Opinion » Bill Cope

Crumbling Foundations

Part I: The student as commodity


Parents, teachers, students, any and all who are alarmed by the cliff over which Idaho public education is in imminent danger of careening ... I am pleased to announce the birth of a new foundation. This foundation's immediate mission is to counter the absurd claim by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's ridiculous reforms must be adopted because everything they tried didn't work. Its long-range purpose is to resist the ruination of America's public school systems by disingenuous right-wing demagogues who pattern themselves after that patronizing saint of disingenuous right-wing demagogues, Ronald W. Reagan. In fact, I am tempted to call it the R.W. Reagan Foundation and would feel entirely justified in doing so for the following reasons: 1) like Joe and Kathryn, Reagan is not available to dispute his name being used to promote something he might not support were he still alive, and 2) as the man who pushed the dope of voracious privatization with which we still struggle, it's high time Reagan did something for all the non-right-wing demagogues of this country, even if it's only to lend his name to a worthy purpose. But until I decide for sure, let us call it the Save Our Students From Tom Luna Foundation.

Those who have been paying attention to the tactical formations assembling for or against Luna's ridiculous reforms--(in the pursuit of accuracy, SOSFTLF will never print the words "Luna's" and "reforms" without inserting "ridiculous" in the middle)--will have seen JAKAF's full-page Idaho Statesman ad two weeks ago. It came as a shock for those who believed JAKAF was a nonpartisan institution with the noble intention of improving our educational environment. But the ad showed a bitter truth: JAKAF has become no different from any of the other carnival barkers (i.e., Idaho Farm Bureau, Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry) who shill for the in-state corporate oligarchy. (The relationships are so incestuous, JAKAF's CEO until recently sat on the board of directors of a Virginia-based online provider that contributed most generously to getting Luna elected. More on this in Part II.)

The JAKAF ad might never have surfaced had the public's response to Luna's ridiculous reforms not been so overwhelmingly negative. But as JAKAF has injected itself into the debate, Idahoans need to examine seriously the arguments it makes. SOSFTLF would like to join with those who have made the enlightenment of our youngsters their purpose in life (i.e., the Idaho Education Association, more than 15,000 Idaho teachers, and thousands of conscientious parents) and refute JAKAF's ridiculous support of Luna's ridiculous reforms. Let us start with the claim that, by virtue of having shoveled $400 million into Idaho's education system over a 15-year span, JAKAF is now an authority on the subject.

That much money over that period of time averages out to less than $27 million a year--which alongside an annual budget of $1 billion is hardly an impressive figure. Yet from the vaunted position as a drop in the bucket, it feels confident in declaring: "While money matters, it is NOT the solution."

The ad goes on to explain how critical a college education is to the future workforce, and how poorly positioned Idaho is to contribute to that educated working population.

"Only one in four high school graduates is deemed college ready," the ad warns, and "Idaho is in the bottom 10 states for college-going rates, and dead last ... for our postsecondary retention rates."

We trust that JAKAF has those numbers straight. We are depressingly aware of how miserably Idaho ranks in most categories, including the money-per-student ratio--which is 49th in the nation--and average pay for our teachers, which is 39th. Those are inconvenient figures that JAKAF does not provide in its ad, and nowhere on the page does it admit that there may be a cause-and-effect between Idaho's miserly investment in students and the dismal return they bring in terms of going to college and staying there until they graduate. (Nor does it bring up the reality that Idaho's institutions of higher learning are, semester after semester, charging more and offering less, but that's for another discussion.)

Parents, if you knew your children were "dead last" at something, how would you remedy the problem? Would you adopt some goosey, ideology-driven solution that would eliminate as many of the field's hands-on experts as possible--a la Luna's ridiculous reforms? Or would you inquire as to why better performers are performing better? Why are so many other nations kicking our academic asses? Do you seriously suppose it's by eliminating teachers and kindergartens, then steering students and tax dollars to online cronies? Why do Connecticut and Massachusetts have the highest percentage of degree holders in the nation? And pointedly, why are states that would never dream of electing a man of Luna's caliber to the highest education office consistently at the top of the same lists Idaho is consistently at the bottom of?

This will be a most crucial societal challenge confronting Idahoans, this choice between our kids' best interests and a few extremists' dogmatic fever to privatize things that should never be reduced to profit/loss. Next week, we will examine how out-of-state concerns are fueling this horror. Until then, ask yourselves: 1) if Luna is so damn proud of this plan of his, why'd he wait until the election was over to bring it up and 2) just how disingenuous does a guy have to be in Idaho to get himself recalled from office?