The Math Forum

Search All of the Math Forum:

Views expressed in these public forums are not endorsed by NCTM or The Math Forum.

Math Forum » Discussions » Policy and News » mathed-news

Notice: We are no longer accepting new posts, but the forums will continue to be readable.

Topic: Unappreciated - IL public workers face a morale crisis
Replies: 0  

Advanced Search

Back to Topic List Back to Topic List  
Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Unappreciated - IL public workers face a morale crisis
Posted: Nov 14, 2012 3:24 PM
  Click to see the message monospaced in plain text Plain Text   Click to reply to this topic Reply
att1.html (21.3 K)

From Illinois Issues magazine, University of
Illinois at Springfield, September, 2012, pp.
24-27. See attachment.


Illinois' public workers face a morale crisis

By Robert Bruno

What exactly did Illinois teachers, police
officers, firefighters, sanitation employees,
correction officers, building inspectors,
employment service representatives, bus drivers,
child welfare specialists, residential care
workers, lab technicians or librarians do wrong?

Did the majority - or even a minority - of
teachers ignore children's feelings or fail to
explain something like photosynthesis or not give
a bewildering battery of questionable tests? Were
there large numbers of police officers who let
crime happen or who ignored public safety and
simply walked away from danger? Has anyone ever
heard of a firefighter not risking his or her
life to put out a fire or refusing to apply
emergency life saving procedures to a critical

Anyone know even one, just one?

Do the folks hired to remove most of our personal
refuse callously toss the waste back into our
yards? Has anyone heard of a prison guard who has
let a violent criminal - or any inmate - just
walk out of a jail cell?

Just how many of the thousands of approved
building permits result in garages that collapse
on the family car? What percentage of eligible
workers who file for unemployment relief go
without the difference between staying in their
homes and living out of their cars because a
public employee failed to file a form? When was
the last time you had a valid bus or train ticket
but you were not allowed to board? Are employees
who serve at-risk children and disabled adults
not processing ridiculously high caseloads or
willfully subjecting the state's most vulnerable
residents to abuse?

What proportion of the thousands of ill patients
is suffering because state medical personnel lack
the skills to do their jobs? And for heaven's
sake, are there obstinate librarians who can't
find the books you want or won't show you how to
conduct research for your English term paper? I
can honestly say that after publishing three
books and numerous scholarly articles, I've never
met an unhelpful librarian. Seriously, does one
such person even exist?

Unless you honestly answered yes to any of the
above questions, you might think you have fallen
down the rabbit-hole where, like Alice, you are
forced to deny what you know to be true about
Illinois' public employees. Instead of embracing
the high civic mindedness of public employees,
you are fooled by a politically manufactured
unreality where, as the Mad Hatter explains,
"nothing would be what it is because everything
would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise, what
is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it
would. You see?"

There is no Illinois-specific barometer that
measures the disposition of the state's public
employees, but experts across the country have
referred to a "public service morale crisis:' As
one educator notes in a study focusing on Chicago
K-12 teachers that I conducted along with my
colleague Steven Ashby, the prevailing mood is a
sense of disorientation and demoralization: 'The
only thing that keeps me going during this really
stressful, demoralizing year is the students.
When students come to you with questions, when
they ask for letters of recommendation, they keep
you motivated. We're here for the kids,
ultimately. So many teachers this year have told
me that they're thinking of quitting. It's sad.
Every day, teachers talk to me about the
teacher-bashing in the media. People here work so
hard. To hear they're retiring early and wanting
to leave is really, really awful. Our kids
deserve teachers who are happy to come to work
every day and who feel supported."

