Education News

Ohio Teacher Lobbies Capitol Hill for Workers’ Rights

Photo: Patrick G. Ryan/NEA

By Lance Fuller

Facing a full Congressional hearing panel, in front of a packed house, Ohio teacher Courtney Johnson took a seat Tuesday and methodically laid out how attacks on workers’ rights and cuts to education will affect her students.

“Ever-deepening cuts to our public schools send the dual messages to our kids that, one, it is not a priority that they get educated; and two, that we have given up on finding better solutions to our problems,” Johnson told the 23 members of Congress. “Many of us are not willing to send those messages, and I know that we are not alone. Just watch the news and you will see Americans are not ready to give up on our kids.”

Clad in red as part of the national Wear Red for Public Ed on Tuesday movement, Johnson spoke eloquently and passionately about how teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. The English teacher at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School in Columbus, Ohio, is a member of the Ohio Education Association.

She spoke at a hearing called by the House Democratic Outreach and Steering Committee, which focused on the recent surge of attacks on workers’ rights across the country. Johnson joined three expert panelists and four other public employees from Ohio and Wisconsin, all testifying about how legislation such as Ohio Senate Bill 5 and attacks on collective bargaining will hurt the economy and public education in the long run.  

Ohio’s bill came on the heels of what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started in his state when he introduced a so-called “budget repair bill” eliminating collective bargaining for public employees. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is pushing to pass Senate Bill 5, slashing collective bargaining for benefits for all public employees.

Although the legislation would permit union negotiations for wages, hours and working conditions, it would ban and eliminate binding arbitration and prohibit employees from going on strike.

Throughout her speech, Johnson cited numerous examples of how collective bargaining means more than salary and benefits to teachers; it allows students to have a voice in issues such as class size and standardized testing.

Johnson spoke of how without collective bargaining, students will be subjected to “drill and kill” preparation for standardized testing where her students will pass a test but, their creative thinking will diminish.  

“Unions protect the framework for problem solving, and represent the voice of the people, not big-government corporate interests,” Johnson said.

Not everyone can testify on Capitol Hill. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. Here are two things you can do in the next two minutes to aid Johnson and everyone else fighting for workers’ voices. First, take 30 seconds and sign up as an online volunteer on EducationVotes. Then, take 30 seconds and sign NEA’s National Petition for Workers’ Rights. You will help make the difference in this fight!

Full text of Courtney Johnson’s March 8, 2011, testimony to Congress:

The American way has always been one that includes a great deal of free spirit, enterprise and independence. And it has also included an aspect of compassion that few nations in history can rival.

Out of this compassion arose a public education system that attempts to do what no other has done before: provide an equitable education to every single member of society, without regard to race, gender, wealth, social status, or perceived lack of intelligence or ability. A system that has proven to be a great equalizer for millions as they strive to gain a level playing field in the game of life and in the pursuit of the jobs of tomorrow.

Even as a little girl in Ironton, Ohio, I knew my mother had this compassion—she cared about making an impact, and contributing to, bettering our little town – first as a social worker, then a teacher’s aide, and finally as a teacher.  Years later, when I followed her example and became a teacher, I realized my mother served something much greater than our little town.  My mother, my first teacher, was, and is, a teacher.  I still say those words with pride:  My mother is a teacher; I am teacher.  To be a teacher was a position of honor. Unfortunately, this perception no longer seems to be the case.

My friend Justin said recently, “aside from family and friends there will be no one who cares more about your child’s well being and future than a teacher…that I can promise you.” Collective bargaining lets your child’s teacher fight for them. We fight for smaller class sizes. We fight for professional development. We fight for art classes, physical education classes, and music classes. We fight for school nurses, and school social workers, and occupational therapists, and school libraries. We fight to be able to teach, not to teach to a test. We fight for technology that works. We fight to prepare your children for college and the world of work.   

 A new conversation is taking place all over the nation, and I fear for the New America we may soon become. Amid the growing battles we face to fund our schools the way they once were, I fear that we will be unable to preserve the equal opportunity, I fear that we will be unable to preserve the compassion that is America.

Well over a century ago, Mark Twain wrote some of the most astute and timeless observations of our society ever written. Amongst these he noted that he was living in what he referred to as a “Gilded Age” of America. One in which very few had a great deal, while the vast majority had very little.

The advent and strengthening of our public schools had a great effect on improving this disparity. However, we near a new gilded age, and now, in states like Ohio and Wisconsin we are on the verge of dismantling our public schools through unprecedented cuts in funding and the elimination of collective bargaining.

