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My Turn: A healthy future for public education

For the Monitor
Published: 8/20/2021 7:00:04 AM

Recently, Democratic Governor Kate Brown signed Oregon’s SB 744 ending graduation proficiency requirements. Sad but true. Now the Beaver State sanctions graduating students from high school who can’t read, write or do math. This is in line with dumbing-down movements found nationwide. Some schools have done away with college prep tracts, honors programs and valedictorians. Gifted students with unique talents get less than 1% of the funding support compared to students with other special needs.

A lifelong educator and former NEA member, I’m with those who are very troubled by the direction public education continues to take. Our education spending has never been higher, despite fewer students and falling standardized test scores. Public education has never been held in lower regard. What happened?

Much of the answer relates to the politicization and unionization of public education. While these trends are nothing new, the COVID pandemic shined a bright light on the dangerous long-term effects of the education establishment’s focus on supporting teacher unions as opposed to communities, families and student achievement.

While parochial and private schools remained open for in-person learning all last year, public schools went to part-time or hybrid learning models. Many schools in places like Nashua closed their doors for over a year, to the massive frustration of parents and to the detriment of young learners. Too many school doors remained closed. It was scandalous, tragic and unnecessary. No wonder so many parents clamored for school choice.

Many of us remember heroic and inspiring teachers who helped shape our life journeys. These teachers are still out there. They’ll share privately that they wanted to return to their classrooms but did not want to deal with grief from organized associations. Such is the pernicious influence of the unions, who collect huge amounts of money to support Democratic candidates who toe the union establishment line, at the expense of students, families and learning.

Federal tax documents from three years ago show that New Hampshire teachers surrendered $7 million to the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association. According to NH Journal, $5.2 million went to union salaries and benefits. The NEA-NH president “earned” $215,000 or three and a half times the average New Hampshire teacher. The executive director made even more, $218,000. Several staff attorneys took home over $200,000.

And the highly-paid lobbyists for the school board, municipal and school administrators associations can be counted on to similarly do the bidding of the education establishment at the expense of students, families and learning. Tax dollars indirectly pay for these people to lobby against what most taxpayers want.

And yet the education establishment demands evermore. Our previous legislature, controlled by Democrats who received “mucho dinero” from union members, set aside a half-million dollars for a partisan school funding “study commission” to set the stage for further legislation to direct money to union allies and their causes under the guise of “equity.” The stacked 18-member commission consisted of education establishment types. Of the six legislators, only one was a Republican, and he bravely cast the solitary opposing vote against the flawed Commission Report.

But pesky Granite State voters threw a monkey wrench into the works by flipping the radical Democratic legislature to a Republican body for the current term, the only legislature in the country to flip during the last election.

Democratic positions on GOP education reform measures during the most recent legislative session are illustrative.

HB 320 called for Granite State students to pass the naturalization test that new citizens need to study. This 128-question assessment would give all students a solid base in civics fundamentals while reassuring parents who are concerned about the activist nature of some civics classes which focus on climate change or critical race theory as opposed to the constitution. Some polls indicated 80% support for the civics requirement, which proved very successful in other states. Naturally, the Democrats vehemently oppose bills that emphasize accountability, assessment and transparency.

HB 321 simply called for schools to share with our Department of Education what, if anything, they do to identify and support gifted students. With research indicating that New Hampshire is somewhere around 50th in the nation in terms of gifted student initiatives, this seemed like an easy and overdue measure. With no spending or policy requirements, HB 321 would establish a “Best Practices” folder for good ideas to be shared.

And HB 69 was a simple bill to protect schools that might seek to display our state or national mottos. The Democrats were apoplectic. The floor argument of a Democratic speaker on June 10 against HB 69 is a classic example of contorted and dreary reasoning to denigrate our mottos that sadly typifies the current progressive mindset that’s brought public education to its current reduced state.

So what next? There are lessons to be gleaned from recent trends and events. The unionization and politicization of public education need to be addressed. A new paradigm is desperately needed to reverse the downward trajectory of public support for public schools. Brave teachers need to step up and speak out. Educators that are motivated by teaching’s intrinsic rewards, not just financial recompense. And we need school board candidates who will advocate for students, families, assessments, accountability, achievement and transparency, as opposed to inordinately focusing on school funding and union benefits.

The renowned American education reformer John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience.” But we need to do more than reflect. We need to act. A healthy future for public education – and our American society – requires action. The current Legislature has taken some nice early steps. We now need brave teachers and new school board candidates to walk with us. Let’s keep going.

(Mike Moffett is a NH state representative who lives in Loudon. A former school board member, he serves on the House Education Committee.)

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