I hear too often these days from friends and family responding to my rants on our current state of education. Many of them appreciate the passion I’m attempting to show either in my comments here on Town Square Delaware, or through my more real-time updates on outlets like Twitter and Facebook. I’ve received much support from co-workers, administrators, and elected officials for coming forth in speaking out against policies with which I disagree as well as for speaking in favor of policies I feel are working.
And then I’ve heard from other people who wish I would spend less of my time talking education politics and more time analyzing Jennifer Lopez’s outfit on this week’s episode of “American Idol.” Or questioning why I didn’t catch the latest episode of “Glee” or “American Horror Story.” They tell me, “Mike, enjoy life a little more. Stop posting about that education nonsense because nothing is going to change!” My common response is that I AM enjoying my life nicely and that this is an issue that requires my near-absolute attention these days because of what’s at stake.
And it requires your attention, too. This week’s column doesn’t offer any earth-shattering analysis. It doesn’t posit any real criticism at the educational system that I’ve offered up until this point. This column is a simple plea. A rallying cry to whoever should read it. A call to arms to appeal to those who have, thus far, been disengaged.
I truly believe that an excellent public education system is the bedrock to any firm democracy. Allowing all children to learn for free in a loving and rigorous environment free from the strains they may experience at home is what this system is about. Learning, though, cannot be defined solely by that which is measured by a standardized test. A standardized test that, quite frankly, doesn’t consider the varying learning modalities that some of our highest-needs students require to prove their success.
No matter how you feel about the topic, education affects us all in ways that would require days and weeks to enumerate. So why is it that getting everyday citizens to attend school board meetings is such a challenge? Unless there’s a looming threat to a school closing or a program slashing, does the public ever really get out tovoice their thoughts or concerns to the very body of accountability and transparency that is charged with ensuring the efficacy of a district’s day-to-day business?
For many, schools boards are a prime example of local politics. People see schools as microcosms of their communities. They like knowing they can approach administrators and school board members because they’re usually untouched by the spoils of campaign cash and lobbyist influences. But not today. School boards are becoming more political, but not in the easily definable sense of Democrat vs. Republican. The politics of school boards are usually a bit shadier than that and they take a good knowledge of the personalities involved to understand what’s going on. Topics that can cause for some extremely divisive school board include charter schools, school choice, de facto segregation via neighborhood schools, and class size waivers. This is not an inclusive list, but it’s certainly a start.
Thankfully, due to an increased interest in school district finances, many schools board have come under additional scrutiny in the past five years. School boards know people are watching with interest. But, is it ENOUGH people? When a typical school board election can’t even bring together 2,000 people to vote, how lost is the message getting? What marketing push does someone need to make to get people to realize they must take an interest in this process in order to bring about needed change?
Here’s what I think will do it: In 2014, Race to the Top funds will run out. Many parties signed on to this federal grant thinking it would shower great riches on our schools and actually, magically help close that ever-pesky achievement gap that’s haunted our education system for far too long. When those funds expire, Delaware (and other states) will still be left with the costly regulations that could drive good teachers out of a job – either by their choice or, well, not by their choice.
School boards will suddenly see packed meetings demanding why this is happening. Why are these teachers being let go? Why are these programs being cut to make way for more test prep, test prep, test prep? In the end, the school boards – those unpaid warriors advocating for their schools – will be left holding the bag. They’ll be left answering the questions from an uneasy public. Sadly, they may not have the answers.