Election Section

COMMENTARY Teachers Need to Hear Views of All Parents By JULIE HOLCOMB

Friday May 13, 2005

I’ve been the recipient of responses to a “Letter to BUSD Teachers” written by me in collaboration with other concerned Berkeley parents. The letter has been widely circulated among parents and teachers, and has been sometimes forwarded with an attachment on teacher compensation not authorized or endorsed by the parents originally involved. In all cases it has provoked discussion. Following an event organized by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) and billed as an Informational Meeting, which many parents found to be intimidating, and where they were thanked for coming out to show support when many came with questions and comments and were not prepared to offer support for the BFT positions, we felt it was necessary to offer an opportunity for parents to express dissenting views. 

While parents who do unequivocally support the union and would support a strike feel very free to express that view, teachers are entitled to know that there are also very many parents who do not support the union this time, and would not support a strike, but these parents do not feel as free to express their opinions. Many parents have said that they support the letter’s opinion, but would be uncomfortable signing it because of expected recrimination or “political backlash.” Although the vast majority of communications I’ve received in response to the “Letter to BUSD Teachers” have supported the position expressed in the letter, and many others have been thoughtful in their uncertainty or respectful in stating their difference of opinion, there have also been uncivil, extremely hostile and even threatening messages. In a community that so highly values free speech and the right of dissent, this should be troubling to us all. 

In Becky O’Malley’s editorial of April 8, she wrote of parents who had written to the Berkeley Daily Planet to express their disagreement with the work to rule campaign in the schools, who were “afraid to let their names be used for fear of reprisals against their kids.” The Berkeley Federation of Teachers should publicly state that intimidation or any kind of reprisal against any child for a parent’s political views would constitute unethical and unprofessional behavior. They should assure parents that they neither need nor wish to advance their cause by such intimidation and would not tolerate any such action against a vulnerable child. 

I am certain that not one of the teachers at my children’s school, Rosa Parks, would for even a moment consider withdrawing support from any child for any reason, certainly not in retaliation for a political difference with a parent. They are not only talented and dedicated professionals, they are people of good will and high moral standards. They actively teach and model compassion, respect and tolerance. I would hope and expect that this is true of all Berkeley teachers. 

Not supporting the union’s position doesn’t make a parent “anti-teacher,” “antiunion,” or “anti-working people” any more than opposition to the war on Iraq is “anti-American,” or constitutes “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” To label those who’ve endorsed this letter that way is unfair and totaling misleading. The real message that teachers need to hear is that even many parents who are passionately dedicated to public education and hold teachers in the highest regard just cannot agree with the union this time. A large number of these parents devote many hours to active support of their schools and teachers. Some of us, myself included, have never crossed a picket line. We just want to emphasize that the teachers need to take a broad view of their interests, and that such a view should include the fiscal solvency of the school district and the context of an economic downturn in which this is taking place. We have deep concerns about how this dispute and/or a strike could affect the passage of BSEP and Measure B in 2006, which will require a concerted and united effort by parents, teachers, and community supporters and is by no means assured. Teacher layoffs and dramatically increased class sizes would be disastrous for us all. 

This is not any kind of organized opposition to BFT or support for the district. No one is planning any rallies to express this point of view. We just think the teachers have a right to hear from all parents, and since Barry Fike has many times repeated that he has only heard from supporters (not true) we felt we had to go straight to them. It doesn’t serve the interests of the teachers for them to have a nimpression of parent opinion skewed by suppression of all but one point of view. Free speech is more than an individual’s right to expression, it is our community’s safeguard against tyranny of any kind from any quarter. It’s an essential part of ongoing collective research into democratic solutions to complex problems, which will always involve diverse understandings of personal and community interests. 


Julie Holcomb is a printer and Rosa Parks parent.