You can only push a teacher so far

Government IS the problem. Only not in the way the conversation has been framed.

By Shane Phipps

Look around you at the state of public schools.

Unless you live in a bubble, you’ve probably seen schools in your area that have had to shut their doors and go to e-learning for periods of time due to teaching staff, transportation staff, or custodial and food service staff shortages.

Perhaps you have been taken by surprise by all this, but you shouldn’t have been. Teachers far and wide—certainly yours truly—have been shouting warnings from the rooftops to the four winds for many years now. Those of us in the trenches have seen this coming for well over a decade.

Sometimes, I’ve felt like Noah being laughed at by his neighbors as he built his ark. Well, it’s raining steadily now. The flood waters are rising and, tragically, it’s going to get a lot worse unless drastic systematic changes occur, and fast.

The ever-growing snowball began its steady descent of the hill in 2002 with the arrival of the infamous No Child Left Behind legislation. The GOP got this horribly misleading policy pushed through during the Bush Administration.

Because of the fact that NCLB set up a system that financially penalized schools for low test scores—pitting affluent schools against poor schools, requiring them to all achieve the same results regardless of starting points—millions of students were “left behind.”

Essentially, it was a case of if you can’t clear this bar, we will stop funding you. Obviously, the achievement gap between the haves and the have nots only widened.

As a result of the cuts in funding to “underperforming schools,” teachers in those schools began to go year after year with no pay raise. This led to a great deal more pressure put on teachers in these school districts.

New initiatives began flying around like swarms of bees. Professional development was ramped up and much more workload was put on teachers’ plates. All the while, salaries remained stagnant. The NCLB legislation was repealed in 2015, but the devastation it wrought remains ever present.

On a parallel timeline, in Indiana, the GOP-dominated state government pushed through property tax caps. Oh, how many of you out there rejoiced at that!

But public schools suffered the consequences. The reduction in tax funds caused many districts to plunge into a financial crisis. Superintendents were forced to become more politicians than educators as they had to go stump for referendums just to stay afloat. Some were successful and some were not. But in the end, it was the students and teachers who suffered.

By that time, it had become abundantly clear that the GOP’s agenda was to attack public education and push for tax voucher monies to be made available for families to send their kids to private or charter schools. School districts were forced to spend money on advertising campaigns to attempt to compete and recruit because students have become dollar signs.

All of this amounted to a not-so-subtle push for a new form of 21st Century segregation between the haves and have nots—not directly racial segregation, but that is, by and large, how it tends to shake out.

The financial crisis created by these policies has obviously taken a huge toll on students and teachers, but it hasn’t stopped there. Now we are in a full-blown crisis mode with regard to support staff as well. Instructional assistants, bus drivers, food service workers, custodial workers, and substitute teachers are all in critically short supply, as well.

In short, the GOP’s attack on public schools has worked very well. In fact, it has worked too well.

Now, even the architects of this disaster are being forced to face a very real crisis. There aren’t enough workers left who are willing to be abused by the system the GOP policies created to make it sustainable proposition. And there certainly aren’t enough private and charter schools to pick up the slack as this crisis worsens and public schools can no longer operate.

Oh yes, when push comes to shove, those lauded private schools will be faced with a lot of the students they’d prefer not to have knocking on their door.  

You can only push a teacher so far until they decide to look for another life path. Hell, we hear it all the time; “you teachers knew what you were getting into when you went into the profession, stop whining,” or, “if your job is really that bad, go do something else.”

Well, now here we are. Most teachers, in fact, did not know what they were getting into. An alarming number of them are going to do something else and there aren’t nearly enough out there waiting to fill the holes they are leaving. You can only push a teacher so far before they reach the end of their rope. 

You can only tax a system so much before it breaks into a million pieces beyond repair. We are steadily growing nearer to that breaking point. Sweeping systematic change must come swiftly or this nation’s education system will be left in ruins. 

Shane Phipps is a teacher and writer living in Indianapolis. He is the author of the historical novel, “The Carter Journals: Time Travels in Early U.S. History” (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015). Phipps also is a former education columnist for the Anderson (IN) Herald-Bulletin. He writes a political column for the popular national platform, Patheos, and created his own widely read blog called Inside Education with Shane Phipps.