Holding Students Hostage


There's no denying that teachers across the region are being squeezed by the tightening budget vise gripping local governments. Many have forfeited scheduled pay increases and face the threat of furloughs and cuts in materials and extracurricular activities. Frustration, even anger, is to be expected, but some educators are responding with behavior bordering on the unprofessional. Consider the outrageous quid pro quo in Montgomery County. Some teachers will prepare college recommendations only if students write to local or state legislators urging higher taxes to pay for salary increases and school programs. This, incredibly, is being passed off as a lesson in civic responsibility.

In Baltimore City, teachers marched on City Hall to protest Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal to ease the city's financial crunch by cutting a week of school. In Anne Arundel County, the teacher's union has cavalierly opened its members to layoffs by refusing to accept pay cuts in any form. In Prince George's, teachers are protesting furloughs and other cuts by refusing to tutor students before school or during lunch, grade papers at home or write letters of recommendation for seniors. A similar ban on "extra" services has been underway in Howard County for months.

V. Thomas Gray III, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association, admits the fiscal crisis is real, but says too few people are willing to admit the state's tax structure is inadequate. "It's been a cut-and-slash mentality rather than a rethinking of the whole thing," he said. True, but governments run on revenues, not rhetoric. Today's challenge is managing local school systems on available funds. Screaming for higher taxes doesn't pay salaries. Neither does holding college letters hostage for political action or refusing to tutor needy students.

Teachers are quick to point out that they and students stand together, that both are being hurt by budget cuts. Yet in Prince George's, where students are protesting about outdated books, the school union had asked the board of education to cut, among other things, funds for classroom materials and equipment!

Education is and should be near the top of government priorities. Teachers have as much right to protest cuts as any other group -- up to the point where it impacts students. But there must be a recognition that when the region is in a deep recession, everyone -- including teachers -- has to be willing to accept personal sacrifices. As the chairman of the Prince George's school board put it, "I'm sorry we had to do it and I'm sorry our employees had to be hurt. But it's not as painful as losing your jobs." In today's troubled economy, averting layoffs is a considerable achievement.

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