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To blame teachers, or not // Go after management, but leave the teachers alone

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Excuse me, but . . . when did teachers become the enemy of education? Did I, like, have a stroke-ette and lose my short-term memory or something? Is it early onset Alzheimer's?

Last time I checked, your basic teachers were still there _ underpaid, overworked and suffering from what is fashionably called "lack of empowerment" _ but there. Imagine my surprise upon hearing Bob Dole attack teachers.

Dole did specify that he was attacking teachers unions, not teachers, per se, but since teachers unions consist of teachers, that's a distinction without a difference. And what grave offense have the teachers committed, aside from supporting President Bill Clinton? Why, they do not favor school vouchers, and Dole does. And so, he condemns them, root and branch, and announces to the world that they're doing a terrible job. If they were doctors, their patient would be dying, he said.

When Republicans start condemning some public endeavor, it makes me nervous, as it usually precedes one of their efforts to dismantle whatever it is entirely. One perforce perceives that the public schools are in peril. You would scarcely believe the rhetoric that was applied to public schools at the San Diego rally. You would think every elementary school was a Blackboard Jungle of violence and drug use.

That's odd, since the last time I checked, our kids' test scores were going up. The teachers I know are busy getting their classrooms ready, as always, spending their own money to buy the children books and paints and chalk. The teachers I know get more excited about the first day of school than little kids do.

Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, whose long record of concern for education is known to most Americans, observed last week that if an auto company _ say, Ford _ was getting its brains beaten out by Toyota, we wouldn't blame the United Auto Workers; we'd say, "Boy, is it ever time they shook up the management over there at Ford." Blaming the teachers for the problems in our schools is simply wrong and unfair.

Having covered school systems in Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, New York City and seven mountain states, I have reached a few (very few) conclusions about public schools. One is that we can't improve the public schools by taking money out of them and giving it to private schools. That is a bad idea.

What is it we would expect from a good private school? First of all, smaller classes. One of the few constants in education is that the smaller the class size, the more kids learn. We might expect better teachers, attracted by higher salaries and perhaps by the opportunity to teach free of burdensome paperwork and regulations. We would expect an excellent library, cheerful rooms and a campus in good repair. The curriculum and goals would be set by the headmaster and the faculty together.

This is precisely what we should expect of our public schools. Unfortunately, taking money away from them is not the way to achieve it. Since schoolteachers and their unions realize this, they consequently oppose the voucher plan. This does not make them enemies of education or even defenders of the status quo.

One of the odd things about every problem associated with education is that someone somewhere has solved it. Around this shining land, teachers are managing to interest inner-city kids in physics, getting little snots in the 'burbs excited about trigonometry and taking tough young punks and turning them into a literate basketball team.

The problem has always been: How do you replicate success? One price we pay for the "local control" so beloved of prating politicians is that we don't replicate success. And if you follow school news, you already know that the effort to set national standards for our schools, started by President George Bush and called Goals 2000, is under attack by the right wing, who see in it some vile plot to take away local control. So all the principal/campus-based experiments that seem so promising, remain in splendid isolation.

My favorite example of local control was the time the Houston school board fell into the hands of some truly batty people. They called themselves Minutewomen and stood prepared to stave off Communist infiltrators, who were not in plentiful supply on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1950s. And remember when Dallas school board meetings were called the Monday Night Fights? What I'm trying to suggest here is that the problem isn't the teachers _ it's the management.

What Dole is doing is like blaming the Internal Revenue Service for our screwy tax system (which he helped write so much of) and then saying that our screwy tax system would be better if we privatized the IRS.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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