Illinois School News

Volume 23, Number 66, September 25, 2017


To view the web version, click here.     

Mattoon teacher embodies educators’ ‘persona’

By Jim Broadway, Publisher, Illinois School News Service


A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to make a brief presentation and enjoy a wide-ranging conversation with a group of school district superintendents from central Illinois and points south. In explaining my affinity for educators, I reminded them of what an ennobling profession they have pursued.

I repeated a line I had often used with my three children as they were growing up – “You become what you do.” To be an educator is to be nurturing and protective of children. To be a hedge fund manager is to be an economic predator. Our repeated actions create and deepen brain pathways that, ultimately, define us.

It’s been reassuring to me that relatively recent neuroscience has validated the tactic I used to get my children to behave. But that’s nothing compared to last week’s heroism at Mattoon High School, an incident in which a teacher made national news by tackling an armed student in the cafeteria, certainly saving lives.

Math and P.E. teacher Angela McQueen saw a shooting incident unfold, subdued the shooter for the school security officer to disarm, and then went from student to student making sure everyone was safe and sound. She was nurturing. She was protective. She was the embodiment of a true educator’s persona.

It is no dimishment of Agela McQueen’s brave action to observe that her heroism is not very surprising. Although school shootings are rarer than many perceive, there have been several terrible incidents in the last couple of decades. In every case, teachers and administrators have shown bravery and protectiveness.

In 1997, before the advent of security officers in every school, it was Heath High School principal Bill Bond of Kentucky who disarmed a murderous freshman while “he was changing clips.” Teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado, and at Sandy Hool Elementary School in Connecticut, were brave too. Some died.

What Angela McQueen did last week in Mattoon was a continuation of educator heroism that has been evident in every such incident in memory, every armed outburst of deranged killers who chose schools as the location for their crimes. She charged at the shooter instead of running like a hedge fund manager for the exit.

There is a “persona” for every profession. Journalists (Sure, we have our own.) become exposed to all of them. People who “care for others” for a living – nurses, senior care providers, for example – also develop the brain pathways of nurturing and protectiveness. My advice to policymakers is this: Start acting like educators.

That advice applies especially to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who cynically announced that the Child Care Assistance Program is being broadened to add 16,000 children to the eligibility rolls – while neglecting to point out that it was his action in 2016 that had reduced the number of eligibles by 48,000.

Too little, too late,” said Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democratic candidate who hopes to defeat Rauner in next year’s elections. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between earning a living and being with their children,” Biss asserts on his campaign web site among his extensive statements of issue positions.

Rauner’s cuts to programs serving the vulnerable have been problematic for “the elderly, children and working families,” asserts a web site devoted solely to the purpose of illuminating such policy actions by the governor. Source documents are strong, but no posts seem newer than 2016 or so. Maybe he’s reformed.

But no, gazilionaire Rauner actually claimed to be helping low-paid workers when he vetoed SB 81, a bill to raise the minimum wage, incrementally, to $15/hour by 2022. Rauner cited a study of a Seattle minimum wage hike that, he said, lowered earnings and cost jobs. Fortune Magazine, however, called that study “utter B.S.

Similarly, he vetoed a bill that would make employer non-payment (theft) of more than $5,000 of workers’ wages a felony, instead of being merely a misdemeanor as it is now. In his message on the veto of SB 1720 (sponsored by Biss), Rauner said there is “little evidence” that the current penalty fails to deter wage theft.

Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy, also a Democratic candidate hoping to take Rauner’s job (and endorsed by ISNS to do just that), weighed in on the minimum wage issue right after the SB 81 veto a month ago:

“A $15 minimum wage is a step in the right direction to achieve economic freedom for all,” Kennedy said. He added that: “Research shows that raising the wage floor provides a boost to the economy, increases revenue, ends subsidies for large corporations, and most importantly, improves the lives of millions.”

Subsidies for large corporations? Yes, as Marilyn Katz, co-chair of Chicago Women Take Action, has reported, low wages paid just by fast-food companies and Walmart make their employees eligible for public benefit services costing more than $580 million annually and paid for by the state’s taxpayers.

“Rauner cannot be trusted to serve in the best interest of the people of Illinois,” Kennedy said. “He only works to benefit himself and his own economic class. During the budget impasse, Rauner threw millions of people off of government services – vital programs [such as the Child Care Assistance Program referenced above] that help the people of Illinois survive. Once again, he doesn’t want to help the people of Illinois move forward.”

