Feature                                                 Pages 30-32


Standing Up for Public Education

Angered by the sweeping putdowns of teachers, a Texas superintendent raises his voice to lead the pushback against wayward legislators

 Kuhn rally
Public education boosters marched to the Texas State Capitol during the annual Save Texas Schools rally in 2013. 

One evening in 2006, I sat down with my wife to watch the popular network television newsmagazine “20/20.” A segment appeared that night called “Stupid in America,” hosted by John Stossel. It was presented as an exposé of the failing American public education system, and it hit me like a punch in the gut.

 At that time, I was an educator of nine years, a Spanish teacher turned assistant principal with experience at a couple of different schools. I usually enjoyed “20/20,” but not that night. Teachers, the segment argued, were malefactors. They were, Stossel implied, bad partners to the rest of American society. When he turned his sights on teachers — doing his part to reduce the reputation of an entire profession to collateral damage in rhetorical warfare — I was confused. As a young conservative, I had considered him to be one of the good guys in journalism.

I couldn’t go along with him this time. My experience with public school teachers had been much different than what Stossel presented in the piece.

Sense of Betrayal

The news report seemed to me a better example of confirmation bias than of objective journalism. By highlighting example after example of struggling public schools, subpar public school teachers and misguided local practices, the TV news producers had crafted a persuasive and disheartening narrative about our nation’s education system.

To my chagrin, nary an example made it into the report of a successful traditional public school, an inspiring public school teacher or an innovative public school program. Instead, alternative schooling arrangements outside of neighborhood schools were proffered as the only possible antidote to our hopeless public education system. The report’s willful blindness to the successes wrought by our nation’s long-standing public education promise was depressing — and telling.

I vividly remember talking about the program with my three sisters — all of them teachers. I recall the sense of betrayal we all felt. That was the moment when I realized teacher bashing had gone mainstream.

When I chose to become a public school teacher, I was admittedly naive. I blame my upbringing. I had grown up in a tiny Texas town where the local school was the heart of the community. There was no police department or local hospital. Aside from a gas station and a feed store, there were no businesses. There was no mayor or city council. The closest thing we had to a city hall was the school, and the closest thing to city leaders were the superintendent and two campus principals just up the gravel road from my house.

I always believed I received a quality education in my school of 350 students. My teachers cared, and they taught me well. I made it through college wholly on the basis of their instruction.

And so I was idealistic when I started teaching. I grew up with a big-city firefighter for a father. He was a public servant and he was brave, and I was (and am) a proud son. Like my father, I would serve my community, and like teachers from my own childhood, I would help students pursue their dreams and equip them for their futures. I went into public education certain I could be proud of my life’s mission. I knew I’d never get rich, but I took solace in an assumption that I’d enjoy the recompense of support from my neighbors for choosing an important civic duty as my occupation.

 Kuhn speaking
John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt School District in Perrin, Texas, addressed a major rally in support of public education in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 23, 2013.
A Rabble-Rouser’s Rise

“Stupid in America” was the first time I noticed this rhetoric intended to disparage my calling, to etch a black mark on the sublime title of teacher. It was the first example I noticed, but hardly the last, and hardly the most overblown. From signature hysterics such as the line comparing our public schooling to “an act of war” in 1983’s “A Nation at Risk” to the claim in the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations report, “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” that America’s “physical safety is at risk” because of the public schools, the messaging has been as relentless as it has been hyperbolic.

Cognizant that poison was being actively injected into our nation’s conversation about teaching, as a young principal I asked my teachers to stand during the annual Meet the Teacher night. I wanted my community to know what kind of people taught their kids, to hopefully help them see beyond the disparaging things they had heard about public schools and peer into the hearts of the people who work with their children.

“Raise your hand,” I asked the gaggle of teachers, “if you’re a military veteran, if you’ve taught Sunday school, if you’ve volunteered as a scout leader, if you’ve served on the volunteer fire department.” The teachers raised their hands again and again, and the crowd cheered. I choked back tears. It was a good thing. Accolades for teachers had all but evaporated in the media, replaced with vitriol. My teachers needed that applause that night. It did us all good.