As citizens, we know the value of public service
and we recognize that without the roughly 51,000
state and 450,000 educational and local
government employees, life in Illinois for its
roughly 13 million residents would become, to
quote Thomas Hobbs, "solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish and short:' A quick estimate reveals that
slightly more than 3 percent of the state's
citizens are servicing the other 97 percent;
hardly a ratio that would be a drain on the
commonwealth. So why the political and editorial
page attacks on what highly educated teachers
earn or what a child welfare advocate will
accumulate in retirement savings? Study after
study has demonstrated that after controlling for
multiple factors -including level of education,
hours worked and non "cash compensation" - public
employees are compensated less well than
similarly situated private sector workers. One
analysis by my university colleague Craig Olson
found that K-12 public school teachers in
Wisconsin assume a considerable wage penalty for
wanting nothing more than to partner with parents
in lifting up the great hope in every child.
There are in exceptional cases some public
employees who can supplement their base earnings.
Firefighters, for instance, commit to lifelong
learning and are paid to acquire additional
lifesaving skills.

Would you prefer it otherwise?

Think for a moment about what public sector
employees protect and preserve. Illinois' natural
resources encompass 60 parks and roughly an equal
number of preserves. Public bodies across the
state are responsible for managing nearly 500
million acres of land and water and provide
stewardship over no fewer than 50,000 square
miles of land.

The state supports, sadly less and less every
year, nine depending on how you count -
universities and operates 29 correctional
institutions. More than 3 million children learn
to read, write, do mathematics and most
importantly, learn how to be fully participatory
citizens of a democracy in approximately 900
school districts. There are at least 1,100 and
1,300 municipal fire and police departments,
respectively, spread across the state protecting
the sanctity of more than 5 million housing units
and 300,000 business establishments. Municipal,
village and county officials issue in excess of
11,000 housing building permits annually and then
inspect the work to be certain it complies with
applicable codes. There are also six operating
nuclear plants regulated by the state and
hundreds of sanitation and water reclamation

Illinois services 143,000 miles of"centerline"
roads (two-way traffic with a line painted down
the middle), at least 12 major interstate
highways, 7,313 miles of railroad track and 50
airports. The state's publicly maintained
transportation network moves millions of people
to and from their jobs and points of interest. On
Illinois toil roads, there are more than 800
million toll transactions a year. More than a
million rail passengers travel annually on the
five Amtrak lines operated by the state. And in
Chicago last year, 66 million flyers moved
through O'Hare and Midway airports, while weekday
bus and subway hoardings exceeded 1.5 million.

Put aside for the moment the bellicose partisan
bickering over the structure and size of Ilinois'
public sector and consider the mere dimensions of
the state's footprint. I have no reasonable
estimate of the property asset value of the
state, but a conservative and casual guess would
be billions. Whatever the absurdly high dollar
amount, it is important to realize that the
entity called the ''state of Illinois" represents
the people's assets. It is their collective
holdings of public goods held In common.
Delivering and caring for these goods enriches
the citizens in three interlocking self-enriching

First, we all get somebody to put the fire out in
our house, with lives and property thereby saved.
But secondly, because somebody teaches us how to
read and write (those heretofore mentioned
underpaid teacher's) we significantly increase
our individual ability to earn private goods,
like income, and thus avoid becoming dependent on
state aid. Finally, a portion of our privately
awarded goods - which we would not have had if
not for a public sector - is recycled back in the
form of taxes and fees to replenish the wealth of
the commons. Realizing the expansive outer
circumference of our public goods and the
interdependent ways we all benefit from them
raises the following question: Why would we
demean the people we entrust with our collective

There is no doubt that our elected leaders and
too many opinion makers are dishing out plenty of
disrespect for the people who, in effect, take
care of our "house". Is it because they never
thought about how poor and working-class people
who were sick became well? Maybe they never
wondered who cut the grass or how the flowers
were watered in the parks their children use.
Nature and vehicular traffic opened up the
potholes, but do they ever think about who filled
them? Who, after all, maintains the state's vast
infrastructure? Who educates the state's future
doctors, lawyers, business leaders, engineers,
chemists, teachers, doctors, jazz pianists and,
yes, librarians? Who takes your picture when you
apply for one of the state's 8 million driver's
licenses? Who processes thousands of medical
claims for the poor, sick, injured and disabled?

