Written by Bob Woelk Tuesday, 12 April 2011 17:06
Make no mistake about it, education is under attack. It is happening at the local, state and national levels. And, those who are mounting assaults on the public school system are coming from several angles.
The most obvious and effective attempts to undermine our children’s right to the best possible education are centered on money.
When I first became a teacher back in the late 1980s, administrators were concerned about how dwindling student numbers were going to affect the smaller, poorer school districts. We heard about the belt tightening that would need to take place.
At the time, the outlook seemed gloomy. But the state legislature and governor were still interested in adequately funding Kansas school districts. We saw a slight increase in per student base aid each year.
Though the drop in enrollment was troubling, I chuckle when I think about how districts approached trimming the fat with the precision of an Xacto Knife. We thought there were budget issues then. These days, administrators and school board members are forced to wield chainsaws to slice their budgets.
In the good old days of education, it was unheard of for the state to cut funding in the middle of a school year. Once the final bill was passed in May, districts could plan with confidence that the money promised would be available.
For the past two years, this has not been the case. Legislators have come back with additional cuts in state aid in the spring. For next year, schools will be asked to operate at state aid levels rolled back to 1999, despite obvious inflation over the past dozen years.
Looking back, I can now see that there was some room to tighten our belts 10 years or so ago. Though we never had more money than we could have used, we were able to spend funds on discretionary items for the classrooms.
Times were comparatively good. We improved technology and had opportunities to take students on educational field trips. Teachers participated in intellectually stimulating inservice opportunities. But, I am convinced that all of that “excess” has been cut away.
I believe we slashed to the bare bones last year. Administrators are now being asked to pare away at the bones themselves. And, the people who will be hurt the most are the students. Class sizes will grow. Necessary technology purchases will be cancelled. Needed textbooks will not be bought. Schedules that affect student class choices will be manipulated to save the districts the most money.
The second attack on the profession is coming from the political right. Legislators are seizing the opportunity to kick educators while they are down. KPERS, the Kansas retirement plan used by teachers and other state employees, has been underfunded for years. Whose fault has that been? Certainly not the state workers. And, yet, the legislature has chosen this year to attempt to fix the problem by reconfiguring how contributions are invested.
In a confusing and complicated shell game, lawmakers have proposed moving the funds to less stable 401k-type plans. In addition, Topeka is messing with the formula for calculating the age at which employees of the state can retire and draw from their retirement plans.
States are also scheming to restrict the ability of state employees to organize themselves. This un-American attack began in Wisconsin and has spread to other parts of the country. In Kansas, legislators are making an effort to keep unions from deducting dues from the payrolls of teachers.
What often goes unsaid is the fact that teachers are not obligated to belong to any union. In Hillsboro, fewer than half our educators belong to our bargaining unit. Those who choose to be members foot the bill for representing themselves as well as teachers who decline membership.
In addition, those who do join are given the choice of whether to contribute to the political action committees (PACs) of our unions. I have always declined. That will likely change next year.
Another attack on education is coming in the form of a push toward alternatives to public schools. Home schools, charter schools, online schools and private schools would love to get a piece of the public education pie.
We often hear about vouchers being a good idea. The theory is that people who don’t use public schools should not have to pay taxes toward them or should receive money back to offset the costs of attending private institutions of learning.
Many of these parents are members of the country club set in places such as east Wichita and Johnson County near Kansas City. My feeling is if they can afford million-dollar houses and Beamers for their offspring to drive to school, they don’t need tax breaks.
If families who currently can’t quite overcome the financial burden of private schools would receive vouchers, further irreparable harm would come to public schools, especially in urban areas. The halls would be filled with kids from the poorest families who speak a language other than English at home.
As an educator in the public school system, I can’t help but be offended by parents who choose to home school rather than entrust their children’s education to professionals like me. I think those parents probably mean well, but I honestly don’t see many products of home-school environments who do not develop social issues due, at least in some part, to their isolation from traditional students.
A new affront to public education has arisen in the past few days. The State Board of Education is considering a proposal to require all license holders—(teachers, administrators, etc.—to have fingerprint and background checks at every license renewal.
The purpose of this move escapes me. I have been in teaching for more than 20 years, and I don’t believe my fingerprints have changed significantly in that time. I assume this is yet another attempt to eliminate the possibility of illegal aliens gaining employment in the state. And, keep in mind, this attack on the integrity of teachers is coming from our own regulatory board.
I don’t blame our local administrators or school board members for what is happening to education in Hillsboro and neighboring districts. I do occasionally hear a handful of community members assert that school teachers have it made. After all, we get summers off—unpaid, I might point out—and have a planning period every day where we all just sit around and drink coffee (most teachers actually do much of their planning during this time).
There is also a sense that teachers’ jobs aren’t that tough, compared to those that require strenuous physical labor, and the pay is pretty good, at least in a community like Hillsboro. And, it is almost impossible to fire a bad teacher once he or she achieves tenure.
At the risk of sounding like a whiner, I wonder how many people would want to work as many hours outside the typical 40-hour week as educators do without any additional compensation. Granted, the physical portion of the work is fairly benign, but the mental side can be just as physically exhausting at times.
And, as far as tenure goes, the law simply provides due process. In these tough economic times, there is nothing close to complete job security. Just ask those teachers who are likely to lose their positions when the smoke clears this spring.
I find it ironic that conservatives in Kansas are often leading the charge in the assault on public schools. If anything, they should be supporting traditional education, the type they likely received.
I want to ask the question, “What have we done to deserve this kind of treatment?” The only answer I hear is that a disproportionate amount of the state budget is spent funding public education in Kansas. But, isn’t that only logical, given the importance of investing in our state’s most precious natural