Divided we fall.

In the U.K. teachers and public servants are having their superannuation slashed, a measure taken in the name of reducing government spending (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/30/us-britain-strikes-idUSTRE75T2MF20110630). In America, the Governor of Wisconsin has removed collective bargaining rights for teachers and public sector workers (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41996994/ns/politics-more_politics/t/wis-governor-officially-cuts-collective-bargaining/), and some U.S. counties have cut school weeks down to four days, all in the name of reducing budget costs (http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/30/four-day-school-week-passes-in-florida/ ). Here in Australia, the state government of Victoria has already followed the lead of the U.S. and Canada and introduced ‘para-proffessionals’ into classrooms (effectively unqualified teachers paid at a lower rate – http://www.education.vic.gov.au/hrweb/careers/teach/paraprof.htm ), while here in NSW the newly elected state government has passed a legislative amendment that will cap pay increases for teachers and public sector workers, and limit the power of the Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate pay negotiations between public sector unions and the government, effectively removing its’ status as the ‘independent umpire’ of the NSW Industrial Relations system (http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/nsw-govt-to-push-through-ir-bill-critics-20110601-1ffkv.html ). Their justification? Costs and the need to reduce government spending. All of this is happening while the Australian Federal government pursues policies of increased standardised testing, which is historically shown to be the first step towards the process of privatising public schools based on test results, a policy implemented in various forms in the U.S. and U.K. years ago, and largely proven to be a failure in terms of the ability to improve educational outcomes, but a success in reducing costs in public education (Search Google for ‘charter schools success or failure’ for that one…).


The NSW Government have also opened up discussion on a policy called ‘local schools, local decisions’ which ultimately seeks to hand control over to staff hiring and firing over to school principals rather than have a state office manage staffing for all schools and ensure every classroom has a teacher. The government even said they wanted teachers to hold off on negotiating a new award agreement until this consultation could be completed in the hope that the policy would identify ‘cost savings’ to be incorporated into the new award. In education cost savings can only come out of reduces resources, reduces facilities, and either reduced teacher numbers or reduced teacher pay.


There are two common links in all of these stories. Firstly, that all these measures have been implemented by pro-business, conservative governments, and secondly that when public services are the targets of government spending cuts, Education seems to be the first in line, and often hit the hardest. Why? Probably because in most western countries education , makes up the biggest government sector in terms of wages, facilities, superannuation, etc. Small percentage changes in education costing can save millions, and if those savings come from recurrent funding such as salaries, that’s millions per year. As an example, a 1% pay increase for NSW teachers in 2012 would be worth more than 60 Million a year. Not a lot in the grand scheme of state or national budgets, but a 5% cut in teachers salaries, or even holding salaries back over a couple of years while inflation marches forward and raises tax revenue 3-4%, and you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in recurrent funding being available for other, more PR friendly public works.


Then there’s also the growing sentiment of anti-unionism among most levels of government. The more cynical commentators have looked at the long term outcomes of educational policies in the US and UK and noted that educational standards haven’t changed dramatically, even spending hasn’t dropped all that much, but with schools privatised and teachers on contracts, suddenly union membership has dropped and so has the scale of collective action against poor policy decisions that affect education.


So from this perspective, either the policies had educational goals and failed to meet them, or had financial goals and made some headway but not nearly enough, and the impact on unionism was either an unexpected consequence of the failure to achieve educational and budgetary goals, OR decreased unionism was the primary purpose of these policies and the educational and budgetary goals were little more than smoke and mirrors to make the policies seem palatable to the voting public.


What do you think?


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