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Everyone has a champion in the school bureaucracy — except the children

student.head on desk“When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

— 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:

Other local factors in Brunswick, and likely to be present elsewhere:

State-wide factors in the mix:

Cultural factors:

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.

Summing Up:

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 pemster4062@yahoo.com.  His blog, The Other Side of Town, is found  at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/