To the Teachers in My Life (aka Defending the WPU)

To the Teachers in My Life,childress_and_dugger.jpg

Last week a new Facebook page popped up for the purpose of reuniting my high school and its feeder middle schools.  A highlight of my weekend was engaging with fellow students of three amazing teachers, Mr. Childress, Mr. Dugger and Mr. Tartavoulle. 

I credit Mr. Childress for teaching me math. And not just the mechanics of math, but actually overcoming the fear and mystique of math.  This was critical as I entered college math and statistics courses.  I was determined to find a way to tap into the part of my brain I felt was not naturally blessed and to find some practical joy in it, as Mr. Childress taught me both possibilities.  I’m not sure I love math per se, but I love that math is beautiful and perfect and magical - oh yeah, and useful.  And I learned that from Mr. Childress.

Mr. Tartavoulle was an anomaly.  From him we learned the local (Louisiana) ethnic slurs, pure fear of approaching his desk, that a raised hand would be responded to with insults about intelligence or questionable parentage, and that my destiny was to marry a shrimp boater and never leave “da parish.”  But I also learned biology and chemistry, really.  I could explain mitosis and covalent bonding in my sleep.  I learned that a dissected shark would never run out of secreted liver oil.  Though some of the things he said were offensive and would never fly today, and I certainly don’t condone them, I think I learned to have some thicker skin, to not take some things too seriously, to work hard, to fight back, and to prove to him that I would NOT live on a shrimp boat the rest of my life.  I wasn’t damaged by him in the least. 

Mr. Dugger probably gave me the most enduring gift of English.  He told us a single run-on sentence would fail a college paper, so we strived for perfection in his class.  His assignments were extremely demanding.  Ultimately, I’m not sure I faced a world that had the expectations for writing and grammar and speaking he presented.  Unfortunately, for America this knowledge and skill set seems dreadfully on the decline.  From all three teachers, I learned not just the mechanics of the thing, but also the importance of self-pride in my efforts.  Proficiency in English, or lack thereof, whether in speech or writing, offers an immediate impression, often a lasting one.  Effective communication can be the key to success or failure, and I have Mr. Dugger to thank for what has been at the heart of my ability to access, communicate, teach and persuade.

By my senior year I had already taken all the science courses available to me, and I really craved more science and math.  So two teachers volunteered to oversee me taking independent classes.  One even went to the local community college and borrowed a textbook and syllabus for me.  I am quite sure they did this without extra compensation.  They made themselves available to me and went the extra mile.  Most of these teachers could be found helping students in their rooms long after the last bell rang.  They spent time away from their families attending conventions and competitions with us.  Most were active mentors giving not just time, but real devoted attention.  We watched these teachers bring supplies to class knowing they paid for them out of their personal funds.  One even offered to let me stay with her family the last two weeks of school when my parents had to unexpectedly move to Texas and I wanted to be with my friends through graduation. 

These were just the teachers we discussed via Facebook this weekend.  There were many others along the way that I think of frequently and whenever I am prompted to “thank a teacher.” In addition, there are the many teachers who have touched the lives of my 5 children.  A super exciting time a few years ago was to learn my high school best friend Monica was named Louisiana Teacher of the Year.  She was part of a group of amazing teachers and administrators who had to cobble together what remained of a school system and rebuild after Katrina.  I can’t even imagine what she had to give to that effort.  Not just the logistics, but directly to the children and to a community disrupted by disaster.  As our little FB reunion is proving, great teachers are the community adhesive, a conduit to opportunities, builders of lifelong foundations, and there are frequently no limits to what they are willing to give.

I have been a special education teacher, curriculum developer, instructional designer, school board member and a public school administrator.  My husband has been a 22-year classroom teacher, school board member, State Board of Education member, Superintendent of the Utah Schools for Deaf and Blind, and the interim State Superintendent of Public Instruction.  We are no strangers to the world of public education, from a variety of experiences. 

This year was my first time serving in the Utah Legislature, and I was assigned to the Education Committee.  I had always heard, and it was confirmed to me this session, that the legislature has an underlying mistrust of the public education system to self-implement innovation and improvements to quality education.   

