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SIMMONS: Education gets star treatment

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2011

What do Dr. Phil, Al Sharpton and President Obama share in common?

It ain't no pre-Lent Friday fish fry, for sure, even though Reverend Al probably has swallowed many mouthfuls of fried croaker and collard greens in his day.

No. On Friday, all three headline grabbers will be sharing the education-reform platform.

Mr. Obama will be in Miami as part of his roadshow to press his brand of fix-the-schools now. Expect lots of media coverage but no real school-choice news — unless Mr. Obama comes out in support of, say, vouchers. And we know that won't happen despite bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, Reverend Al will be appearing on a TV station in your hometown, sharing the stage with Dr. Phil, whose Friday topic is "How Far Would You Go for Your Kids?"

Many of you already know how far Kelley Williams-Bolar would go. She's the Ohio mom — heroic mom, I might add — who was imprisoned after she used her father's address to enroll her girls in a better and safer school district.

Reverend Al added his voice to those of her supporters, saying last month that she should be "saluted, not arrested."

That is what Reverend Al said out of the school-choice side of his mouth. But what he said out of the other side is as passe as using fatback to flavor a huge cast-iron pot of collards.

Saying he has worked with Mr. Obama and others "to raise the notion of education reform," he then mistakenly tied the specter of funding inequality to teaching and learning.

"When schools in certain neighborhoods do not receive the same amount of funding as others, nor are they equipped with the appropriate tools necessary to educate our young, we cannot scapegoat teachers," Reverend Al said in a Huffington Post commentary on Wednesday.

Here we go again. It's time to remind folks that advocating on behalf of public education doesn't necessarily mean advocating for more money for public schools. Money, or the lack thereof, doesn't in and of itself determine academic outcomes.

Spending in urban school districts is determined by unions and their collective-bargaining agreements, which dictate not only salaries but standards on safety and environment, health and retirement benefits, tenure, professional training and even stipends for coaches and others for before- and after-school activities.

Notice the glaring omission? The teaching aspect of public schooling is overwhelming the learning aspect.

Parental choice changes that obvious imbalance. Parents — whether they seek out-of-boundary schools, charters or magnets, or vouchers — should have the option to determine what they see as a good education.

Educational options that are limited by ZIP code can stunt a child, and Ms. Williams-Bolar, a public- housing resident who opted out of her neighborhood school, was keenly aware of that fact.

As for scapegoating teachers, Reverend Al knows better but seemingly can't help himself. His Huffington Post commentary gave a hearty James Brown-like shoutout to the American Federation of Teachers, whose new plan, he said, would let "tenured educators who are rated unsatisfactory have one year to improve their teaching performance, or risk being fired within 100 days." The union said the 100 days is needed to learn "whether the teacher should leave the profession."

Hear the ka-ching? How much money will it cost your school district to hire additional bureaucrats to meet that new union demand? And what about the students in the hands of the "unsatisfactory" teachers? What happens to them as they wait out the calendar that's marked on their teachers' behalf?

It's truly unfortunate that people like Reverend Al think teachers are under fire. Actually, they are feeling the same heat as Ms. Williams-Bolar, who wanted to do right by her children.

Teaching, once considered among the noblest of professions, has seemingly become a water-downed version of potlikker.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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