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Teachers see cuts as attacks on their value

The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. “Oh you pathetic teachers,” read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. “You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.”

“You feel punched in the stomach,” said Parker, a high school science teacher in Madison, Wis., where public employees’ two-week occupation of the State Capitol has stalled but not deterred the governor’s plan to try to strip them of bargaining rights.

Parker, a second-year teacher making $36,000, fears that under the proposed legislation class sizes would rise and higher contributions to her benefits would knock her out of the middle class.

“I love teaching, but I have $26,000 of student debt,” she said. “I’m 30 years old, and I can’t save up enough for a down payment” for a house. Nor does she own a car. She is making plans to move to Colorado, where she could afford to keep teaching by living with her parents.

Around the country, many teachers see demands to cut their income, benefits and say in how schools are run through collective bargaining as attacks not just on their livelihoods, but on their value to society.

Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers — Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy — education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

Republican lawmakers in half a dozen states are pressing to unwind tenure and seniority protections in place for more than 50 years. Gov. Chris Christie’s dressing down of New Jersey teachers in town-hall-style meetings, accusing them of greed, has touched a populist vein and made him a national star.

Mayors are threatening mass layoffs, including in New York City and in Providence, R.I., where all 1,926 teachers were told last week they would lose their jobs — a largely symbolic gesture since most will be hired back.

Some experts question whether teaching, with its already high attrition rate — more than 25 percent leave in the first three years — will attract high-quality recruits in the future.

“It’s hard to feel good about yourself when your governor and other people are telling you you’re doing a lousy job,” said Steve Derion, 32, who teaches American history in Manahawkin, N.J. “I’m sure there were worse times to be a teacher in our history — I know they had very little rights — but it feels like we’re going back toward that direction.”

Those pressing for teachers’ concessions insist the changes will improve schools.

“This is in no way, shape or form an attack on teachers; it is a comprehensive effort to reform a system,” said Tony Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction in Indiana, where demonstrators have also besieged the Capitol in opposition to bills supported by Bennett and Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican. The legislation would limit teachers’ collective bargaining to pay and benefits and allow principals to set class sizes and school hours and to lay off teachers based on job performance, not years of service.

Bennett said the state teachers’ union had distorted the legislation to create fear.

There are signs of a backlash in favor of teachers. A New York Times poll taken last week found that by nearly two to one — 60 percent to 33 percent — Americans opposed restricting collective bargaining for public employees. A similar majority — including more than half of Republicans — said the salaries and benefits of most public employees were “about right” or “too low.”

As for teachers’ mood, an annual poll sponsored by the MetLife Foundation found in 2009, before this year’s blast of opprobrium, that 59 percent were “very satisfied,” up from 40 percent in 1984. In interviews this week, even teachers facing layoffs or pay cuts said they felt a calling to be in the classroom.

“I put my heart and soul into teaching,” said Lindsay Vlachakis, 25, a high school math teacher in Madison. “When people attack teachers, they’re attacking me.”

Although crushing state budget deficits are the proximate cause of lawmakers’ pressure, a further justification for many of the proposed measures comes from the broad accountability movement, which aims to raise student achievement and sees teachers’ unions as often blocking the way.

Accountability, particularly as measured by student test scores, has brought sweeping changes to education and promises more, but many teachers feel the changes are imposed with scant input from classroom-level educators. Nearly 70 percent said in the MetLife survey that their voices were not heard in education debates.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group, said the decline in teachers’ status traced to the success of unions in paying teachers and granting job security based on their years of service, not ability.

“They are reaping a bitter harvest that they didn’t individually plant but their profession has planted over 50 years, going from a respected profession to a mass work force in which everyone is treated as if they are interchangeable, as in the steel mills of yesteryear,” Finn said.

Those who oppose the gathering momentum to evaluate teachers based in significant part on student test scores argue that it will drive good teachers from the neediest schools.

Anthony Cody, who taught middle-school science for 18 years and now mentors new teachers in the Oakland, Calif., school district, said many leave at the three-year mark for higher salaries and easier conditions elsewhere.

Oakland has many poor students and schools at the bottom on standardized tests — schools the federal Education Department identifies as candidates to be sweepingly overhauled by removing half their staffs.

“What we need in these schools is stability,” said Cody, 52, who writes a blog about teaching. “We need to convince people that if they invest their career in working with these challenging students, then we will reward them and appreciate them. We will not subject them to arbitrary humiliation in the newspaper. We will not require they be evaluated and paid based on test scores that often fluctuate greatly beyond the teacher’s control.”

Cody acknowledged that many of his younger colleagues, who have come of age in the era of test scores used to gauge progress and accountability — first for schools, and now increasingly for teachers — are not as resistant to the concept.

“I’m not too concerned or worried about that,” said Kevin Tougher, 31, who teaches third grade in Lake Grove, N.Y., where a new statewide evaluation system will rate teachers based 40 percent on their students’ test scores or comparable measures.

Last month Tougher was notified that because of his lack of seniority, he will be laid off, or “excessed,” this year under the state’s proposed cuts to school aid. A union activist, he believes seniority-based layoffs are fair.

“The seniority part, I get that,” said Tougher, who is single. “While it would be a bummer if I were excessed for next year, that’s just how things go sometimes.”

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