— Albert Shanker, President of the United Federation of Teachers [1964-1984] and the American Federation of Teachers [1974-1997]
Now that the new year has turned, towns across the state have entered the semester of budget preparation, presentation, deliberation, and enactment. This seems like a good time to review the factors, organizations, and political pathologies that drive school system priorities, in particular.
Last year, we addressed school budget theatrics in this column: http://www.themainewire.com/2012/06/op-ed-not-so-secret-libretto-tricks-school-budget-intimidation/. Now I intend to prove that the only group that has no champion in the process is the children themselves. Hear me out.
I live in Brunswick; I don’t know where you live, dear reader. No matter, I know that my town and yours are like faraway, fairy-tale Lake Wobegone. Our schools are the best, each of our teachers is excellent, and all our students are above average. So what follows doesn’t apply to you and me; it’s for all those who don’t enjoy our unfair advantages.
“It’s for the children,” like it is every year, will be the most widely applied budget cudgel in the months ahead. It perfectly suits the bumper sticker character of civic discourse these days; like “no farms, no food.” Duhhh …
While you and I don’t need any schooling on the subject, I think it’s right that we give those from other towns a grounding in reality. So let’s examine the stake-holders, advocacy groups, and other factors involved in government schools, or as the enlightened prefer, “public schools.”
We’ll begin with the local school bureaucracy, consisting of the following:
- The Superintendent: a staunch defender against any form of system, teacher, and student performance monitoring, and committed to the principle that only more money can preserve the inherent excellence of the existing structure. Practiced proponent of ‘the world is coming to an end financially’ in all public presentations. Scrupulously dismisses any discussion of studies on student performance and systemic public education shortcomings as “flawed information” unless, of course, the same “flawed” information should show positive indicators. Master manipulator of maternal moaning melodrama.
- The School Board: a largely ineffectual group that routinely rubber stamps Superintendent proposals; is typically absent education credentials; and is easily convinced that only more money can make things better, or for that matter, maintain the status quo. Stockholm syndrome is a common affliction, especially when professional “consultants” come into the mix. Have you ever heard of anyone campaigning for the job because they wanted to kick some butt or reform the system? Or represent the taxpayers’ interests? Most act as if they work for the Super, rather than the other way around. Questioning the performance of the teaching corps, or suggesting that our schools need serious reform, is a sure ticket to public outrage, because no parent sends their child to anything but the best schools and the best teachers.
- School Dept. Administration: likewise, staunch resisters of any form of performance monitoring or accountability, while religiously committed to more spending as the only way to demonstrate community commitment. Even if enrollment has declined sharply, and the number of schools has declined as well. Eager to endorse the pronouncements of their leader, lest they unintentionally provide a glimpse of reality. Adept at deferring maintenance and minimizing expenditures on physical plant care, in order to maximize funds for salary increases, and set the stage for major renovations, or even better, new schools, because “our children deserve it.”
- Teachers: unrepentant resisters of any form of performance monitoring or accountability, while religiously committed to more spending as the only way to make things better. Their belief that paying the best teachers the same as the worst teachers is righteous tells you all you need to know about their principles. They will readily choose to see associates laid off in order to protect their pre-programmed raises. Their attributes, good or bad, are masked by their willingness to be portrayed as homogeneous “members” of a union, rather than individuals of differing capabilities, dedication, and results. Have you ever seen a teacher come to a budget hearing and speak as an individual, with his/her own thoughts?
Other local factors in Brunswick, and likely to be present elsewhere:
- Town Council (or equivalent): in abject fear of questioning School Department policy or budgets because it will lead to charges of being ‘selfish and uncaring towards the children,’ and “meddling in school business.” In so many words, willingly passive enablers of institutionalized mediocrity. Anxious to sign up to the “excellent teachers/best schools” mantra with no objective evidence because it garners public adoration. Will occasionally suggest a $100,000 reduction in a $30-million-plus budget to demonstrate readiness “to make tough decisions.”
- The “schoolies,” including among other prominent locals, Sally Sellit, a successful real estate agent: weepy pawns of the establishment, with no credentials in education, who believe that only more money can preserve success, and tangibly demonstrate community devotion. Sally never asks why people are moving out of town, which is the only way to get properties for people to move into town, according to her, “because of our excellent schools.” Classic examples of emotion triumphing over reason, fueled by self-confirming beliefs that they would only live in a town with, and send THEIR children, to the very best schools.
- Organized citizen groups: Here in Brunswick, we have Brunswick Community United, a formalized group of unknowing school budget boosters. They are aided and abetted by the leadership of Bowdoin College “academics,” well known for their inability to discern reality. They have added structure to the worship of saintly “educators,” and consider any questioning of school policy and spending to be heresy, perpetrated by demons from the dark side. Fond of posting non-campaign budget campaign signs around town, using trigger words like “imagine” and “invest.” Card-carrying enablers of the first order. And we mustn’t forget those parental support groups who serve hot breakfasts to the teachers on a regular basis, and ironically, foster teacher beliefs that they are “undervalued” by the system.
