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.
Now the fact of the matter is that this horrible stuff did not come from the Jeffco board. It came from the state and federal educational bureaucracies, both of which are controlled by the union’s liberal allies. The board must bear some responsibility too, however, because even though it didn’t invent this very Progressive wrecking operation against the public schools, it has chosen to go gleefully along with it. Instead of engaging in a left-right food fight with the teachers, the allegedly conservative board could and should have made common cause with them on this vital issue. But they did not, and as they have now outflanked the teachers far to the left in their support of educrat madness, really do deserve to be thrown out.
There is a broader lesson in this for conservatives. There are three million teachers in this country, comprising close to two percent of the total electorate. They need not be our enemies. While teachers in general tend to lean liberal on most issues, across the nation they are being forcefully oppressed by the domineering central planners of the Progressive agenda. There is common ground to be found, and an opportunity to show classroom teachers that they could have much better friends elsewhere than those their leaders are in bed with currently.
But returning to the subject of the mass exodus from Jeffco schools; while the board may deserve to be taken to task for its failure to take a stand, it is the state and federal level bureaucrats and corporate education profiteers who are the ultimate sponsors of this mess — whose ramifications go far beyond Jefferson County. They must be held to account.
Clearly the situation merits an investigation. Governor Hickenlooper says he is a great supporter of public education. If so, he should form a blue ribbon commission – independent of the state education bureaucracy – to look into the matter. Rank and file teachers should be invited to testify as to why they are quitting. Let’s bring all the facts to light, and put blame where it truly belongs. Yes, there certainly are differences between the reform agenda and traditional educational ideas, and they will inevitably cause friction. But there is a monster in the room that threatens both – Fed Ed. It needs to be called out, exposed, and rebuffed. There is nothing conservative about destroying the public school system. There is nothing progressive (small p) about it either. Let the chips fall where they may. We need to get this problem fixed.
— Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and a resident of Jefferson County for the past 25 years. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, was recently published by Encounter Books.