A second letter to WBEZ.

24 Jul

(WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton—the recipient of my open letter from last week—responded today. She requested that I not include her comments. I will say that she was measured and fair in her response, although she and I have some strong disagreements. I’ve included my response.)

Hello, Linda.

And thank you for responding. I’m going to put up our give and take on my (admittedly meager) blog, so that people can follow along, comment, and so on. I like that we can have a back and forth. If you want me not to include your response(s), please let me know and I’ll take them down.

I actually have dug through a lot of your educational reporting over the last nine months or so. You do good work. And, I’m sorry for conflating you and Vevea. When I went to the story page, it listed both of your names. Obviously, much of my criticism should have been and is aimed at Becky. (Her story was egregiously, almost viciously, biased.) That was a mistake, and for that I’m sorry. However, I feel like you both were biased against the teachers union on simplistic grounds. I feel like the quotes you chose, the way you framed the story—for instance, emphasizing that the teachers’ union didn’t take long to reject the arbiter’s findings, and if I remember correctly you returned to this point during the discussion—seems unfair.

In the conversation section, I do think you highlighted the average teacher salary in a disingenuous way. I don’t know any teachers who make $70,000, save for perhaps one or two old-timers who’ve been in the system for a long time. Most teachers make in the $50-60 thousand a year mark. (I’m not counting the pension pickup.) This is hardly rich, and to my way of thinking a solid middle class income. (I think of myself as a writer first, lived off $12,000 a year for four years in a row, and I think teachers get paid pretty well, actually.) I think everyone who wants to work should be able to have a living wage; good healthcare; and a reliable retirement. Re-aligning our national tax structure—including marginally raising taxes on people like me—would help towards this goal. I think comparing the public and private sectors is absolute nonsense. In times of prosperity, the private sector does much better than the public, and in some sense people work for the state and federal government for these baseline protections. Do we get to say, when there’s an internet boom, “Look how well those silicon valley dudes are doing; we should be overnight millionaires, too!” Of course not. We’re the tortoises, economically speaking, in the rat race, and we are not greedy for wanting to stay middle class. Let the hares run wild with their scheming. We just want to be able. In some sense, teachers and other public sector employees choose to be sensible. In good times we do okay; in bad times we do well.

But you must concede this fact: there are no rich teachers. (There are some rich administrators.) $70,000 a year is not rich in this country. As I said above, it’s a good wage, but it is not rich. But what constitutes a living wage is, up to a point, subjective. In an ideal world, I think the pay should be higher, partially to attract even better candidates to the field, although most public school teachers I know are sharp, dedicated professionals.

What isn’t subjective is the mayor’s role in all of this, and in this discussion, Emanuel got a pass. He created this crisis. He pushed for something he can’t afford, hasn’t budgeted for, and, frankly, hasn’t thought through. The longer school day creates major staffing issues; I have a masters degree, and under the longer school day I have to oversee two recesses. I don’t mind, I don’t have pride in this sort of thing and like to be helpful, but it is a profound waste of my experience and skill-set to run a recess. But I have to, because we don’t have the staff. (We also don’t have band, orchestra, any second language teachers, and so on.) Without new enrichment courses, or a well-thought out roll-out of the longer school day, it’s just a political game. I think you would admit that the mayor doesn’t seem particularly worried about individual CPS students. He wants to look tough, decisive; he wants to look like he’s changed things for the better. Fine, but this is not the way to do it. And with two of the longer school day pilot schools scoring worse, well, there’s data supporting the union’s claim, which is, let’s have a longer school day, if we can staff it properly, use the time wisely, and pay for it.

I know the story was short, although with the conversation afterwards, the story was long enough to get into some of the other issues. You brought up the educational reformers. But you didn’t report on them. You didn’t tell us anything about them. If I didn’t know better, I would have left the story feeling that there are these great, enlightened thinkers out there with answers to how to fix education without an agenda, but Chicago school teachers just don’t give a damn because they’re greedy. This is unfair, and a misrepresentation of the facts.

I acknowledge, finally, that the union could indeed bend/compromise on some issues, including tenure as it stands (we have to have some bulwark against administrators firing people because they don’t like or agree with them, but it could be a touch looser); some type of pension reform (I’ve read in multiple places that Illinois pays a large matching rate into every public sector pension and this is a big part of the state’s budget crisis); and even annual pay increases (I like them, but we could discuss). I want fair reporting and balanced coverage. But the mayor tried to circumvent the existing system by fiat. His logic is simple. He wants a longer school day, and damn the torpedos, we’re going to have one. Who cares what teachers think?

I guess I feel like both or your stories had enough space in them to include subtle and not so subtle critiques of the union’s position, but did not have enough time to comment on the mayor’s intransigence, which, even to his supporters, is quite severe.

Returning, finally, to your past reporting, I feel that if you objectively scrutinized this piece—including Becky’s report and the subsequent discussion—it would not meet your journalistic standards. It feels like you let some personal anger over what you perceive to be inflated teacher pay, or perhaps a bias against public sector unions, color your story.

Teachers have been demonized enough. Let’s dig into some of the other levers/causes/issues surrounding student performance. Let’s take the mayor to task for creating a crisis.

Thanks again for responding.


One Response to “A second letter to WBEZ.”

  1. Matt July 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    Well said Ben. Keep up the good work.

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