Around that same time, I happened to discover for the first time that my state funded school districts at widely disproportionate per-pupil levels. A teacher had asked me why the pay scale in our district was lower than pay scales around us, and I relayed the question to my superintendent. He explained that it was simple: Those schools had higher property values and, as such, obtained more revenue for education. More money to spend means higher pay.

With this sudden knowledge of a brazen injustice, my future role as a rabble-rouser was sealed.

“The state publicly labels schools with lower test scores as failures, but it tells no one that those same schools can receive less money to operate on?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” he replied.

When I explained this foundational inequality of school resourcing to my staff at our next faculty meeting, they didn’t really seem to believe me. They were being set up by the state of Texas to fail.

Reign of Inequities

How could it be? The era of school accountability is a tragic dual age of secret inequities on the one hand and hyper-publicized blame on the other, and the blame is directed squarely at teachers by the very politicians who themselves wrote the inequity into the law books.

“Accountability for results,” a favored phrase of the critics, never extended to funding decisions made at the state capital. It never extended past the classroom, in fact. When it comes to the education-compromising, child-harming, teacher-demoralizing social and political failings of our nation, it seems no one is to blame. The fierce urgency of the teacher-bashing education reformer is nowhere to be found. These lazy teachers, we are told, put our nation’s safety at risk, yet the things we can’t pin on teachers, such as school funding gaps and our nation’s 25 percent child poverty rate — the highest in the developed world — are allowed to persist, corroding not only children’s education but also their health, hope and every other aspect of their lives — with no meaningful condemnation from the powerful voices assailing teachers on a regular basis. The silence is deafening.

When I learned that Texas funded schools unequally, I bit my tongue and suppressed the urge to call out the enablers of these inequities just long enough to get a job as a superintendent. It was a rotten time to become a superintendent, truth be told. The Great Recession had hit, and our state legislature hacked more than $5 billion out of the education budget in 2011 alone. Like every other school district leader, I hunted for savings. Like every other school leader, I could only find them in payroll. There would be layoffs.

I had the opportunity during this time of angst to hear an address by a member of the state Senate Education Committee. The speaker, representing a wealthy suburban area, had been instrumental in crafting and preserving our state’s notably inequitable school funding system. She also had been the lead architect of a state testing system that had grown out of control, requiring high school students at that time to pass 15 standardized tests to earn a diploma. This was a felicitous arrangement for the testing contractor. Texas expended almost $500 million in taxpayer support for five years’ worth of bubble tests.

The senator frowned as she told us that times were really tough, the state was broke, and we would all have to share the pain. Nonetheless, she said, educational accountability was important, and the half-billion dollar testing price tag was “non-negotiable.”

That one word — non-negotiable — turned me into an activist.

Popular Uprising

I saw red. “You’re saving the test but not the teachers,” I told her when she took questions at the end of her speech. I left the meeting and immediately wrote an open letter to my state representatives — the “New Alamo Letter,” it’s been called — begging them to “come to our aid” and informing them we in the schools were feeling “besieged.”

The letter wound up on The Washington Post’s education blog and went viral. Over the next few weeks, I received hundreds of e-mails and dozens of calls of support from all over the country. Speeches would follow, including one I delivered on the steps of the state Capitol in Austin in 2011 before 13,000 rallying public education supporters, and another one before 8,000 marchers later that summer in Washington, D.C.

That was almost four years ago. I’ve tried to tone things down since, but the fire in my belly hasn’t cooled by a single degree. I still see injustice in school funding inequity, and I don’t know what else to call it besides immoral. I still see unchecked vandalism in policymakers’ creative misuses of testing and can’t stop wondering whether they are deliberately or only accidentally undermining public schools. I still fume at the blatant hypocrisy when elected officials choose humane pedagogies for their children and assign test-and-punish pedagogies to everyone else’s.

I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe I damaged my career prospects by speaking out 3½ years ago and by writing two books, Fear and Learning in America — Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education and Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity. I tell myself I’ve done what was good for my own children, and I’m gratified to see a growing national pushback to what I believe is destructive education policy.

It remains to be seen if research-impervious American education practices, such as testing overkill and the politicization of children’s performance data, can withstand a populist uprising.

I hope they can’t.

John Kuhn is superintendent of Perrin-Whitt School District in Perrin, Texas. E-mail: jkuhn@pwcisd.net. Twitter: @johnkuhntx


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