Beginning with the very first bills presented, there seemed to be endless requests for funding to be diverted from the WPU to special projects and programs.  In my mind, I called these “programmies.” The WPU is the allocation of discretionary money for school districts.  They can use it anyway they choose.  Programmies typically compel a district to do a certain thing the way the legislature wants it done.  I don’t like that, mainly because I support the principle of increasing local control of education funds.  And you know why else I don’t like it?  Programmies mean less money trickling down to the classroom, the students, and the teachers.  This year educators, students and parents held a rally at the capitol asking for us to consider increasing the WPU an extra 2.25% over the 4% we had already budgeted, yet every programmie lowers the money available for the WPU!  Furthermore, if a school or district doesn’t need or want the programmie, it is penalized twice by not having programmie money and having a lower WPU.  I voted and frequently spoke against these programmies in order to preserve the WPU and to see it raised as much as possible.  I believe I had some influence on committee members to keep the programmies down and the WPU protected, and many programmies were defeated in committee. 

There were a few shocking eye-openers, however.  Several bills came to us asking for incredible amounts of money to remediate under-qualified and/or underperforming licensed professionals in our public school system.  And what does that mean?  Less WPU! Less money to teachers!  Less money to the classroom!  I fought some of these vigorously.

One example was a request to send school guidance counselors back to school.  The bill sponsor explained that many counselors had fallen out of expertise in counseling students in career and college planning and, therefore, the taxpayers of Utah should pay to remediate them.  Put another way, the students and teachers of Utah should lose funding in order to train professionals who have allowed themselves to fall below competency.  The shocker came when the representative from the school counselors association testified that 60% of counselors had become unable to offer career and college counseling!

To the teachers in my life, please consider the following:  The taxpayers of Utah already paid about 52% (about $10,000) for each of these counselor’s tuitions.  They came out of school and were paid a master’s degree salary. The primary role of the secondary school counselor is to offer career and college counseling.  If they are no longer qualified to do that, what exactly are they doing?  Seriously?  Further, the taxpayers of Utah provide literally millions of dollars to our higher education system to interface with secondary education.  There are near limitless resources and opportunities for school counselors to stay apprised of college and career options for students today, including well-researched, taxpayer funded job market projections.  They provide opportunities for counselors to go to them, and they will and do come into our schools constantly.  In a matter of a few hours as a novice Higher Education Appropriations Committee member, I found a fantastic overview of what is ahead for our graduating high school students and how they need to prepare themselves in high school and earlier.  How have so many of our school counselors not availed themselves of this knowledge when it is their primary job?  How did some ever come to think they didn’t need to or that some how the world outside was not constantly changing? 

Despite the incredible amount of taxpayer funded ongoing ability for counselors to remain relevant and skilled in their profession, their own association representative explained that 60% simply haven’t kept up.  So my questions in our committee and on the floor of the House of Representatives were, “why is this a matter for the taxpayers of Utah?”  “Where does the individual’s personal responsibility as a licensed professional for professional development end and the taxpayers’ begin?”  “Why do some districts choose to retain under-qualified counselors in this position?”  “What is the responsibility of the districts to hire and retain competent professionals that we the People pay for?”  “Why should the state legislature and the taxpayers of Utah intervene in the human resource business of school districts?”  

Teacher friends, put another way: “Why should we take money out of the WPU to pay for this?  Why should this be on your backs and the backs of our children to remediate inadequate licensed professionals?” 

This leads me to where my comments have been severely misquoted and taken out of context this week.  Apparently, when I deny a reporter a live interview because he misquoted me and did not provide accurate context in social media posts, his punishment is to continue to misquote and vilify me.  Such is the sad state of the media. Unfortunately, I intend to be an active voice on education issues and an advocate for better funding and local control.  Unfortunately, he has openly misled the public about my intentions and my actions, so I expect you will not ever get accurate reporting from him on the things I do and say.

As most people know, during the last days of the session, many bills come to us without the scrutiny or public input of a committee or two, as most bills experience.  I am always hesitant to trust these bills.  Sometimes waiting until the end of the session is a strategic maneuver to avoid scrutiny.  Other times the process itself simply delays some bills in the pipeline until committee time is over. 

