Saturday, April 15, 2017

Drawing Board of Education

Your kids may be on spring break, but here at Bergetoons, it's Back-to-Schoolback Saturday.

I started my editorial cartoon career forty years ago by drawing about our education system — a topic of interest to me since I was still in school at the time. The 1970s in my hometown were marked by union strikes interrupting every other school year, starting with a custodians' union strike in 1970. Most of the strikes lasted a couple of weeks, but a teachers' strike my senior year lasted 50 days — starting in January and lasting all the way through February and into March.

With plenty of time on my hands, I took ballpoint pen to paper and drew the next two cartoons, my first editorial cartoons to be printed in an honest-to-goodness daily newspaper. (Caricatured on the left of this first one is union negotiator Jim Ennis, who had a conveniently round face; on the right is school board negotiator Thatcher Peterson, who didn't.)

To make up for lost school days once classes finally resumed, the district scheduled classes on Saturdays and extended the school year until June 30. We seniors were graduated weeks earlier, however, in order for schools to send our records to colleges and universities on time. It also gave us a slight edge getting summer jobs.

Racine's experience with teachers' strikes was hardly unique. Between 1969 and 1974, there were 50 teachers' strikes in Wisconsin, most notably the 1974 strike in Hortonville, during which the school district summarily fired 86 of its 88 teachers; townsfolk formed vigilante groups against the union members, and the union leader was hanged in effigy from the town water tower. Teachers unions from around the state sent members to support the Hortonville strikers, but to no avail. The Hortonville teachers appealed their firing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found in favor of the school district.

I've encountered quite a few people locally whose sour opinion of labor unions is directly a result of  those days. A  jaundiced view  of schools and a reluctance to fund them adequately, on the other hand, predates the union issue. Funding schools through local property taxes makes sense from the point of view of having community-wide support of a community service, but it does require convincing property owners who have no children in school of the value of other people's education.

My generation went through four years of "split shift" middle schools because the community hadn't built enough schools to accommodate the baby boom. Even after we were graduated out of the system, voters only very grudgingly voted to repair or replace older schools that were literally crumbling to pieces.

Sex education has always been a thorny issue for schools. How much information is too much? How much education is not enough?

Sex Ed has been one factor pushing some parents to take their kids out of the public schools; not wanting their kids taught science is another. It furthermore stands to reason that children do better in schools where the whole class is motivated and all parents are invested in the kids' education. Public schools must teach the talented and the indifferent alike, whether the parents have the time or inclination to get involved or not.

Along the way, private school parents have become convinced that it's not fair that they should still have to pay for public schools as well as their private tuition. Thus arose the idea that kids going to private schools should be entitled to public tax dollars, too; its proponents gave their voucher programs the name "School Choice."

The above cartoon fairly encapsulates one of the problems I have with subsidizing private schools. But when I was drawing for the Business Journal of Greater Milwaukee, their editorial stance was firmly in favor of school choice, and they occasionally wanted cartoons that reflected that viewpoint. It can be a good exercise every once in a while to try one's hand at drawing a cartoon with which one disagrees, although I wouldn't recommend making a career of it.

Along came Scott Walker and Republican control of all levers of state government after the 2010 elections. Recognizing them as the last institutional support of the Democratic party, teachers' and other public employee unions were the Republicans' first target. Koch brothers radio and TV ads stoking public resentment of public sector workers. For 30 years, private sector workers had seen their jobs sent overseas and their wages, at best, stagnant. The students of Hortonville and all the other stricken schools in the 1970s were now all grown up and ready to pay those teachers back.

With Republicans now in charge of all levers of the federal government, this will become a national issue yet again. I just posted this last cartoon only a month ago, but I think it's worth another look, since mercurial American President Donald Trump hasn't flip-flopped on subsidizing private education.


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