Teachers’ democratic rights under attack in US

By Isabelle Belanger
22 October 2010

The following article was written by a public school teacher in western New York.

Public school teachers are not only being scapegoated for low test scores and hit with wage and job cuts, they are also facing an increasing assault for exercising their basic democratic rights while off the job. There has been a steady and alarming rise in the number of teachers being persecuted for activities conducted during their personal time under the guise of protecting children from immoral influences.

This includes penalties and termination for consuming or purchasing alcohol while off duty, expressing frustrations over work-related issues on social networking websites, voicing or participating, outside of the work place, in political activities such as serving as an escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

The victimization of teachers for such “offenses” is inseparable from the attack on public education being spearheaded by the Obama administration. Political and school authorities who have no moral qualms about stripping children of the right to decent education insist that teachers uphold arbitrary moral standards or face the loss of their jobs.

Officials are fishing for any excuse to destroy the hard-won right to tenure and job security, which opponents of public education have long denounced as the greatest obstacle to firing “bad” teachers. Secondly, the arbitrary dismissals are being used to restrict free speech and regiment teachers, and will ultimately be used to intimidate opponents of the attack on teachers and the right to public education.

There is the now famous story of Ashley Payne, the Georgia teacher who was fired from her job after she posted summer vacation photos on her Facebook page, several of which showed her sitting with beer or wine glasses nearby or in her hand, but none depicting signs of intoxication or illegal activity. In addition, an obscenity was found on her page. For these reasons alone, she was called into her principal’s office and told she had to resign immediately.

Then there is the case of the Florida teacher fired after photos of her in a bikini surfaced on a website that also revealed she worked a part time job as a “bikini girl” for a charter fishing boat outfit. She defended herself, stating that she worked the second job because her teaching job did not pay enough, but she was fired from her teaching position anyway.

Another teacher was suspended for 30 days from her job, without pay, when a photo of her surfaced on Facebook taken at a bachelorette party. What is most alarming about this incident is that the teacher did not even post the picture herself, but rather it was posted unbeknownst to her on a friend’s page. Then there is also the case of a non-Catholic teacher, hired in Catholic school in Sacramento, California. Although hiring practices maintain that teachers do not have to be Catholic to teach there, this particular teacher was fired when a parent of a student noticed the teacher serving as an escort for clientele at a Planned Parenthood clinic on a Saturday morning.

Similar attacks are occurring in other countries too, including Britain, where the General Teaching Council was ostensibly created “to contribute to improving standards of teaching and the quality of learning, and to maintain and improve standards of professional conduct among teachers, in the interests of the public.” The Council, which was immediately unpopular with teachers in the UK, was nevertheless forced upon teachers, who were required to sign up and follow its mandates. Since then, teachers have found themselves in the position of being charged with immoral conduct by members of the public, for everything from drinking in public establishments, to modeling nightwear as a second career. Like teachers in America, they are often encouraged to resign their positions immediately, to avoid a prolonged and embarrassing public trial, where their careers suffer more damage than if they had just resigned.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rules of moral conduct were imposed on American teachers that appear absurd in light of contemporary values, beliefs in the separation of church and state, and how we view ourselves as members of a democratic society. Here are a few examples taken from the Rules for Teachers published in 1872 (courtesy of the Portage County Historical Society in Wisconsin):

Likewise, New Hampshire published its own rules for teachers in 1915, which repeat, in so many words, those listed above, but also included a few other interesting restrictions:

Many may laugh at these restrictive and ridiculous rules, but they were only overturned through great social struggles. New Jersey became the first state to pass tenure legislation when, in 1910, it granted fair-dismissal rights to college professors. The suffrage movement of the 1920s and the mass labor struggles of the 1930s, led to the extension of such rights to elementary and high school teachers.

However, during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, hundreds of public school teachers were forced to resign and were blacklisted after refusing to sign “loyalty oaths,” inform on other teachers, or simply because of their political beliefs. According to FBI records, from 1951-1955, the FBI disseminated derogatory personal and political information to the employers of more than 400 public school teachers and college professors. The cost to the victims of the McCarthyism was not only economic and professional; consider the example of Minnie Gertrude, an unassuming public school teacher who took her own life in 1948, after being questioned by investigators about her politics and being threatened with insubordination when she refused to cooperate.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, teachers pushed back intrusive rules and arbitrary victimization, through job security protections gained in the course of militant trade union battles. Since the 1980s, however, the teachers unions have worked hand-in-hand with the two big business parties to undermine gains made by teachers. This has culminated in the open collaboration by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association with the Obama administration in the greatest assault on teachers and public education in history.

The intrusive attack on teachers’ private lives prompted one educator to write on a teachers’ blog: “I live far away from…friends and family and Facebook has been a great way…to share…what’s going on in our lives. But since I’m held to some imaginary higher standard, I’m not allowed to have my Facebook page? No wonder our best and brightest are going into other careers. Work incredibly hard, don’t get paid enough, be responsible for curing all of society’s ills, and be held to a standard that no one else can live up to. Yep, that’s being a teacher!”

While one naturally laughs when reading the rules imposed on teachers a century and more ago, perhaps we should think about the rules being imposed on teachers today, and how they might look to a reader 100 years from now:

Teachers cannot hope to have their rights, nor their wages and benefits, protected by either of the two major political parties, nor by the corrupt unions, which claim to represent them. Rather, they should fight to build a political movement of the entire working class for socialism in order to restore dignity and democratic rights, and a decent living wage and benefits, to all educators.