When State Representatives Try to Kill Their Own Educational System

When State Representatives Try to Kill Their Own Educational System November 1, 2015

This fall after teaching high school and middle school for 15 years, I finally turned in my lanyard and took a break from teaching.  I can’t tell you for certain that I’ll never go back because who knows what the future holds? But I can tell you what made me decide to leave the classroom.

Readers of this blog already know I was presented with an opportunity I couldn’t pass up to help those who are recovering from dysfunctional religious backgrounds. I jumped at the opportunity and that certainly played a part in my decision to take a break from my former profession.  But the job I left had so many things wrong with it that I believe I would have left whether that opportunity had arisen or not.

For the past two years I taught Geometry at a public high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and frankly that assignment was an unmitigated disaster.

For starters, on average I had around 34 students in each class, but only 26 desks in my room.  And you may be saying to yourself, “Well, at least in an inner city school district like that one, not all the kids enrolled will show up every day.”  And you’d be right. But I always had more than 26 each day, which means for most of my day, I had between two and eight students in my room with nowhere to sit. We made stacks out of old textbooks and I let them sit on those. I would have borrowed chairs or desks from other classrooms but all of theirs were already in use as well. And yes, I told my principals about the problem and they just shrugged and did nothing because they had nothing left to give.

Another problem I had was that all of the teaching materials I was given to use had answer keys available online at the touch of a button. I wasn’t really authorized to force students to give up their phones, either. At a school like that one, the administrators have to pick their battles, and when you spend most of your day putting out fires both literal and metaphorical, taking up cell phones from students whose parents would scream at you for doing it just doesn’t make the cut.  As a result, most of my students, who were bringing 3rd-grade-level math skills to a 9th-grade-level course, simply copied the answer keys from their phones and kept turning in perfect papers with no work shown at all.  Trying to work around that problem was an extremely time consuming task.

Another major problem I had was that the school simply didn’t have the personnel to manage student behavior, whether on the bus, or in the classroom, or in the hallways.  Class sizes were too large, classroom space was too small, and even our bus drivers couldn’t do their jobs because they were paid so little that most of them quit halfway through the first year I taught for this system. Students were behaving terribly on the bus, endangering everyone on board, but there simply weren’t enough adults available to maintain order on the buses to keep the drivers around.  They tried to go on strike once, but unions are so hamstrung in my state that they never really got anything they asked for. In a way, the bus situation is a microcosm of what is wrong with the entire system.

Mississippi Voters Thwarted By Their Own Representatives

Because my former school system wasn’t the only one suffering from underfunding, last year Mississippi voters circulated a petition (pushed largely by parents and educators like me) to amend our state constitution so that our state legislature would be held accountable for adequately funding our public schools. They have been required by law to do so since 1997 when the state passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), but for the last six or seven years they have failed to do so. In fact, since 2009, our state has underfunded its schools to the tune of $1.7 Billion.

So for only the sixth time in 23 years, an initiative is being placed directly on a ballot for popular vote to amend our state constitution, but for the first time in the history of our state, our GOP-led state legislature has written an alternative amendment to place alongside the parent/teacher driven one and they named it almost the exact same thing.  The parent/teacher supported initiative is called Initiative 42. It would empower our state’s judicial system to hold the state lawmakers accountable for adequately funding their school systems (a move which many state lawmakers resent deeply).

The alternative—provided by those same legislators almost immediately upon popular approval of the first one—is called Initiative 42-A.  The upshot of the second proposal basically ensures that nothing changes in the enforcement of MAEP so that they can continue doing exactly what they are doing now.  And that’s not even the worst part about it.  Check out the ballot as it has been laid out for our voters to read this coming Tuesday:

42ballot

In case it isn’t immediately clear by the image above, not only was a confusing alternative to the parent/teacher driven initiative placed alongside its antecedent, but the ballot is worded in such a way that you have to choose not one but two options simultaneously, and exactly the right two options, or else the original initiative fails.  You have to first fill in the top bubble in order to indicate that you do in fact want the constitution to be amended, but then you have to specify which of the two amendments you want to approve. And the second amendment is essentially a decoy which effectively changes nothing, sporting an almost identical name.  Pretty sneaky, aren’t they?

Does this make your blood boil?  If it doesn’t, I don’t think you are really thinking through what I am saying.  For the first time in seven years, our state lawmakers may be forced to fulfill their own obligation toward our public educational system, but they are doing everything in their power to prevent that from happening.

But perhaps you are just shaking your head at the backward state in which I live, not realizing that the sneaky moves playing out at the state level here are actually happening all over the country whether you realize it or not.

A Nationwide Strategy, Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

The decoy amendment drafted by the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives has been championed around the state by an organization with ties to Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers.  Amanda Koonlaba, an elementary art teacher from Tupelo, reports:

Russell Latino was relatively unknown to many educators and Initiative 42 supporters until the Secretary of State’s Office began holding public forums on the issue around the state in August. The format for the forums allowed one pro-Initiative 42 speaker and one for the alternative (or anti-Initiative 42) to speak at the beginning for about ten minutes before the public had a chance to begin commenting. Latino spoke against Initiative 42 at every forum as one of the two introductory speakers.

So people around my state have been presented with a sleek, Koch funded publicity campaign for a one-of-a-kind alternative initiative crafted by our own state legislators in order to obscure the one pushed forward by more than 200,000 parents and teachers around the state. Some legislators fear this amendment so much that they’ve already begun crafting budget cuts which would lower the bar, making it easier to live up to the demand one way or another.

That’s on top of the voucher program which already passed in the state legislature earlier this year, and like the campaign mentioned above, that program was likewise crafted by an extension of the Koch brothers’ empire, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Advancing most of their “educational alternatives” through a puppet entity called the Friedman Foundation, the Koch agenda has been systematically redirecting public educational dollars toward private and parochial schools for many years now. It’s gained more ground in the red states than in the blue, but be assured that they are pouring billions into every state in order to effect changes all over the country.

42buttonAdequately funding public education should not be a partisan issue. Without an educated populace we will end up making poorer and poorer choices from among the available leadership, and the things which ail us as a country will only get worse.  I’m not convinced that “the haves” care all that much about educating “the have nots” because is that really in their best interests?  I would argue it is, but they may not see it that way. So they are pouring a great deal of time, energy, and cold hard cash into making sure the disparities that exist within our country continue as they are, or perhaps get even worse.

I do hope the people of my state will see through this ruse.  It’s a low tactic on the part of our state lawmakers, and I hope they fail.  We’ll all be voting on Initiative 42 on Tuesday, and I hope the voters make the right choice.

[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]

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