Here's a golden oldie. See if you remember it. "Teachers shouldn't complain about their pay. They make more than the average worker. When they retire, they live off their generous state pensions. And look at all that vacation time they get. Their cushy pay and perks come courtesy of the teachers union which squeezes money out us taxpayers while it protects bad teachers and doesn't give a damn about the kids."
Did I leave anything out? I don't think so. I know the talking points by heart. I heard them every year when teacher contract time rolled around. The anti-teacher rhetoric grew louder and more frequent over the years as conservatives ramped up their anti-tax, anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-government agenda. The bashing of high paid teachers and their mercenary union became a year round mantra.
Funny though. I haven't heard those talking points much during the past few months. You'd think if there was ever a time to pull out the big "lazy, overpaid teachers" guns, it would be now, what with the demands for higher teacher salaries rolling from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona. Why did all the conservatives stop using what had always been a sure fire winner?
It looks like they got the memo. Literally. A three page memo
titled "Messaging Guide: How to Talk about Teacher Strikes" was put out by the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization that pulls together ideas from conservative think tanks and disseminates them to member organizations in all 50 states.
The memo begins by telling conservatives to ditch the "pampered teacher" line.
"A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc. This is a time to sympathize with teachers."
In other words, "We've been out-messaged. We're busted!" All the lies about pampered teachers don't work anymore. Those crafty teachers took unfair advantage by using actual evidence to prove they're underpaid and schools are underfunded. Bummer!
Oh, and don't bring up school choice, another standard conservative answer to anyone who complains about public school salaries and funding.
"It is also not the right time to talk about school choice — that's off topic, and teachers at choice-schools are often paid less than district school teachers."
Ix-nay on the Oice-chay, got it?
So how should conservatives go about bad-mouthing schools and teachers?
Here are the three approaches the memo suggests:
1. When teachers go on strike, they hurt kids, especially low income kids.
2. Red tape and bureaucracy eat up money that should be going to teacher salaries.
3. Only good teachers deserve to be paid more (but don't use the term "merit pay").
Gov. Ducey is on message. Here he is on talking point number one, that a teacher strike hurts kids: “No one wants to see teachers strike," he said recently. "If schools shut down, our kids are the ones who will lose out."
Compared to Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Ducey's comment is understated. Bevin began by bashing every teacher who went out on strike. "Real teachers…want to teach their children." Then he went in for the kill. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them." Bevin was forced to apologize for that last comment.
Before #RedforEd got going, Ducey liked to use talking point number two, that the state has given school districts plenty of money, they just decided not to spend it on teacher salaries. A recent article in the Star
quotes Ducey using that argument early in his governorship.
[Ducey] used his first State of the State speech in 2015 to blame school districts for spending “far too much on administrative costs” instead of directly on instruction.
The article goes on to debunk the idea that there's a direct link between administrative costs and teacher pay.
Ducey used it again in early 2017, when he blamed superintendents for not putting enough of the generous allotment they get from the state into teacher salaries. But now that he admits teachers deserve a 20 percent raise, he's stopped saying districts just don't know how the spend the money they've been given.
Two weeks ago, Matthew Simon, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute chimed in on talking point two in a long post on G.I.'s blog asking "Who Is Really Responsible for Teacher Pay?" His answer: Local school boards and superintendents. They have plenty of money to pay teachers but decide not to. Blame the districts, not the state.
I haven't heard people using the third talking point much lately, that only the best teachers deserve raises, but for me, that one's the most fun, because that's where I found out that some of the players in the memo are from Arizona.
The merit pay section begins, "Rock star teachers deserve rock star pay." I only know one guy who loves the phrase "rock star teachers." That's Matthew Ladner, who coined it when he was the education guy at the Goldwater Institute. From there he moved to a research position at Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, then to his most recent position as senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.
Back when he was at G.I., Ladner had a great idea. He said, let's get rid of all the mediocre-to-bad teachers. We'll hire "rock star teachers," give them six figure salaries and let them teach 40 to 50 students at a time. He figured every student would get a top flight education from the super teachers, who, said non-teacher Ladner, could handle all those kids no problem. Kind of like a superstar rock band takes charge of a fan-filled arena.
When I saw the phrase "rock star teachers" in the memo, I thought, there must be a Goldwater Institute connection somewhere. Sure enough, one of the two people responsible for the memo is Starlee Coleman. She is Senior Policy Advisor at G.I., and she was around in Ladner's day. I know that, because she had to justify an absurd statement Ladner made back then, which I ragged him about mercilessly.
Ladner stated there is "an almost 1-to-1 teacher to bureaucrat ratio" in Arizona school districts. He arrived at that figure by saying every non-teacher is a bureaucrat—every bus driver, every custodian, every cafeteria worker. They're all bureaucrats according to Ladner. I wrote post after post laying into his "Bus drivers are bureaucrats" statement. Finally I wrote to G.I. to find out if it stood by Ladner's assertion. I received a letter from Starlee Coleman—then Starlee Rhoades—standing by G.I.'s man. According to Rhoades/Coleman, "We believe the term bureaucrat accurately describes many of the employees in question and is a fair use of the term." Thereby proving that the very intelligent, highly paid people at the Institute will say anything, then double down on it, if it "proves" their point.
Ladner' assertion made it into the memo, though in a less ridiculous form. Under the heading, "Ideas for customized messaging," the memo tells people how to "Address the role of red tape and bureaucracy":
"In most states, administrators and other non-teaching staff vastly outnumber teachers, and the numbers have been sharply on the rise in recent years [INSERT STAT ON ADMINISTRATIVE BLOAT IN YOUR STATE.] We need to take a long hard look at all these jobs and make sure that the majority of our school funding is going to teachers and students — where it belongs — not red tape and bureaucracy."
State Policy Network, which put out the memo, gets funding from a number of donors ranging from conservatives like the Koch brothers to corporations wanting to use its network to spread their message, like Philip Morris, Kraft Foods and GlaxoSmithKline. Not surprisingly, the Goldwater Institute is an SPN member.