Sunday, August 23, 2009

Back to School and Fall Elections

The past two weeks have been filled with back to school events and preparation for the fall elections. It's just that time of year.

On August 10, I had the honor and privilege of speaking to the newest group of national board candidates who committed most of that week in August to preparing themselves for the most rigorous of professional development processes. They demonstrated their resolve and commitment to the process by going through the intense JumpStart training that is offered each year jointly by the Hampton Public Schools and the VEA.

The national board process is not for sissies...and it's not for people who are looking for a few easy professional development points. It's a process that requires individuals to delve deeply into their teaching practice, their philosophy, and to question and reflect on the multitude of decisions that they make as professionals each and every day. It is also a process for those in our profession who are deeply committed to students and achievement and want an opportunity to prove their mettle. I am a national board certified teacher myself, so I am very well aware of the sacrifice that these folks will be making as they immerse themselves in this most rigorous process. I wish them all well and congratulate them on having just made the decision to put themselves on the line in this way.

I also attended and presented at the Northern Virginia Regional Rep Training in Loudoun. I presented a session on "Current Issues and Advocacy." I found out later that the session was listed as "Critical Issues" on their agenda, so I had apparently misread the topic when I got my assignment. I decided that since our current issues are also, for the most part, critical in nature and they require our collective advocacy, it all worked out.

My presentation included the current debate over health care, the recognition that the economic crisis is having a major impact on what we do in the classroom as declining resources bump up against growing needs. We all know that we worry everyday about those students who don't have enough support at home to be successful in school. That means adequate housing, a healthy diet, and good health care that includes preventive medicine as well as an opportunity for medical attention when needed. Those essential needs impact the quality of life of our students, and when they come to school after spending a night in the car--assuming the family still has a car--hungry and/or sick--is it any wonder that their attention in school is lacking and their level of achievement is negatively impacted?

The upcoming elections here in Virginia are also beginning to heat up. I don't think most people will start to pay serious attention until after Labor Day when the traditional election season begins. There are many political pundits who are already weighing in, however, and within the circles where folks have something riding on the upcoming gubernatorial election, the debate is already heated.

We at the VEA are wholeheartedly recommending to our members for their consideration the gubernatorial candidate, Senator Creigh Deeds.

Creigh has been a long time friend of the Virginia Education Association. His 18-year record as a legislator--first in the House of Delegates and later as state Senator--has yielded a 93.5% voting record on our issues. In most school divisions around the state, that would round up to an "A" on his report card.

Even more significantly, Creigh has been consistent in his support, and we appreciate his heartfelt belief that the right to a quality public education is the responsibility of the state and an obligation that we owe every child in the Commonwealth.

Some will dismiss our recommendation because there is the mistaken belief that the VEA is only ever going to recommend those in the Democratic party. I suggest that those critics take a closer look. We are, in fact, recommending some Republican friends because we are issue driven and party blind. We don't care what party one belongs to. We care about their position on our issues.

There are those who would misrepresent or mis-characterize or take our comments out of context for their own political aims, however. And while they think they are clever in their derision, they just strike me as unable to debate the merits of the issue every time they feel the need to criticize me personally or the VEA in general.

Just this week, for example, my name was used in not so flattering terms with regard to characterizing our VEA legislative and policy positions in at least three different forums: the Family Foundation Blog; The Richmond Times Dispatch opinion section on Friday, August 21; and today in the Washington Post, as the head of the Virginia Republican Party attempted to mis-characterize comments that I made to a group of our members with regard to our position on charter schools.

What I said was that we were working with the administration in Washington on those issues because the "devil is in the details." And I believe that to be the case. I also contended in an article that was printed in the Washington Post a few weeks ago that in Virginia, we don't need a proliferation of charter schools because we believe that we already have many avenues already available to our communities that allows for innovation and creativity within the public school sector. I also contended and continue to contend that the authority for establishing charter schools should remain with the local school board--not with the state board of education.

What I find unfortunate is that the folks who disagree with us on these and similar issues can't seem to separate the issues from personalities. Please, let us debate the merits and demerits of the issue of charter schools, pay for performance, vouchers and tax credits. But can't we do it without the negative tone of implied derision and open disrespect that comes with name calling and the deliberate mis-characterization and misinterpretation of positions?

Whatever happened to the process of civil public discourse?

I think we as adults set a terrible example for our children when we engage in disrespectful public debate. We know better. We should do better.

In the meantime, however, as the President of the VEA, I will continue to advocate for the policies and positions that have been adopted by the VEA Delegate Assembly who gives me my marching orders.

We are very clear that as professional educators, we know something about best practice and what is in the best interest of the students we teach. We will continue to advocate for them because that is what we do.

That is why this week, the VEA sponsored the "Caps Hurt Kids" Rally at the Bell Tower in Richmond. We contend that the Governor's proposal to permanently cap the number of support personnel hired by the school divisions around the state, if made permanent, will do irreparable harm to our ability to do our job and to the students we teach.

I wound up this week attending the New Teacher Orientation of the first-year teachers starting out their careers in Page County. I talked to those new teachers about the fact that they have entered a time honored profession. They have many challenges before them, but there is something so special about the first day of school where we all feel the excitement that surrounds new possibilities and new beginnings.

For those of you who are already back to work, I hope you are having a great year.

For those who have yet to go back but will be going back sooner rather than later, I hope you have a great beginning.

Know that the VEA is here to support our members and our students. That's who are are. That's what we do.

Until next time.