A School Crisis in Colorado: Left-Right Rumble Misses the Real Enemy

In Jefferson County, Colorado, where I live, the schools are in crisis. The situation has become so bad that one out of every five teachers in the school district has quit. Something has gone seriously wrong, and the problem needs to be addressed.

The teachers' union has predictably put the blame on the recently elected Tea Party-backed school board majority, and has launched a recall effort. According to the recall backers, the new board members have damaged the district by hiring political cronies into key positions at exorbitant salaries, denying employees reasonable raises, trying to impose censorship on school curriculum, gagging public comment at board meetings, and showing extreme hostility and disrespect to teachers.

There is actually some truth to these accusations, but it’s hard to see how they could account for the crisis. The board did hire a politically-allied former high school coach as school superintendent at a ridiculous salary of $250,000 per year, which is a Colorado record. But together with other questionable hirings, the total identifiable waste only amounts to about $400,000, which is something on the order of 1/10th of a percent of the district budget. The raises offered to teachers have been quite low (1.5% for experienced teachers rated “highly effective”), but the previous liberal-dominated board gave none at all -- a fact which makes the sincerity of the outrage of the union leadership on this issue somewhat doubtful.

One member of the board majority did present a proposal for curriculum improvement in a singularly inept way, but the idea went nowhere in any case. The board did sharply restrict public comment at meetings, but such expressions never counted for much anyway. As for the new board majority’s lack of respect for the teachers, it is amply returned in kind, and I’ve yet to see any indication that either side gives a hoot about what the other thinks of it.

So the whole dust-up could be dismissed as an effort by the union to block a reform-minded board from making any changes towards increased school choice, and there would be some truth in that too. But that would still not address the critical issue: Why have over a thousand teachers quit?

I have spoken to quite a few Jeffco school teachers, and they are indeed very upset, but mostly for reasons much more substantial than those provided on the recall petition. Specifically, while they are annoyed at the continued denial of meaningful raises, the thing that is really killing them is a massive amount of overwork caused by bureaucratic overload. Of the teachers I encountered, many are now working twelve hour days; six hours teaching, two hours of traditional preparation work, and four hours filling out online data entry forms, “setting goals,” being forced to read one vacuous educationalist methodology text after another, and engaging in numerous other unproductive exercises to satisfy enormous reportage requirements stemming from Common Core. In addition, the teachers find the wastage of something like twenty percent of class time on endless standardized tests extremely objectionable, as it makes creative teaching nearly impossible.