'Working the Refs'

You could call it "working the refs": complaining that the other side is getting an unfair advantage or is getting by with dirty tricks. It's a way to try and garner sympathy and support from objective observers.

Private school choice proponents in South Carolina have recently been crying foul a lot lately -- and, honestly, they sound like a bunch of whiners.

Take prominent blogger Will Folks, for example: He described a recent report in The State about lawmakers who have accepted money from New York libertarian Howard Rich as a "hatchet job." His assertion was that Rich's contributions to politicians in South Carolina is a non-story because, after all, it's legal to give money to political campaigns.

Campaign donations are indeed legal, but good grief. Folks doesn't believe it's newsworthy that some guy in New York has been donating tens of thousands of dollars to legislative candidates in the backwaters of South Carolina (and in the cities, too, for that matter)?! I don't care whose side you're on -- I'd say this is pretty interesting stuff. It's also noteworthy, in my opinion, that nearly all of these politicians support private school choice -- one of Rich's pet causes.

As for whether the article in The State was a "hatchet job," I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder. I thought reporter Gina Smith did a good job of giving equal time to both sides. She even let the dubious "one-size-fits-all" claim, oft-repeated by school choice proponents, go unchallenged.

Smith also quoted a fellow named Neil Mellen, who is a spokesman for the private school choice advocacy group South Carolinians for Responsible Government (SCRG). He cries foul over the fact that school administrators have encouraged teachers to get involved in the political process. Smith writes that Mellen's group and other school choice proponents "point to emails, acquired through the state’s open records law, that show principals and other school officials have encouraged public school teachers to phone lawmakers to express their opposition to school-choice legislation."

Mellen told Smith, "No matter one’s stance on school choice, this practice is fundamentally threatening to democratic institutions. It replaces rule of law with political patronage. It makes voters and taxpayers subservient to the government."

Since when has it been wrong for managers to keep employees abreast of political happenings that could affect their jobs? How in the world is it wrong for school administrators to let teachers know how lawmakers stand on issues that have to do with public education? I would argue that it's the job of superintendents to raise awareness among their employees and out in the community about policy proposals related to education.

Sure, if principals told teachers that they MUST vote for certain candidates or that they will be fired if they don't support a particular political cause, then we'd have a real scandal.

As it is, I think Mellen is clearly off-base. (Molly Spearman, director of the SC Association of School Administrators, noted that school officials are very careful to follow the law in such communications.) But I suspect he has a well thought-out strategy in mind.

First of all, SCRG may fear -- rightly -- that informed and politically active teachers could represent a huge voting block that could defeat pro-private school choice candidates. If Mellen and others in his camp can make enough noise, "work the refs" effectively enough, and bully school administrators into being quiet, then maybe they can keep educators from mobilizing on their own behalf.

The other piece of Mellen's strategy, I think, is to continue his group's campaign to demonize public education leaders. SCRG has created a steady drumbeat of op-eds, blog posts, and so-called research in effort to convince the public that their local school administrators are greedy, wasteful, and unconcerned with the well-being of their students. They have claimed that less than half the money in public education gets to the classroom. Technically, they may be correct -- but only if you count as non-classroom expenses librarians, school nurses, guidance counselors, bus transportation, and other basics that are necessities (and usually required by law). But SCRG is suggesting that teachers could have better salaries and more support if only superintendents weren't wasting piles of money.

This column isn't intended to be the definitive piece on the value of school administrators -- how much they should be paid, how hard they work, how much they care about their students, etc. I'll just say this: Superintendents get paid well, and some make very handsome salaries. They also have large staffs and are responsible daily for the safety of thousands of children. They oversee all kinds of programs and numerous separate facilities. A corporate manager with a similar level of responsibility probably makes 2-3 times the salary or more.

As in any field, there are bound to be some lousy administrators in public education, and you could find inefficiencies in almost any organization, public or private. Meanwhile, there may be some bosses in public schools who treat their staff members poorly. And, by nature, there's typically some amount of friction in most any employer-employee dynamic.

But the notion that the typical school superintendent doesn't care about the academic well-being of children is preposterous. And the effort to pit teachers against administrators is nothing more than an obvious divide-and-conquer strategy. Hopefully, educators will see it for what it is. If you ask me, they've got a lot to lose if they fall for the tactics of SCRG and the rest.

Posted on April 16th in News

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