The disembodied way that Springfield and local
political leaders, as well as media commentators,
speak of government employment reminds me of
Bertolt Brecht's poem, Questions from a Worker
Who Reads." The poem's opening stanza includes
the following:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go?

It is shamefully easy to demand that government
employees earn less, accept increased retirement
insecurity and pay more for the privilege of
serving us all when those workers are present but
invisible. We admire, consume and individually
benefit from the way government employees tend
our common "gardens:' We like the flowers; we
would rather not see the worker who got dirty
tilling the soil. When political leaders,
business heads, privatization advocates and main
street editors appropriate the state's wealth and
then preach fiscal austerity, they act as if the
public employee was a cipher instead of a servant.

Not only are public employees net contributors to
lllinois' prosperity who work and pay more in
taxes than they use in public services such as
Medicaid, they are a relatively small group.
lllinois has the lowest and still-falling per
capita state work force in the nation. As
citizens, we are not sufficiently mindful that
within the more than three dozen state agencies,
including Aging, Agriculture, Capital
Development, Commerce, Employment Security,

Study identifies teacher burnout

Teacher burnout was one of the subjects addressed
in the April report, Beyond the Classroom: An
Analysis of a Chicago Public School Teachers
Actual Workday.

Until recently, the Chicago Public Schools system
had one of the shortest school days in the
nation: five hours and 45 minutes for elementary
school students; and six hours and 45 minutes for
high school students. Sometimes-hostile
negotiations involving Mayor Rahm Emanuel's
administration, the school district and the
Chicago Teachers' Union resulted in a 2012-13
school day of seven hours for elementary
students; and seven and a half hours for high
school students. The CPS announced in July that
an additional 475 teachers would be hired to
address the lengthened day.

University of lllinois labor relations professors
Robert Bruno and Steven Ashby and U of I Chicago
graduate student Frank Manzo co-wrote a scholarly
paper in which they surveyed 983 Chicago Public
Schools teachers. Bruno is director of the Labor
Education program under the School of Labor and
Employment Relations, and Ashby is a professor of
labor and employment relations.

"Everyone knows a teacher's role goes beyond
classroom instruction;' Bruno said in a
university news release. "We wanted to quantify
how much beyond instruction that role extends."

The study found that teachers work 58 hours per
week on average during the school year and that
they spend almost an additional two hours working
at home in the evening.

Work, the researchers found, continues on the
weekend for an average of three hours and 45
minutes. They also reported that teachers spend
more than three hours a day on non-teaching

The study also found that teachers spend an
average of 12 days during the summer break
performing at least one school-related activity
and that they undergo an additional 30 hours of
professional development training while the
school year is not in session.

Chicago public school teachers "burn out" at a
higher-than-usual rate, Bruno said in the release.

"The turnover rate is almost 50 percent of
faculty within five years. Nobody ever quite
steps back and says, 'What are we doing to these
teachers in this five-year period that's
generating such turnover?' One of the
recommendations we make is for an examination of
the impact of nearly 60-hour work weeks on
teacher stress, creativity, job satisfaction and

One teacher who was surveyed told the
researchers:"During my lunch period, rarely do I
just eat lunch - I'm usually doing two or three
things while I'm eating. I never fee/like I'm
done, I never feel like I'm caught up. We work
very hard. Sometimes after school, when I'm
trying to enter grades, I can hardly keep my eyes

Another teacher reported: "One of the most
stressful things about my job is that I'm more
than a teacher. Students come up to tell me about
serious things in their lives. About a fiend
whose boyfriend beat her up. About bullying.
About sexual abuse. About being stalked. About
being homeless -we've 50 homeless kids in our
school. As their teacher; you're the only adult
outside the immediate family that the child deals
with. You are the normal for them. You are their
teacher, counselor and therapist; you are so much
more than a teacher. Teaching is a very nurturing
job. The school is understaffed; there aren't
enough social workers to handle all the problems
the kids have:'

Healthcare and Family Services, Public Health,
Transportation and Veterans Affairs: a largely
unionized workforce serves the public. Making
these workers pay the price for a fiscal problem
they did not create by, for example, making them
pay more for their post-employment medical care,
threatening to reduce their pension savings and
withholding contractual pay raises, is heaping
insult upon injury. What we have in lllinois is a
shrinking, embattled and deeply apprehensive
public workforce earning below market pay but
charged with taking care of nearly 13 million
800,000 of them whom are veterans.

