The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Holding my nose

The national war over American public education is playing out right in our backyards. A recent article in the Boston Globe reveals that the last surge of spending in what was a ridiculously expensive mayoral race here in Hub was from the AFT.

The American Federation of Teachers confirmed Friday that it was the donor behind One Boston, a mysterious political action committee that paid for a $480,000 television commercial supporting Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh during the final days of the Boston mayoral race.

The national teachers’ union exploited discrepancies in state-by-state campaign spending disclosure laws to anonymously fund nearly a half million dollars worth of advertising on behalf of Walsh.

Full disclosure: I am a member of AFT Local 66, the Boston Teachers Union. In the mayoral race, I absolutely supported Walsh over Connolly. It wasn’t so much that I liked Walsh and his policies, but that I was vehemently opposed to Connolly’s corporate-influenced agenda for education reform.

Better the “able steward of the status quo” as the Globe painted Walsh, than a pro-charter, pro-standardization, “reform” candidate like Connolly. So, in the absence of any of my preferred candidates (Arroyo, Barros, and Golar-Richie all lost in the preliminaries), I decided to hold my nose and vote for Walsh.

Part of me wonders if I actually managed to pick the lesser of two evils. I am adamantly opposed to money having an outsized influence on politics, especially national money on local politics, and especially especially money that forces a false choice between two distasteful alternatives.

No single entity — union or corporate — should be able to unilaterally influence public policy in this way, especially with such a lack of transparency.

And at least Connolly called for a moratorium on outside money (an offer that Walsh refused).  So I can’t say I approve of where my dues are going or how I am being represented (not that I really have a choice… membership is mandatory).

On the other hand, what is AFT to do? Since Citizens United, so much money is now flowing into races around the country, much of it from sources that are seeking to control public policy for private (and corporate) gain. Should the defenders of public education, flawed as they may be, simply stand by and watch as Boston becomes the next bloody front in the national reform war… like Chicago, New York, DC, and New Orleans? I reluctantly see ground for AFT to argue “how could we not”.

As a broad generalization, I think I’d rather have union (ergo middle/working class) control over policy than corporate (ergo wealthy) control over policy. But what kind of choice is that?  At the root, I think what most disgusts me is the frustration of knowing that political process, from local to federal, is no longer truly accountable to the people. Why should I have to hold my nose when voting between two ugly alternatives in the first place?

Restoring faith in government, and by extension faith in the social contract, is going to be a long road if we are to recover ourselves. I’m for making that long march, but it’s not going to be easy.

Tradeoffs – Or: Exhibit A on Why We Should Pay Teachers More

Excerpt from a conversation with a coworker here at NASA Dryden, in my personal opinion one of the smartest people we have. Note that he knows I’m considering a career opportunity, but he doesn’t know at this point what it is. I presume the assumption is that I am going for another engineering-related position.

So, two rocket scientists were walking down the tarmac…

Me: Yeah, I’m still thinking about it. It’s a tradeoff. I really believe in the mission of the organization, but I just want to make sure I’m not doing something stupid. It would be a lot less pay, and I don’t know what to do about the house and all my stuff. It’s a lot to give up.

Coworker: I say go for it, if you think you can do it. That kind of passion for something greater, that’s worth so much more. Like, one time, I was thinking about teaching you know? Math. I would love that. I know I could help students learn to love it like I do.

Me: Why didn’t you?

Coworker: I have to support my parents now. There’s no way. Even if I didn’t have that, you know, it would be nice to support a family. I had this one math teacher… made Calc fun and understandable. I wish I could do that. But yeah, there’s no way. I could go into engineering which is so much more secure, so yeah, it made no sense to go teach.

So… yeah. Do we need to pay our teachers like rocket scientists? Maybe, maybe not. The better question is: what would a rocket scientist teaching and mentoring your kids every day for a school year be worth to you?

I’m single, debt-free, and without dependents; futhermore, I have the academic qualifications and work experience to return to engineering if teaching really doesnt work out. Though I would be giving up a lot to do this, I can actually seriously consider it without having to make these kinds of tradeoffs. Should highly qualified people who want to teach have to pit their desire to make a difference against the material security of their families?