OPINION: Education Reform From This Retired Teacher's Perspective
No easy or definitive answer for what the best solution is, but this veteran educator is confident that the Michigan Public Education Finance Act is not it.
May I offer a retired public school teacher’s perspective?
Up until now, I’ve been reluctant to chime in on any discussions related to HBs 6004 and 5923, and SBs 1358 and 620, primarily because I can’t offer a remedy to school funding disparities in Michigan. Former BHS Superintendent Gary Doyle said it best: Any jackass can kick down a barn door, but it takes a skilled craftsman to build something. Therefore, in the absence of having a better idea, people often acquiesce to proposals offered by leaders who purportedly care about achieving a fair, workable resolution.
It eventually began to sink in that the reason I can’t think of a solution that government might provide to address this issue is that no singular one exists. Just like other very complicated societal problems (war, poverty and addiction come to mind), debates on education reform invite casual kibitzers and zealots alike, offering easy solutions that almost always end up to be unhelpful at best and catastrophic at worst.
I speak from the collective experiences of 23 years in the classroom (Bloomfield Hills Schools). At the risk of offending, well, almost everyone, such a background allows me to hear and understand what people are really saying (see below for a non-education example). Listening very carefully to the discussions surrounding the Michigan Public Education Finance Act, I have no doubt that the root of these proposed changes is the institution of a voucher system, ultimately siphoning off precious support that our public schools need to not only survive, but thrive. Further, the message from supporters is clear: I don’t want my child with Those Kids.
We all know Those Kids. They hang out occasionally with our sons and daughters, but our own children are never Those Kids. No matter who they are, they never seem to be a good fit for our children. We demand nothing less than exemplary facilities, countless opportunities and hyper-dedicated, perfect (and completely exhausted) teachers and support staff for our children, while it’s perfectly okay for Those Kids to take what is left over.
Let’s put on our “real” glasses and take an honest look at how it is that many kids end up in a particular school. Children begin life as little hedonists, who can and will make life miserable for anyone who denies them the pleasures they demand. Too often, this behavior continues even when the child is old enough for school. It is not uncommon for many parents to essentially let their middle years children choose where they want to attend school. Often these decisions are predicated on the student’s and his/her friends’ impressions of how they feel their wants and needs are accommodated. These conclusions may or may not be based on what is truly in the student’s best interest.
Here’s the related example I promised; bear with me, please. The “birther” contingency stubbornly refuses to accept President Obama’s American citizenship, despite irrefutable proof. Is the root of their concerns solely his birthplace? Or is this really a red herring, invented to mask thinly veiled but nonetheless fervent racism? Would the people for whom race makes a difference ever publicly reveal their real problem, that we have an African-American president? The issue of Obama’s birthplace serves as a convenient stand-in to spark discussion about his overall legitimacy. The crucial takeaway from this example: Racism in the 21st century is more polite, but far more dangerous than it ever was.
Quick history lesson:
In 1963, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the (Ku Klux Klan), but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direst action.”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I would respectfully ask Governor Snyder to heed the words of Dr. King. Please keep trying to do the right thing for public schools in Michigan. I’m sorry I can’t offer a more definitive answer for what would be the one best solution, but I’m confident that the Michigan Public Education Finance Act is not it. We as a people are better than this. What we have now is an evolution, and most local districts are earnest in their desire toward real improvement, when and where necessary. There is no “getting the job done.”
Trust me – this job gets done every single day, thanks to Herculean efforts by caring, dedicated, professional educators. Winston Churchill put it best: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."