Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Parents versus teachers

Trouble in paradise!

HONOLULU--At a time when President Barack Obama is pushing for more time in the classroom, his home state has created the nation's shortest school year under a new union contract that closes schools on most Fridays for the remainder of the academic calendar.

The deal whacks 17 days from the school year for budget-cutting reasons and has education advocates charging that Hawaii is drastically cutting the academic calendar at a time when it already ranks near the bottom in national educational achievement.

While many school districts have laid off or furloughed teachers, reduced pay and planning days and otherwise cut costs, Hawaii's 171,000 public schools students now find themselves with only 163 instructional days, compared with 180 in most districts in the U.S.

That poses a couple of problems. As the article points out, the Obama administration has made having kids in school more hours a year, starting earlier, one of the hallmarks of its “education” policy. So here is his home state cutting back on the school year. But I don’t think the big issue is “education”. Here is the real problem:

"It's just not enough time for the kids to learn,'' said Valerie Sonoda, president of the Hawaii State Parent Teacher Student Association. "I'm getting hundreds of calls and emails. They all have the same underlying concern, and that is the educational hours of the kids.''

Riiiight. Maybe it is me being cynical, but I am thinking that the real problem is not as much education as it is supervision. What are working parents going to do when their kids are not being warehoused by the state on Fridays? I imagine that the outraged parents are more likely outraged by the inconvenience of having their kids home 17 days of the work week unexpectedly. If the real concern was education, it is easy enough for teachers to assign extra homework (since home in the evenings is where an awful lot of school takes place anyway) or even, GASP, some independent reading projects that require more than scribbling notes and regurgitating information. Oh no, this has nothing to do with education and everything to do with inconvenience.

This event is not isolated, but is the very real direction we are heading. It is really interesting in that it pits two groups against one another because of a violation of an unspoken but very real social contract: Schools will continue to suck money out of the community in return for warehousing kids for most of the work day so that both parents can work outside of the home. That is the deal and it has been in force for all of my life. That is being broken as schools, bloated with bureaucracy and overpaid staff, find that revenue is not keeping up with expenses. So in the balancing act between keeping staff employed and “education”, keeping staff employed wins out.

It should be interesting to see how this pans out. The recession we are in is exposing the funding issues in education, as public schools keep coming with their hands outstretched to ask for more and more money at the same time people are losing jobs and their homes are losing value. The old system where housing prices kept going up and therefore property taxes, the main driver in most states of education funding, also kept going up is clearly broken. Ask a homeowner in Michigan who has seen the real value of their home plummet with no corresponding drop in their property taxes or even in many cases an increase in their taxes. I wonder if you put it to a vote, lay off some staff or close school on Friday, how parents would vote? I would bet the “lay of staff” stance would win out.

As the economic world changes and America’s dominance diminishes we are simultaneously seeing a precipitous decline in the birth rate in America along with a rise in the number of kids in private schools, charter schools or homeschooled. If there 1 million kids homeschooled in America and you figure an average class size of 30 pupils per teacher, that works out to some 33,000 teachers who are not employed because of homeschoolers. Add to that the millions more that are in public and charter school and you can see why teachers unions are so incensed whenever anyone mentions schooling alternatives that don’t include union teachers. As the teachers unions get more desperate, expect them to push even harder to restrict home education and fight tooth and nail to shut down charter schools. Lest you get the impression that I think teachers unions have no purpose, let me quote a few more lines from the article:

The new contract, approved by 81% of voting teachers, stipulates 17 furlough Fridays during which schools will be closed, with the first happening Oct. 23. The teachers accepted a concurrent pay reduction of about 8%, but teacher vacation, nine paid holidays and six teacher planning days are left untouched.

The new agreement also guarantees no layoffs for two years and postpones the implementation of random drug testing for teachers.

Now there is a noble goal for the union, negotiating out random drug testing for teachers! See, teachers union do have a purpose, protecting teachers who use illegal drugs from detection.

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