Some Utah policy makers only view public education from the 30,000-foot level. The advantage to this perspective is that "bombs" can be dropped on our children and teachers without regard to the consequences to those on the ground.
Let me take you down to ground level. There are about 110 bills before our Legislature this year that deal directly or indirectly with public education. I cannot think of another profession that faces so many policy changes year in and year out.
However, I am not necessarily as concerned about the quantity of proposals to change public education as I am about the quality. You see, the vast majority of these bills are conceived, drafted and proposed by individuals who, despite what may well be good intentions, are not experts in education. Many of the proposed laws are based on hearsay, anecdotes and political posturing, rather than research or proven practice.
I realize our elected lawmakers have a difficult and, at times, thankless job. However, I am struck by the lack of understanding about what we do in public education. I am amazed by the audacity of non-educators presuming to know more about educating children than the teachers and administrators who have dedicated their entire careers to the profession. And, I'm disheartened by the misrepresentations, half-truths and outright lies told about what happens in our neighborhood schools and about our teachers.
It's clear there are a few powerful, well-connected individuals who would much rather dismantle our neighborhood schools than improve them — with the end goal of creating more private and charter schools that serve (and benefit) only a few.
Recent polls show the citizens of Utah overwhelmingly support their traditional neighborhood public schools. Yet just this year, legislation has been proposed that will do the following:
Ensure a certain percentage of public schools cannot attain a superior grade rating;
Label schools as failing but not provide any resources to help them improve;
Guarantee a certain percentage of public school students are instructed by teachers deemed "non-proficient;"
Eliminate requirements to assist teachers who need help improving performance;
Politicize public education by making school board elections partisan or diverting control and supervision of public schools from the state school board to the legislature; and
Divert funds from our already over-burdened traditional public schools to charter schools.
Each of these proposals individually may not seem too onerous, but together they underlie a much bigger movement to erode and discredit our traditional public schools — schools that currently serve more than 92 percent of Utah's student population. The proposed laws would also inhibit the state's ability to provide a quality education for every Utah student.
There's no question our public schools can be improved. The Utah Education Association has continuously offered to sit down and work with lawmakers to help craft the changes necessary to create a great public school for every child. Alas, our offers have mostly fallen on deaf ears — deaf at least to classroom teachers who teach in neighborhood schools, not, apparently, to non-educator special interests. I can only surmise that blaming teachers for all public education woes creates a diversion that will allow the destruction of our traditional public schools.
What is it going to take for some of our elected officials to set aside the self-interests of a few and represent their entire constituency? I hope it does not mean losing the neighborhood schools that educate all children regardless of their circumstance.
I urge our lawmakers to ask themselves just one question as they consider public education laws: "Does this help us reach the goal of a great education for every student?"
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh is president of the Utah Education Association.
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