Meet the Hungerford family

May 31, 2012

The corporate approach to school "reform" has reduced teachers to another line item to be slashed in the drive to balance the budget, explains Nicole Bowmer.

THERE'S A common denominator among the recent strikes by teachers' unions in Oregon, but before I continue, it's worth noting that I learned the term "common denominator" in a public school classroom that did not have 40 desks crammed into a space that was built to hold only 25.

Plus, it's worth getting some use out of the term before corporate-funded textbooks decide it's no longer needed in our global economy.

To connect many of the strike dots in Oregon, we need only to follow the Willamette River 13 miles south, from Portland to Oregon City. Known as "the end of the Oregon Trail," Oregon City is the destination of many school field trips. This makes it all the more ironic that it's also the home of the Hungerford Law Firm.

Nancy Hungerford, the matriarch of this family firm, has, along with daughter Andrea and son Brian, provided legal counsel to various school districts around the state, including three of the districts that recently faced strikes by teachers' unions.

At the 2009 winter conference of the Confederation of School Administrators, Nancy Hungerford offered an ominous presentation to administrators and potential clients. In a 12-page paper entitled "School district options in time of financial crisis," Hungerford outlined a number of initiatives by now all too familiar to teachers throughout the state and across the country:

Striking teachers picket outside Eagle Point High School
Striking teachers picket outside Eagle Point High School

-- Cut hours of current employees

Bargain collective bargaining agreements with little or no increase in salary and insurance contributions

Lay off staff

Contract out services currently provided by district employees

Change staffing schedules so that guaranteed minutes of prep time are placed outside the student day

Perhaps the most telling section of the document comes at the end with what Hungerford considers to be the guiding question for all of her recommendations. Since school districts don't exist without schools, and schools don't exist without teachers or students, it seems reasonable to think that this question would be something along the lines of: "How will these recommendations impact the ability of teachers to help students reach their full potential?" No such luck.

Unfortunately for teachers, students, their families and society as a whole, Hungerford looks at these issues through the lens of what's economical, not rational. Through an economic lens, teachers and school staff represent expenses, not investments, and the learning environments of students are just so much collateral damage.

So what is the guiding question, according to Hungerford: "Does this action violate any portion of the applicable collective bargaining agreement?"

FOLLOWING IN his mother's footsteps, Brian Hungerford was the co-author of a separate paper entitled "Bargaining over money in difficult times." This paper offered pros and cons of various tactics pertaining to salary and benefit increases as well as advocating for "language which provides the ability to unilaterally cut the employee work year."

The pros of cutting the employee work year include the rationalization that "reducing work days (and wages) preserves the integrity of the current salary schedule while reducing the district's expenditures for the year significantly."

So once again teachers are relegated to a line item on an expense spreadsheet, nestled somewhere between scrub brushes for the toilets and bags of nutritional flakes for the kindergarten goldfish bowl (unless, of course, teachers are expected to find the money for the fish flakes from their own shrinking paychecks).

In explaining the cons of a cut in hours and wages, the classroom is once again turned into collateral damage: "A reduction in the work year generally means at least some reduction in student learning time; even if the reduced days are staff development or preparation days, an impact on students will still be felt. Reducing days is not a long-term fix."

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of these documents is that we can only assume that the children of Nancy Hungerford graduated from law school, thanks to the benefits of their own learning environments. These benefits likely included adequate student-teacher ratios and instruction tailored to their learning styles because their teachers enjoyed adequate prep time.

And what did the Hungerford children do with all they learned? They grew up to help school districts eliminate those same benefits for today's teachers and students.

Or perhaps really the most ironic aspect of these documents is the fact that no long-term fix is even proposed. Not even one bullet point, let alone pages of pros and cons.

One recommendation could have been that large corporations plug the budget gaps in every school district in the state. Such a move is possible in Oregon--a recent study by the Oregon Center for Public Policy noted that 68 large corporations "paid no net income taxes in at least one of the years from 2008 to 2010--even as these companies together reported making almost $117 billion in pre-tax profits in the years when they paid no taxes."

Not so coincidentally, the legislature is currently underfunding school districts statewide by nearly $3 billion, according to the findings of the legislatively established Quality Education Commission.

SO WHERE is it possible to scare up $3 billion to fund public schools? According to legislatures, law firms and school boards, we should dig into the wallets, job security and well-being of the people teaching our children and maintaining our schools. But in a reasonable world, we would go to those 68 corporations--20 of which are Fortune 500 companies--that made nearly $117 billion, thanks in part to contributing no net income tax to the public coffers.

Why can't legislatures, law firms and school boards across the country choose what's reasonable over what's profitable? Because in a capitalist society, the first priority is profit. And when profit has its daily collisions with social needs, profit wins.

The focus on profits means that the government fully funds wars instead of fully funding schools, and it means profit-driven health insurance mandates trump a national health care program. It means profit-driven banks foreclose on homes instead of negotiating affordable terms, and profit-driven policies that unleash ecological devastation triumph, even in the face of scientific data that points out the tragically obvious.

One of many toxic byproducts of capitalism is that states bribe large corporations in order to lure them to a particular patch of land. Yet our experience in Oregon and across the country proves that these bribes, including income-tax waivers, benefit only a minority of people. Executive salaries and bonuses soar while non-executive jobs are shipped overseas for lower wages.

These bribes mean that small businesses barely breaking even pay income tax, while large corporations that rake in millions and billions are let off the hook. To add insult to injury, members of legislatures and school boards then attack striking teachers--not corporations--as the greedy ones.

Jay Schroeder sees it differently. Coming off an eight-day strike as an executive council member of Oregon's Eagle Point Education Association, he poignantly explained how greed has nothing to do with it:

I'm going to be honest with you. The teachers I work with are overwhelmed and under a great deal of stress. There's never enough time to do everything that needs to be done. More mandates are coming down from the state, and class sizes are ballooning. I currently have 196 students in my six classes. Ten years ago, this number would have been unheard of. Now, at Eagle Point High School, it's common. The teachers I know try to deal with this by stealing time from their families; they sacrifice their health, their marriages, and the role they could have in their own children's lives."

It's an elementary concept, meaning that most children can grasp it while far too many adults fail miserably: anything that benefits a minority at the expense of the majority is neither sustainable nor sane. Yet from the White House to state legislatures to local school boards, the system continues to operate as though profit margins deserve most of the cake, while our schools get some of the crumbs left behind.

To continue justifying and making excuses for a system that is neither sustainable nor sane is--in itself--neither sustainable nor sane. We deserve better, and every teacher, every child and every creature that walks, crawls and swims after we are gone deserves better. Changing this system will not happen overnight, but we are the common denominator to creating that change. It will require us to draw upon the resourcefulness, patience, creativity, assertiveness, humility, humor, imagination, courage and resiliency that we learned from our teachers.

It is up to us to educate ourselves, organize ourselves and work together to create a future where schools are understood as worthy of society's resources, and children are one of society's canaries. When they succeed, we succeed.

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