This puts us at a crossroads:

Do we want the dubious distinction of being the first generation to hand off a lesser America than the one we inherited? Do we truly want to leave our kids a world absent many of the opportunities we were afforded through a quality public education?

Have we lost that great compassion that made us an anomaly amongst nations? Have we lost all desire to look after one another, especially those who have such a small voice in this conversation: our kids?

Ever deepening cuts to our public schools send the dual messages to our kids that: One, it is not a priority that they get educated; and two, that we have given up on finding better solutions to our problems. Many of us are not willing to send that message, and I know that we are not alone. Just watch the news and you will see Americans are not ready to give up on our kids.

Undermining collective bargaining does not create jobs or reduce deficits.  It hurts our students.  The simple fact is that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.  We need to have a voice at the table so that we can speak up for what we know our students need.  We need a voice in decisions about school facilities and class size.  We have to be heard about the textbooks, materials, and technology our students are using and whether they are adequate to prepare them for the 21st century.  And, we must be in the discussions about how to ensure our students’ safety and the safety of everyone in the school environment.  If we are not at the table, our first-hand, real-world experience is not at the table, and our students are the ones who will lose.

Amongst the public school educators and policemen and firemen I stand in solidarity with today in my red for ed dress, everyone is scrambling to come up with ways in which we can continue to do more with less. But, not surprisingly, the concerns I hear are not only about salary and benefits:

A bright, recent graduate wonders if she should not become a teacher.

A beloved, veteran guidance counselor wonders if she should just get out now.

A talented student musician wonders if she will be able to make music with her peers during a hectic school day.

A friend of mind, now a professor at The Ohio State University, was fired from a non-union position in education because she was protecting, and advocating for, the rights of her students! Students like Thomas – a man with a developmental disability who dropped out of school in the 5th grade. He came up to me and handed me this card after my speech at the Ohio Statehouse rally last Tuesday and asked for MY help. He wants to get his GED. If not educators, I wonder who will speak up for him.

I teach a ninth grade humanities class – in my class music, art, history, and literature become one. The other day we were studying protest songs in connection with Animal Farm. We listened to John Lennon and Billie Holiday and Bob Marley and Neil Young. When the bell rang at the end of class, one of my students turned around and said, “I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE.” Finally, education made sense to her.

So I wonder, if not having a voice at the bargaining table, will usher in an extreme form of teaching to the test—because the mortgage may depend on it!  I wonder if we will stop the lesson, and return to “testable outcomes.”  I guarantee you my students will pass the test every year, but they won’t know anything. They won’t want to stay even after the bell rings. It’s called drill-and-kill for a reason; it kills creative thinking.  Our global economy requires creative thinking, our global economy requires citizens of the world.

We are the middle class, the public sector and the private sector together, are the middle class. We cannot allow the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana and New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Florida to shift the blame to the workers in an effort to put an end to collective bargaining – we have to remain a part of the conversation. The reality is that hard-working employees are not to blame for economic deficiencies of the state.

In the words of Mr. Twain: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”

The choice is ours.

14 responses to “Ohio Teacher Lobbies Capitol Hill for Workers’ Rights

  1. There is no middle class. Current employment opportunities include flipping burgers at MacDonald’s, doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals. The middle class manufacturing jobs are in China, enriching the bastard Communists who would just as soon kill us as do business with us!

  2. I applaud Courtney for this great stand for public school teachers! I just spoke up for us yesterday at a town hall meeting. We need to be heard!

  3. I agree with Mrs. Johnson. A teacher must have the right, and the ability, to stand up for what they believe is right for education. This is what TENURE really is. It is the ability to disagree with a superior on policy and curriculum. It is not the hope to defy a superior simply because you believe you can get away with it. It is the security of knowing that you can stand for what you believe is right for children. Let’s face it, the farther removed from the classroom one becomes the less their goals are like those of the teacher. All you need to do is look into the eyes of a child to see the hopes and dreams they have for their own futures. They do not care about all these political ranglings. They do not care whether my principal makes it into the district offices. What they do care about, (and are fully aware of), is whether I care. They know that I stand with them. They know I am trying to help them achieve the future they hope for. They know that at times I discipline them becasue they themselves stand in the way of their own future success. They know I will not stop caring about them even if it means pushing them when they don’t want to be pushed and this pushing causes them to be upset with me. In the absence of pushing elsewhere because parents are too busy being their child’s friend, I MUST go on the premise that the love for what I have done for them will be realized years from now when they look back on how their lives have turned out. When at my school the V.P becomes a counselor because we are too afraid of losing ADA, I must become even more creative in how to get the message and importance of education across to those who have no one else emphasizing it. I MUST have the ability to challenge the administration’s strategies– I MUST– when the strategies, curriculum, or ideas of a few are imposed on the many at the detriment of students– I MUST have the ability to speak without the fear of retribution. Because, if I do not, I will worry only about protecting my own family…my own kids. I believe in what I do passionately, and I know I am very good at it. However, two things come to mind: One, I cannot affect a child’s life if I am fired, and two, as a responsible husband and parent I must make sure I am doing all that I can to protect my own children’s future first and foremost.