For all their dedicated service, public employees
are subjected to a frenzied echo-chamber of calls
from conservative political leaders and media
outlets to erode the quality of public service.
Reading and listening to frantic diatribes
against government employee benefits helps me to
better understand why Eugene Ionesco, a
Romanlan-bom dramatist and playwright, ruefully
claimed that "a civil servant doesn't make
jokes:' There is actually something tragic
and.farcical about having a Democratic Chicago
mayor and a Democratic governor Withholding
contracted guaranteed pay raises for unionized
public employees at the same time. Once again, in
thinking about the treatment of our public
servants, it is Alice's·exasperation that comes
to mind: "It would be so nice if something made
Sense for a change".

I am at a loss to understand what version of
public service we are communicating workers.We
have withdrawn a long way from the ancient
Greeks' notion that happiness was closely
connected to the success and fulfillment achieved
during public service. Socrates' Nicomachean
Ethics claimed that the end goal of human
existence is a kind of happiness achieved by
contributing to the public good. Aristotle
further argued in the Politics that civil
servitude was the most effective means of
instilling personal and Civic virture. In Book
III of The Social Contract, Jean Rousseau states
that "as soon as public service ceases to be the
chief business of the citizens, and they would
rather serve with their money than with their
persons, the State is not far from its fall."
Paying taxes is important, but no amount would
matter without citizens who desire to serve the

When politicians collect the people's money to
serve the people's interests, while
simultaneously disrespecting the workers who do
the people's work, it strips public service of
its virtue and destroys morale. It also vilifies
the workers who implement and deliver the
initiatives of the very same politicians who
slander the public sector. Scapegoating
government workers for the failures of Wall
Street and finance capitalism will certainly
cause government employees to suffer, as well as
the vast majority of citizens who depend on
public goods. Only those people who can buy their
way into private enclaves of human existence will
go largely unscarred by a diminished public
sector. The following June 28 headline in the
Illinois Times suggests that reduced public
benefits along with punitive cuts in public
spending have already pushed us closer to
Rousseau's failed state: "Illinois Is Falling

Timing is everything. Precisely when budgets are
being cut we are asking front line·employees who
have been stereotyped as burdens on the taxpayers
to work with and for less. Contrary to how
political leaders and critics of government
obscure the realities of public service, state
add local employees do not have an instrumental
relationship With the mission of their employer.
Teachers do not care less about students when the
schools they teach for care less about the
teachers. Mental health technicians are no less
sensitive to their patients when the medical
clinics they work for care less for the people
who provide the care. Firefighters will still run
into burning buildings even if they have to pay
to clean their own uniforms. But teachers should
be honored, medical staff appreciated and
firefighters held in the highest regard so that
they can always proudly display the colors of
their municipality's firehouse.

I have no doubt that as the shameful assault on
state and local civil servants continues, the
vast majority of current public employees will do
their duty. But even the most dedicated librarian
can only do so much, and if the state's political
leadership succeeds in devaluing the public
sector, the troubling thought that interrupts my
meditative morning walks is: Who will help my
daughter find the book she needs tomorrow?

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment
relations at the University of Illinois, is
director of the Labor Education program under the
School of Labor and Employment Relations.


Point your RSS reader here for a feed of the latest messages in this topic.

[Privacy Policy] [Terms of Use]

© The Math Forum at NCTM 1994-2018. All Rights Reserved.