already discussed the impact that losing so many jobs might have on an already stressed county economy. And remember that school officials base their figures on a worst-case scenario, even though the latest rumblings from Albany suggest that the Democrats who hold the majority in both the Assembly and Senate will consider cushioning the impact of the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit by doing what state lawmakers always do: borrowing money.

Borrowing would reduce the job losses this year, though not eliminate them. And borrowing would come with future spending restrictions, so some job cuts would simply be delayed. Or maybe the state’s economy will come roaring back, creating new jobs and spreading wealth. Maybe, but most experts don’t predict prosperity right around the corner, despite some hopeful signs.

Taking these factors into consideration makes the position expressed by some teachers and their unions all the more perplexing. One teacher in Columbia County said recently that she couldn’t go without her raise even though her colleagues are about to lose their jobs. At another local school district, the teachers’ union refused a request by school officials to discuss the issue of negotiated raises, though unions representing other district employees agreed to talk. Do these folks think either the union or the educational system will be stronger when there are fewer teachers around? Do they think their own jobs are immune to cuts?

Teachers didn’t cause the current budget crisis, and demanding unreasonable sacrifices from them won’t solve either the state’s or local districts’ fiscal crises. Consider too that unions are the teachers’ only reliable protection against attempts to make them scapegoats for the unsustainable spending that a majority of voters repeatedly endorsed as if this day would never arrive.

But teachers are where the money is when it comes to education. Their salaries and benefits comprise the lion’s share of school budgets. Even if every student in every district bought his or her own books, walked to school, brought a lunch and stayed late to clean the hallways and bathrooms, school boards would still have to scramble to find the money to pay the people who teach our children. Shaping the minds of the future is an expensive process, presuming that the goal is to produce as many citizens as possible who know how to think.

The economics of public education mean that it’s foolish and shortsighted for teachers’ unions to take unbending positions on current contracts when the teaching workforce is about to shrink dramatically. Rank and file union members as well as union leaders should know that a willingness to reopen contracts talks in not a sign of weakness. Reacting flexibly in a time of crisis can lay the groundwork for a better future. Intransigence now is a recipe for losing hard-won gains as this pernicious recession lingers and more cuts loom.

But school boards and administrators whose proposals for compromise meet with resistance from teachers’ representatives should not delude themselves that the fault lies exclusively on the other side of the negotiating table. It takes years to build up the resentment and mistrust that energize union positions. District officials must approach the unions openly, responsively and honestly if they expect to achieve fair compromises that preserve jobs.

Voters, too, have a responsibility. We have shown by the people we elect and the budgets we approve that we want bigger, better schools, smaller class sizes, higher standards, etc. And now we no longer want to pay for all we demanded.

That’s not the fault of teachers. The public is expecting them to give up some of what they’ve got, knowing that their sacrifice may not make their jobs any more secure in the future. What school districts and voters really want is for teachers to lead us all by their example.

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