  4. I want to thank Courtney Johnson for standing bravely before our nation’s Congress to make such poignant and dire points about our educational institution. No one but a teacher can comment factually about the state of our nation’s education, the damage that has been done to that institution, and the even greater damage that will be done, if our nation’s leaders continue to ignore the ‘real’ problems and, instead, foster the breakdown of an institution once revered throughout the world. Taking pop-shots at educators, and assuming teachers are letting our students down, is a very weak excuse for politicians to fall back on. We and these politicians know very well that corruption has leaked into, and seriously affected, the educational institution in a negative way. Think about this:

    Never, in the history of our nation’s educational system, have there been more qualified and informed educators. Years ago, teachers didn’t even need a degree to teach. At other times, they needed no more than 2 years of college. Today, most graduates walk away with a Masters Degree or dual certification. They are equipped with knowledged gained from decades of educational studies, new techniques, strategies, and resources which were unknown long ago, to educators. Further, technological advancements have empowered educators to offer broader realms of education in ALL academic fields. The list of advancements, improvements, and higher qualifications goes on, and on, and on.

    So, let our politcal leaders chew on that and ask themselves, “If our educators are so much more advanced than those years ago, and have the new educational advancements and technology to rely upon, then, where is our educational system going wrong?” Perhaps they’ll realize that, having these advancements means nothing if teachers are not equipped with what they need in order to use them.
    Add to that sad scenario the fact that a greater number of families are not involved enough to assure that children are applying themselves, and violence in the classroom is not being addressed assertively and with affective measures, in order for educators to have a safe and effective teaching environment. One student’s poor behavior can deter an entire teaching lesson, simply by creating constant outbursts, disruptions, and conflict – one of many problems facing educators. When that student returns every day to class, he/she knows that they hold the controls, enjoy it, and no matter what the consequences are that day, they’ll be back to take control again, because consquences mean nothing to them. Support from home is lacking; students fear nothing; and every other student in that class pays the price, academically.
    Social dynamics have changed drastically – that is no secret, yet it is ignored.
    ‘Waiting for Superman’ was a film that made people believe that our educational system was failing. The parents involved in that film are among a very small minority. (Seems that point was failed to be made.) Too many parents are not involved, don’t care about their child’s behavior, and often laugh at their antics. Administrators’ hands are tied, and they are limited with the options they have to control these children. As a result, other students start to follow along, and education becomes a battle zone for teachers who are there to do the job that they are passionate about.
    Perhaps law makers should consider laws that require parents to be more accountable for their child’s education and behavior in the classroom. After all, parents are supposed to be responsible for the ‘well-being’ of their child. Would it not border ‘negligence’ if a parent does not oversee and assure the education of their child(ren) in order to be afforded every opportunity for success in life? Would it not border ‘negligence’ if a parent ‘knowingly’ permits their child to grow to be a social problem, both in the classroom and on the streets? This is what it’s become, throughout our nation – parental indifference, and it has a profound and damaging affect on the outcome of the education of all other students who are there to learn. Teachers are in the classroom to teach – not to teach manners, to discipline, to nurse, to counsel, etc. while trying to educate an entire classroom full of students. This is a MAJOR problem in almost every state, and it, too, is being ignored.
    We signed on as teachers because it was, and is our passion. We would not remain in the profession, especially, given all that has come to light, recently – nation-wide, I might add (. . . hmmm, makes one wonder, doesn’t it)? What IS needed in education in order to ensure effectiveness and success, is being ignored. The road politicians are going down is the wrong one, and will not change the problems that need to be fixed. Someone at the top needs to wake up, take the lead, and BE the difference education needs in order for teachers to do what they know how to do best. No good can come from shooting arrows at us, wounding the very public servants whom everyone in this nation – including our nation’s leaders – have depended upon all of their lives.
    So, will someone ‘politically involved’ please deal with the problems intelligently, and call the facts as they are. Inventing false accusations will do no good for our educational institution, and surely will create the demise of not just the quality of education in America, but of a nation which once took great pride in its place among the nations of our world. Our current academic standing in the world is not . . . I repeat, IS NOT the result poor educators. It is the result of years of declining social standards which have carried over into classrooms, declining educational support from our government, currupt politicians, and drastic cuts made to support staff and resources which, more than ever before, are needed, given the conditions in society. Add to that, the growing diversity in our nation, resulting in multiple language barriers. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out the fact that educators need much more these day – not less.
    So, will some BRAVE politician please use the common sense and reasoning skills taught by an educator, and start speaking the truth, please, before we self destruct at the hands of greed? Someone needs to do the RIGHT thing, and address the real problems that are interfering with a teacher’s desire to proudly teach, and a student’s thirst for learning – PLEASE!

