Everyone who is sick of the Greg Nickels Grandstand Show please raise your hand. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Now, can we please leave the fucking school board alone?
The Seattle School Board has been tangling with two of the most difficult issues any school board has to face: a looming budget deficit and school closures. Instead of sitting in closed sessions and making the decisions by fiat (as prior boards might have done), the current school board has chosen to make the process an open and democratic one that includes plenty of public input. Unfortunately, along with helpful input from parents, the school board and superintendent have also received abusive and racist input, too.
The public is impatient and unfamiliar with the democratic process. American democracy has been reduced to voting once a year for pre-selected millionaire candidates and spending the rest of our time anesthetized by “reality” TV, Internet porn, and frenzied shopping sprees. Local “news” never involves an in-depth look at how the Seattle School Board struggles to choose which schools to close; instead, we’re treated to endless coverage of the life of a 30-something Microsoft lawyer who died when a construction crane fell on him. Do we even give a shit? (Clearly, if he’d been a 50-something school board member, the story never would have made the front page.)
The daily newspapers are even worse. Instead of a balanced look at problems in Seattle schools, we get a barrage of editorials excoriating the Seattle School Board for not tackling budget problems and taking too long to decide about school closures. Apparently, someone needs to explain to the public, including newspapers editors, that the democratic process takes time. And effort. And more time. Political decisions are not something we can shove into a microwave and, voila, two minutes later we have hot, cooked compromises ready to swallow. It can take weeks and months to reach decisions on difficult issues, and if the process has been an open one, the end product is usually a compromise that most folks can live with.
Unless you’re Mayor Greg Nickels.
With the school board struggling under a barrage of criticism from parents and the media, it was only a matter of time before Czar Nickels jumped on the bandwagon. First, he announced his desire to take over the management of the Seattle School District–never mind that the city government has no authority over anything related to the public schools (that falls under the role of the state government, not local governments).
As part of the coup, Czar Nickels promptly proposed that his own lieutenant be appointed as the next superintendent: former mayor Norm Rice, whose only qualifications for the job are that he’s African-American, a former czar himself, and has a nice smile (as opposed to the out-going Superintendent Raj Manhas, who rarely smiles at all).
Offended, the school board rejected Rice, because they’d already launched a nationwide search for Manhas’ successor. Presumably they’re looking for someone with prior experience running a school or a school district. In other words, they’re doing their jobs–which, of course, hasn’t stopped our local newspapers from criticizing them for not kowtowing to the Czar.
But does Norm Rice even know anything about schools? No. His plan for saving Seattle schools is full of meaningless rhetoric and an undisguised desire to be back in the command chair again. Remember, in the 1990s, when the mayor and city council were engaged in shady public-private partnerships? When the city built an expensive downtown parking garage for Nordstrom? When the city gave away the PacMed building to Amazon.com in a 99-year lease for almost nothing? When the city agreed to a downtown bus tunnel that sprang leaks and included built-in tracks for light rail that were the wrong size? Remember? Well, that was Mayor Norm Rice.
I should say right now that I don’t attend Seattle public schools and I don’t have children, but I have friends who do. Their kids are getting a decent education, from what I can tell. In fact, they’re getting a much better education than I received from a rural Pierce County school district that boasted a 50% dropout rate and where most of the college-bound students were headed for two-year voc-tech training courses at local community colleges. The rest of the graduates of my high school joined the military.
Still, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a third world country with no public education system at all, or one where the teachers were routinely slaughtered by death squads because, as the most literate and educated members of their communities, they spoke out against government oppression. And I’m glad that my school district had enough money to put buses on the road, books on the desks, and teachers in the classroom; there are school districts all over the country and the world that struggle to do just that.
What we tend to forget is this: to get top-quality schools we need to spend more money per pupil and raise teacher salaries. Higher salaries attract better teachers. More money provides more options. Period. This is not just my personal opinion, but the opinion of folks who’ve compared education systems around the country. The defining difference between a school district where the kids do well academically and one where they don’t boils down to dollar signs.
Why is this so hard to understand, in a country where most of us think that money can buy happiness? Marrying a millionaire might make us happy, but cutting school funding won’t hurt our kids’ test scores? C’mon!
If we want our schools to do better, we shouldn’t put Norm Rice in charge, we should insist that the state and federal governments come up with more funds, and that they help the school board balance the budget. In the meantime, let’s give the school board a break.