On this particular occasion, I had just come out of the committee process with constant wrangling to preserve the WPU from the many requested programmies and carve outs, when a senate bill with a $7 million fiscal note was presented to us in a Republican Caucus meeting.  This bill had never been seen by House members, and did not receive any public input from citizens, the State Superintendent, UEA, PTA, JLC or any other interested groups in a public committee. 

The bill sponsor shared compelling research demonstrating a direct correlation between underperforming schools and underperforming principals, even when controlled for demographic factors.  Unfortunately, the answer in this bill was not to expect school district experts to provide a solution – it was for the state to intervene and send them back to school – with a $7 million price tag for the taxpayers!

Understandably, I was flabbergasted to hear yet another report of licensed professionals in our schools who were unqualified or incompetent in their duties.   Worse, the burden to remediate these professionals was placed on the backs of children and teachers through diverting WPU money.

My comments in the meeting were similar to my comments regarding school counselors.  Here’s what I know:  teachers are working hard day in and day out.  They aren’t paid as well as we’d like.  They don’t have all the supplies they would like in their classrooms, so they pay for them themselves and they improvise or do without.  And we are all aware of our status as the lowest per pupil funded education system.  So when I hear of another group of “professionals” who are less than qualified who we are paying to retain and remediate on the backs of children and teachers, I am beyond frustrated.  My concern is based on prudent use of taxpayer resources, not hostility toward the administrators themselves.  If we are not investing in the right things the right way, would it be better to take a step back or to refine our efforts?  My question is whether more money is the only answer.  Is there some other structural flaw in the qualification and hiring process?  Because the state already subsidizes higher education to the tune of 52%.

I was completely misrepresented in the press as a teacher hater, but the opposite was actually the case – I was the biggest advocate of support for the great educators in our system, and to preserve the discretionary money for the school districts where those great teachers work!

My position is pretty simple.  So I’m not misrepresented again, I’ll put it here in writing myself:  Teachers and children deserve qualified leaders in their schools.  They deserve knowledgeable counselors guiding students.  And they deserve more funding going to them, not to licensed professionals who have allowed themselves to become obsolete or otherwise unqualified in their careers. 

If you are in a school that has a great principal and great counselors and you are led by a superintendent who makes good employment decisions, why should you be penalized and lose funding to a district with lower professional standards? 

So, Teacher friends, these were my questions that were misquoted or quoted out of context.  For one, we weren’t talking about teachers at all!  We were talking about principals and counselors!  I did refer to this as a work ethic related matter.  You go to conferences, you take CEU’s, you read books, you Google search, you work in PLCs, you collaborate with colleagues on internet forums.  You do everything you can to be a fantastic teacher, to improve your skills, to learn new things.  You do most of that on your own time and mostly with your own money.  That is your work ethic. 

So why should you give of your classroom funding and potential income to pay to remediate other licensed professionals?  Those of us in that meeting live with the reality that if we don’t remain at the top of our game we can be replaced by someone more qualified.  I asked why some education professionals do not bear the same responsibility to qualify themselves for their jobs.  I asked why the districts don’t have more responsibility for the HR decisions to retrain or retain. My thoughtful question was, “why is there an expectation that someone else should remediate licensed professionals?”  My question was simply where does the individual’s personal responsibility for professional development end and the taxpayers’ begin?  We should certainly provide opportunity, but the greater responsibility should lie with the individual, as it does in other professions.  There are certainly financial incentives already in place for continued education and professional development.  At what point do these professionals need to meet us halfway?

I asked why this remediation strategy should be born on the backs of children and taxpayers through lost WPU funding?  In this bill, like the counseling bill, there was no requirement for the underperforming employee to fund her/his new education, without which s/he shouldn’t remain in the position at all.  And there was no requirement of the district to help fund the remediation of their employees, who, again, without that training should not remain in the position.  These kinds of bills can create incentive for some people to not work to improve themselves, rather to wait for the state to pay them to do it, and to do it the state’s way.  I believe the overwhelming majority of professionals in education are not inclined toward this, that most have an incredible personal ethic and desire to constantly improve.

Teacher friends, the legislature chose, in several instances, to fund you less to pay to remediate a few. 

I am fundamentally opposed to that.  I was an active fighter for the WPU this session, as anyone present in committee meetings can attest to.  And this is because, once again, any effort to carve away programmies or remediate under-qualified personnel takes money out of YOUR pocket!



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