  5. The republicans created our financial mess by giving and continuing to give tax breaks to the wealthiest and businesses that leave our country. They have become billionaires while depleting our tax base. Make no mistake, we have as much money in the country, if not more, than ever; however, only a few control it now. Now to fix the problem, these republican law makers want to cut firefighters, police and teachers. I have an idea, why don’t we pay these politicians for performance such as bringing business back to the US, performance for all, not the wealthiest?

  6. I LOVE this speech. . . but is ANYONE really listening?????? (And by “anyone” I mean those in power to make the correct changes) And IF there is, will they be brave enough to stand up to the bullies that are destroying collective bargaining to save a few pennies? What about THEIR pensions or health care or salary raises??????? Once this bright young teacher loses her position in education, she should run for President. I for one will vote for her.

    1. Me too! I am proud to have such a woman as a colleague in our esteemed profession. There are few capable of speaking to the rights of teachers and students. I am grateful that she chose to speak for us.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree. We not only teach our students to be creative thinkers and problem solvers, but also nourish their emotional needs, as well. Many children have school as a place to feel free and safe to voice their opinons, fears, and issues that bother them. We (teachers) do not want drill and kill to teach these children how to past tests. We want much more. We want to help them cope with life as they grow older. We want them to problem solve difficult situations and have the desire to make things better for themselves. If we don’t nourish them, who will?

    1. I want to add to my post that while, yes, I barely gross over 60K a year, I spend most of my money, not only continnuing education (which I have to spend every five years out of my own pocket just to keep my license,) but I also spend hundreds of dollars each year making sure my students have the materials they need to learn. These include, coats, hats, clothes, shoes, food and school supplies. All the while, trying to support my own family. Do I really make so much money? No! What I do make is spent on making the lives of my students better! If they are worried about having tight shoes, ill fitting clothes, being hungry, and having no school supplies, they cannot think. Their families are facing tough times and this affects our students. Cutting our rights is not the answer. We work hard. Summers and vacation times are not a time for leisure. It’s a time to work on how to help my students learn while also attending to their emotional needs. It’s a time to take classes to improve teaching. If politicians could spend just a week following me around both day and night they would see how hard teachers work. Nights and weekends are spent working harder than ever. We are also trying to keep our own families together, because they see how hard we work and barely have time for their needs. Teachers do not have a 9-5 job. It is a 24/7 job all year.

  8. I agree 100% with this young teacher. My daughter will be going to school soon and like every parent I want the best for my daughter. When I drop her off or if she rides the bus I want to know that she will be ok. With what is going on in our country today I’m not sure if she will be ok. If these bills pass our teachers will have no choice but give up on each child and be like robots! Drill and Kill as they say will muffle our teachers voices for fear they will lose their jobs, turn them into robots so that the only thing our government wants them to concentrate on is standardized testing. What will happen to our children that pass all these tests with flying colors and then take the ACTs or SATs? Do the members of government recall reading comprehension on higher learning novels like Animal Farm? Do they even recall writting essays to get into college? Professors will teach them how to be an individual in the world but I think it will be much harder when our government has supressed that throughout the course of their childhood. Don’t give up on our kids!

  9. I applaud this very bright, courageous woman! I have taught for 29 years in Texas and just tonight fought for the same ideas and issues at our DAC meeting. God help our future…please listen to Mrs. Johnson! Drill-Kill will KILL..our society!

  10. We need reform in America it’s VERY CLEAR, but why is COngress and 1/2 of the America people dismissing the working class needs? Be inspired by this young teachers desire to work with our children, be inspired by her words. Thinking freely and having the opportunity to express your concerns is a privilege. Can we ALL look more honestly and critically about where our future is headed?! Please…

  11. Idaho teachers are facing the same education terrorism tactics from our Republican led Superintendent of Public Instruction and Governor. It’s no secret that Republicans fear and fight against labor unions and they really don’t seem to give a fig if our children are casualties in their power driven tirades.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *