Information for parents of disabled children

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Good Day for Change!

Teacher's DeskImage by Pikaluk via Flickr

Obama set to take on Teacher's unions

Jonathon Martin writes on this morning that teacher's unions may not hold the sway they have in past years. There is no question that the unions back Dems at 90 percentile range almost across the board. It's also true they are party faithful working the campaigns across the nation, however, in a fit of principle, it appears the president may be going a different direction in calling for teacher accountability and year round school years.

From a special education standpoint, this could be big news. Students with disabilities at this moment have an option that is rarely used for extended school year services should they regress on a regular basis and at much faster rates than their typical peers, which most of them do. It is, of course, expensive. Moving away from the agrarian calendar we now use would change all of that for a great many students. Of course, this change would mean longer breaks in the middle of the year and would require adjustments on the part of parents. Some Sped students would still need ESY during long breaks, but I suspect a large number would retain better and progress farther should the change be implemented. Our family relies on school as childcare to keep us both working which means, for three months out of the year, I'm on the bench. Many families with special needs would be on board right out of the gate. Single income families on the spectrum are so often not that way by choice.

The calls for accountability could change things for the better as well. Having an incredible teacher is like getting hit by lightening; when it happens, you feel it. It's also about that rare. Great teachers are talented and lucky is the family that finds one, but good teachers just aren't the standard these days, in part because the standard pay doesn't meet the cost of education for teachers and in part because of the protection of the unions.

Many teachers stop school with a degree in mild disability, leaving the mild to severe range of students working with an extremely small pool. Professional development costs money and is often the first thing to go. Training is cut short. So calls for accountability must also address the concerns of the unions while not allowing them to dominate the conversation.

It's a surprising turn taking on the unions pet issues this way. Critics of unions cite the big money the lobby throws into the pot at election time, likening their opposition of reforms to the behavior of big oil or the coal industry. One such website aimed at "exposing" the unions is

They state on their site, "There is no disputing that America’s teachers unions -- in particular, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- are the most organized and powerful voices in education politics." As an involved parent, I find I can't dispute it. Our difficulties with Indiana special education find me often stumbling over the interests of the Indiana State Teacher's Association. I've even been warned not to take them on in a meeting because I "had no idea how powerful ISTA could be."

On the other hand, why do we have unions in the first place? The short answer is because education is steeped in local politics. Cronyism and closed door deals have dominated the entire institution, and unions were supposed to fight that. My observations suggest, however, that a union can become too locally politicized. This makes the union a prize to be sought in local elections which can be ugly and corrupt. Unions have a very specific function that may not be compatible with the goals of education. They may work well for individuals, but many, including myself, question whether they are good for society if education gets compromised along the way. Our president speaks the truth when he says we aren't competitive on the global stage.

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