Dissecting the dilemma of District 11

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

So we’ve scarcely finished with one election, and here we go again — recall or don’t recall?
Like every other registered voter residing in School District 11, I got my ballot in the mail the other day, complete with elaborate, detailed and ambiguous instructions for filling it out and mailing it.
My favorite: “Affix appropriate postage! The post office will not deliver mail without postage!”
OK, no problem, but how much postage? Somehow, I don’t have a postal scale at home, so I’ll just slap a couple of stamps on and hope for the best. Is it too complex for El Paso County election officials to tell the hapless voter how much postage to affix? I’ll bet they even have a postal scale lying around somewhere …
However, they did manage to send me two ballots, which I thought generous of them — one for me and one for my evil twin, I guess.
So what to do with my lone ballot? Support the so-called reformers, or “end the chaos” and let the district and its employees return gratefully to comfortable mediocrity?
Fifteen years ago, when I was first elected to City Council, I sat down with one of our community’s wise men, and asked him for advice.
“There will come a time,” he said, “when all of your friends and supporters will show up at City Hall to speak in favor of some program or ordinance that you already support — and they’ll be prepared, cogent in their analysis, polite and competent. They’ll have all the right answers. And then the opponents will speak — they’ll be people whom you dislike personally, who campaigned against you, who generally oppose everything you stand for. They’ll be unprepared and rude, and they won’t make good arguments.
“But you know something? They’ll be right — and you’ll have to vote against your friends, and for your enemies — and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be there.”
So, when I consider what Eric Christen (who says he will resign from the D-11 Board prior to the recall election) says, I think that he’s right — even though he’s a jerk. Public education is in crisis, and educators need to make major changes.
But have Christen and his like-minded colleagues on the school board correctly diagnosed D-11’s problems? Are they capable of implementing positive change, even if they know that change is necessary?
I don’t think so. I don’t think that Christen, Sandy Shakes, Willie Breazell and Craig Cox have any coherent, realistic educational philosophy that will solve the problems of D-11 — but neither do their fellow board members, whose plan of action is simply to make nice and leave the administration alone.
So how to vote? Dunno — and I’m not sure that it’ll make much difference.
In business terms, D-11 isn’t Enron. It’s not about to crash and burn. It’s General Motors.
GM was once America’s great engine of productivity and manufacturing ingenuity, so much so that “Engine Charlie” Wilson, GM’s CEO could tell a congressional committee during the 1950s (without a trace of irony) that “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.”
Similarly, America’s public school system was the envy of the world, producing the workers, managers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who transformed a colonial backwater into the world’s greatest power.
And now? Toyota’s eating GM’s lunch, and, judging from test scores, dozens of countries have equaled or surpassed us in educating their young.
Were GM to declare bankruptcy, it would be unfortunate, but hardly catastrophic. But if public school systems here, and throughout the country, continue to decline, it will be a national disaster.
So that’s why we ought to feel sympathy for Christen, Cox, Steve Schuck, and the rest of the D-11 reformers. They’re right about the problems — but, I think, wrong about the solution.
In any organization, it’s impossible to introduce positive, meaningful change by simply demanding it.
For years, GM executives have downsized, streamlined and re-organized — and GM has continued to lose market share. They never quite realized that they themselves were part of the problem — it was always the union, or retiree health care or aging factories.
To this day, GM’s management is a sluggish multilevel hierarchy, ill-suited to the challenges of globalization.
So the abrasive, cocksure “reformers” took over D-11, thinking that all they had to do was yell at the hidebound administrators, sleepy board members and lazy, unionized teachers, and everything would change for the better.
They bought into the “Chainsaw Al Dunlap” theory of management — slash costs, confront labor, demand results and fire the non-performers.
Sounds good, but what if you’ve misdiagnosed the problem?
Conservative dogma, passed down as holy writ from the sainted Milton Friedman, says that public schools fail because they don’t have any serious competition. Introduce competition and presto — they improve or give way to stronger, better competitors.
After a couple of decades’ worth of charter schools, we’ve learned two things:

  • Well-behaved, disciplined, well-prepared kids will succeed in any reasonable learning environment.
  • Their opposite numbers, kids whose social/home environments have not prepared them for school, will not succeed, absent extraordinary effort.

And as the success of the so-called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools has shown, educating such children is neither simple nor inexpensive.
KIPP schools require about 60 percent more class time than their public school counterparts. They set clear and strict rules of conduct. They test frequently. Explicit goals are set, and principals can remove teachers who fail to meet goals.
Most teachers are young, energetic and enthusiastic.
Could such programs be introduced throughout District 11?
Yes. In fact, as a whole generation of teachers prepares for retirement, there’s never been a better time to re-invigorate the district’s teaching corps. And it’s clear that most residents of D-11 would gladly support a fresh emphasis on conduct, discipline and fundamental learning.
But there’s a catch. On this particular school bus, nobody rides for free.
If we want the kind of public schools that we pretend to want, we’ll have to pay. Dedicated, competent teachers? School from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.? Music, arts, lots of field trips? One month of summer vacation? Smaller class sizes? That all costs money — and who’s going to persuade the taxpayers to ante up?
Not the reformers facing recall, nor those who would replace them. The former have burned their bridges, and the latter are, at best, caretakers of the status quo.
But come next November, it’ll be time to re-fight these battles. Four seats on the seven-member board will be in play.
Will we see, once again, a replay of the tiresome right vs. left food fight? Will Schuck put forth a slate of strident anti-public education righties, and will the Polis/Gill/Stryker axis sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into opposing them?
Maybe, just maybe, the two sides might consider getting together and jointly supporting a slate of smart, experienced, collegial reformers — the kind of people who don’t pick fights, and know how to bring communities together to achieve shared goals.
Maybe, just maybe, they could begin to fix our schools … even if both sides had to give up some of their most cherished ideas.
Meanwhile, I guess that I’d better fill out that ballot, find a couple of stamps and mail them … I mean it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.