- The “Government Watchdog” Press: a largely incompetent set of lackeys who have no motivation to dig into, understand, and illuminate the realities. Fond of self-adulation and award flaunting, but always dependable supporters of the school establishment, if awake when things happen.
State-wide factors in the mix:
- The Maine Municipal Association (MMA): for all intents and purposes, a for-profit insurance monopoly masquerading as a non-profit. The profits are used to fund their work as a wholly owned subsidiary and union of municipal governments. They lobby Augusta with taxpayer-derived funds to see that the State provides more and more dollars for municipalities, regardless of the consequences or value. Feign interest in the lowly taxpayer, but when push comes to shove, always choose more government funding first. Have been known to sponsor referendums that promise property tax cuts, but do nothing of the sort.
- MEA (The Teachers Union): an insurance monopoly combined with a labor union. A powerful and well-funded political force, combining insurance profits and dues withheld from member paychecks to exert dominant influence in Augusta. A single-interest group whose only priorities are higher pay for teachers, avoiding any form of performance measurement or accountability, and protecting the incompetent and the no-longer needed. They steadfastly resist any type of reform, including parental choice and vouchers. The leading force for status-quoism in government schools, except when it comes to advancing teacher interests.
- The Maine School Management Association (MSMA), which represents the Superintendents and School Boards: a single-interest lobbying group in Augusta whose priority is seeing that policy and spending is not realigned to favor students, but continues to reward the mediocrity that has become the norm. Friends in status-quoism with the MEA.
- Maine Department of Education: The construction side has one priority: spending whatever they are given because they believe new classrooms make for better outcomes. The subsidy (GPA) side dispenses massive state aid in a “nobody is ever happy” mode using formulas that are inevitably “unfair.” The policy side, should they show any interest in supporting the interests of “the children,” will be slapped down/obstructed by the MEA and MSMA, who have offices and professional staff on site in Augusta, along with various others that will back them up.
There’s no doubt that a discouraging array of cultural factors, some internal and some external, influence the outcomes in government schools. The emphasis on “values free education” comes to mind, though it is not applied equally to both sides of the values vocabulary. Seat time promotions, and other accommodations to non-performance in both students and staff, are equally troublesome. A lengthy and continuing erosion of standards, and even worse, expectations, yields declining results and lower readiness for higher education and the world of work
General societal decline, such as nuclear family breakdown and parental detachment, have redefined the nature of the schools’ role in the community, with only negative results to show for it. Government schools are increasingly becoming meal providers, mental health clinics, and child care centers instead of education enterprises. Yet opposition to parental choice is stronger than ever, as the old-line entrenched education establishment circles the wagons to protect the status quo.
And remember the times when parents could be classroom aids? My wife did it for years when our two were in elementary school. That practice seems to have all but disappeared; too risky to let parents see what goes on in the classroom, I suppose. The unions and the rest of the establishment certainly don’t want that.
If it looks like something is missing, that’s because it is. I cannot identify any structured advocacy “for the children” — the students themselves. There is no organization or force of nature that gives priority and primacy to the value provided to the “customer” — the student (and of course, their parental or other responsible parties.) I’ve yet to see a parent publicly challenge the offerings of the School Department; it would sentence them to permanent alienation. And put their children at risk for grade retaliation or other consequences. I’ve talked to enough folks to know this fear is real.
Attributing the motive of advocating “for the children” to a group like Brunswick Community United would be a tragic mistake. How do you reason with those who believe that if you pay the same teachers more next year, and the year after that, that they will do a better job educating your children in the future than they have in the here and now?
How do you reason with an establishment convinced that paying the worst teachers the same as the best teachers makes sense and fosters excellence in education?
How do you reason with an establishment convinced that protecting the incompetent and scrupulously avoiding any form of metrics, performance monitoring, and accountability are the highest forms of commitment to government education?
How do you reason with an establishment that has demonstrated over and over again that “the children” are not their top priority? That is willing to let its physical plants decay, and readily defers needed maintenance so they can continue to increase salaries and protect staff even in the face of precipitous enrolment declines?
For the children? Not that I can tell. If you have evidence to the contrary, send it along. Let’s face the facts: anyone described above who makes an income in the education business makes it not by competing in the free market, but by compelling revenue one way or another from the taxpayers. Whether it be direct taxation, or indirect taxation via insurance premiums, dues, or other forms of coercion.
How could you generate an income by advocating “for the children?” The fact is you can’t; coercing income from taxpayers is a one-sided monopoly. You might as well run around at budget time howling “it’s for the taxpayer.” There’s just as much honest advocacy for that point of view as there is for “it’s for the children.” You can’t put food on the table by standing up for either point of view. How sad and ultimately destructive is that?
Disclaimer: Many will argue that I am painting the teachers with a broad brush. But that’s the problem! Unions are the essence of a broad brush, because they reject individualism by definition! While in private, teachers may reject the status quo and the establishment view of things, I’ve never seen a show of such sentiments in any public discourse. I can’t imagine a quicker way for a union member to get ostracized, if not black-listed, by their “brothers and sisters.”
Pem Schaeffer is a retired Defense Industry Business Development Leader. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog, The Other Side of Town, is found at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/