Education Is a Hot-Button Issue Again…We’re All Doomed!
Recently, a new governor was elected in the fine state of Virginia. Virginia has some eccentric habits when it comes to electing governors, as they insist on doing it during off-years and forbid incumbents from running for second terms. National media outlets ran an avalanche of stories leading up to and even after the election because, in an off-year after a highly contentious Presidential election in this country, Virginia’s quirky governor race has been christened a bellweather. The election was won by a Republican, which has not been typical for Virginia governors over the last decade or so, so the victory felt like an upset despite the fact that it was predicted by polling just before the big day.
Amidst all the reading of tea-leaves, one of the biggest lessons drawn from the election was that voters were highly motivated by the topic of education. In this particular election, the motivation centered on an ill-informed backlash against the use of Critical Race Theory by teachers as well as the still-simmering resentment over the way schools handled the COVID pandemic. You could hear the deafening sound of countless political consultants frantically scribbling notes about the way they could leverage “education” as a way to motivate base voters and bring home victories. For those of us who make a living educating children in public schools, all of this has brought back bad memories. After all, the last time the American electorate got super-motivated about education, it resulted in the adoption of high-stakes standardized testing that consumed mountains of taxpayer funds with almost nothing positive to show in return. That went well, didn’t it?
The problem is not that American taxpayers are interested in how their money is being spent, because of course people want to know how their tax money is being spent. The problem is that public education is expensive, and a significant number of people who are paying into this system do not directly benefit from it. This makes them highly suspicious of any requests to increase tax revenues. America has increasingly become a consumer-oriented culture, where school districts are expected to adopt a “customer service” model when dealing with parents and taxpayers. In a culture where the “customer is always right,” this attitude mixes with public education like oil and water.
You see, it is difficult to operate on the principle of “the customer is always right” when the “customer” base for schools is such a massive group of people who often have conflicting priorities, interests, and values. Two customers who fundamentally disagree with each other can’t both be right.
The fact is that all of these people who show up and make ugly scenes at school board meetings don’t actually want to be a part of the decision making process. After all, that would require dedicating a lot of time to sitting in meetings, learning the facts, and confronting a reality that does not change simply because we shout at it. What these people desire is something much more luxurious than that. They want veto power over any decision that they happen to hear about and object to. They don’t want to be consulted on every decision because that would require them take ownership of something other than their own feelings. They just want to be able to say no when they care enough to pay attention to a decision, and they want everybody else in the district to fall into line.
Well, wouldn’t that be nice? Imagine if all you had to do is wait for other people to spend time and energy making difficult decisions and, when you felt like it, you could simply say no. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. All that power with no actual accountability…this is like being the emperor of the world! The only problem is that there are a lot of would-be emperors and only one world, and selfish children will tend to break their toys rather than share them with others.
My message to all those red-faced, screaming folks at school board meetings is a simple one: you already have control over how public school districts operate. In fact, your temper tantrums and grandstanding displays are typically disrupting the exact process by which a community influences school policies. School boards are made up of citizens elected by popular vote to represent community interests in public school district. They are not part of the educational establishment because they do not have to be certified educators. For better or worse, these are the people who exert the will of the community. If you don’t like the job they are doing, you are welcome to run for a position on the board the next time an election comes around. Then you can enjoy the long meetings, angry phone calls, and weighty responsibility that being a school board member entails. Can’t wait to see your campaign get rolling!
The education system has been living on borrowed time for several decades, and the threat has not come from international competition or self-serving teacher unions. Instead, it has been our tendency to blithely assume that we can keep demanding the impossible from educators without consequences. Teachers have spent so much time taking endless haymakers from angry parents, preening politicians, and smug pundits that everybody is shocked to learn that there are limits to the abuse we are willing to absorb. More and more teachers have been hanging up their gloves and walking away from the ring, willing to leave the profession they love because things have been too toxic for too long. A world where voters prioritize education issues is absolutely necessary, but that attention must be tempered with wisdom and common sense. Right now, we are seeing fewer and fewer young people desiring to become teachers. The reason is not simply low pay, but a complete collapse of morale.