Kennedy said 40% of Illinois workers are paid less than the target of $15 per hour, “with many of them earning closer to the current state minimum wage of $8.25, which has not changed since 2010. These workers are mainly women, people of color, middle-aged and elderly workers.”

The minimum wage bill is just one of thirty-seven substantive pieces of legislation that were passed by the legislature in the spring session only to be vetoed by Rauner. Three of them – SB 6, SB 9 and SB 42 – became law when three-fifths of each chamber voted to override Rauner’s action. These bills established the FY 2018 state budget, increased income taxes and revenues to pay for the budget, and modified other laws to implement the budget.

Two vetoes have been sustained: HB 2379 would have required fiscal impact statements to be attached to governors’ executive orders (as they are now attached to pending bills); and HB 2496 would have changed the processes for state employees union members’ to receive disability benefits. Both bills died.

That still leaves over thirty bills on which Rauner and a majority of both the House and Senate have disagreed. Their disagreements will be resolved, one way or another, for most of these measures when the legislators return to the CapitolOctober 24-26 and November 7-9 for their fall “veto session.”

Some of the bills affect educators directly: HB 2977 would mandate cursive writing instruction; HB 3298 seeks to ease the substitute teachers shortage [Rauner says ISBE is already addressing that]; HB 3745 would permit school boards to allow community organizations to advertise “events and after-school programs pertinent to students’ interests or involvement” that the organizations conduct in designated areas of a school’s campus.

Illinois has a “strong governor” constitution. The three-fifths majorities to override a veto are difficult to reach in spite of the large Democratic majorities in both chambers. But many legislators are leaving in frustration after 2018; that usually frees a legislator to vote her conscience rather than her caucus leader’s position.

Can teaching civics save democracy? The question is raised by National Public Radio, my primary source for news, in response to a study report drafted by researchers at Tufts University. The title is descriptive: “The Republic is (Still) at Risk – and Civics is Part of the Solution.” (Reminds me of “A Nation at Risk” back in ’83.)

The report cites statistics such as the findings of credible surveys indicating, for example, that only one American in five believes the federal government is telling us the truth “most of the time.” It cites the anti-government attitudes especially of the “millenials,” the generation soon to be in charge, running the show.

On the positive side, the researchers found reason for optimism in data showing that “STUDENTS WHO TAKE COURSES ON CIVICS, GOVERNMENT, LAW, AND RELATED TOPICS ARE BETTER INFORMED AND MORE LIKELY TO VOTE.” They describe six practices that, “when done well,” are “effective” remedies.

“When done well.” That’s the problem.

I won’t present the entire report for you. You’ll have to read it; it’s only 35 pages. But to go back to the original question, “Can teaching civics save democracy,” the answer you should be aware of, is “No!” The problem is not the subject of civics itself, but rather is how it is taught. I’ve seen a lot of this. It is awful.

Teaching the truth seems to be impossible. Democracy? We have more of a plutocracy. The Supreme Court decision on “Citizens United” made purchasing government – anonymously, even – the order of the day. At the national level and here in Illinois, it is the “golden rule”: Those with the gold are those who rule.

If the nation’s democracy is in jeopardy (and it is), and if today’s students are expected to fix the mess when they grow up (and they are), then they must be told the truth about the causes of democracy’s dysfunction. Civics class can’t be used by politicians who come in and tell the students how great they are. That won’t help.

How about “one man, one vote”? There are 13 states whose total population is about equal to Illinois; but they get 26 members of the U.S. Senate while Illinois gets only two. How about the Electoral College, the concession to slave states that, just last year, made a loser of the candidate with by far the most votes.

What does it mean to gerrymander? How does that create polarization? How can it be undone? What are the chances that it will ever be undone? Can you make the students understand – or even be interested in – the complex and arcane topics that are the barnacles on the ship of state, on our democracy?

Perhaps before video games. But not now. It’s over, folks.

ISNS archives back through 2015 are available again for subscribers. You remember the process. Go to this web page, click the “Subscribers-only” link and type the secret password – which has been changed to: madigan (yes, all lower case). Remember, this is a secret, just between us insiders, so don’t go blabbing it around. Thanks. – Jim

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