Monday, October 29, 2007

What Are Your Kids Watching?

"Mom, Mom," my four-year-old said in my face last week.

I strained to open my eyes, coming reluctantly from a deep sleep. "What?"

She looked at me with a completely straight face. "I found a Mimzy." She showed me a pink bunny she'd received in her basket last April, nearly seven months ago. Mimzy is the name of the stuffed bunny in a show we'd watched the night before, The Last Mimzy. The little girl in the movie looks a lot like my child, long brown hair and all, but with the next sentence the connection became surreal.

"Mommy, Mimzy's going to die . . ."

Dramatic pause. Just like the girl in the movie when she told her parents her Mimzy, an advanced technological device from the future, was dying. I was instantly awake. I mean, this was weird. Had this family friendly movie, somehow damaged my daughter? A tremor of illogical fear rolled through me.

". . . if she doesn't get pancakes," my daughter concluded, reminding me in a instant that it was Sunday morning, pancake day, and that I'd already slept until ten.

I laughed out loud, belly-laughed. She was quite the little actress. (Boy, I'm not looking forward to her turning fifteen).

My laughing didn't amuse her for long. "Hurry, Mom. She needs pancakes now, or she's going to die!"

Nothing for it but to mix up a batch of blueberries pancakes, only instead of spelling out my daughter's name with the batter, she wanted me to spell Mimzy. By the time the pancakes were ready for consumption, she'd warned me so many times that Mimzy was dying, that I was quite sick of hearing it and actually started wishing that Mimzy WOULD die.

Oh, wait. Mimzy's a stuffed animal.

That thing goes practically everywhere with her now. I've already had to fix the thread on the mouth. Seven months of complete and utter neglect and now the bunny is center stage.

The power of film. I'm really am glad she's mimicking The Last Mimzy instead of films like John Tucker Must Die. My sixteen-year-old got this second film to show at her birthday party, but I had to turn it off in front of a room full of teenagers. What a utter piece of dirty garbage. Sadly two of the girls had already seen it, and they saw absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Parents, do you know what your children are watching?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Vouchers: Choice in Education

School vouchers are a hot issue in Utah this election time. Vouchers were passed in another election, but the teacher’s union and others banded together to get enough signatures to put it to vote again. Funny how that happened. You never see anyone trying to repeal a bond or overthrow a new tax, but this is about control over our best and biggest resource—our children.

I have to admit I’m growing a little cranky about this issue. Why? Because it seems people are willing to admit we have a problem with education in this state, but they aren’t willing to trying anything new. They simply want more money, but throwing money will not solve the problem. It hasn’t in other states and it won’t here. What we need is education on a level where parents are more involved. We don’t need a lot of high paid administrators or bad teachers that are impossible to fire. We need a system that allows children to be educated on a local level and good teachers who will be paid better because they deserve it. I think vouchers can achieve both of these objectives.

My three oldest children have attended both private and public schools. Though the private school was a financial struggle in the beginning, my husband and I felt that was where our children should be. We loved the school, which they attended through eighth grade. After that, they went to public schools. Before school started, I met the teachers and did a little research to make sure my kids were in the right classes. For two of my children, the public school has also been a largely positive experience. But for one of my daughters, the biggest regret I have is that I let her leave the private school. She desperately needed that extra guidance. I see the same tendencies in my youngest and you can bet that I won’t be making the same mistake with her. For my other two boys, I’m yet undecided. Because of my economic situation, I have the choice. Yet many other parents do not. And they should. If Referendum 1 is passed, they will.

Below are some of the arguments against vouchers and my response to them:

Private schools won’t be accountable to anyone for the funds.
Good gracious! What are they talking about? Private school have boards they must answer to! Even so, every school that accepts these funds must be willing to account for the spending. They must account for all their spending anyway, so it’s no big deal. Still, I find it ironic that private schools will only be given half the per-student money and the opposition wants additional controls over that. Give them a break! Private schools are accountable and they make the funds stretch or they wouldn’t be in business today. The truth is they can educate children for much less because they are very mindful of every dime.

Private schools cost so much that vouchers won’t really create a choice.
Well, if you are in the lowest wage bracket at the school my children attend, it would pay for about three fourths of the tuition. That is doable for many, many families, and if you need to make up the difference, there are options. My mother cleaned the private school I attended each night in order to make money to send me there. She felt it was worth the sacrifice. Eventually, to her great regret, she eventually had to pull us out. It was impossible on my father’s teacher’s salary to keep up with eight children. But if she’d had vouchers available, she could have made up the difference. If the voucher system passes, there will be many schools that will make it possible for students to attend. (See below.)

There aren’t enough private schools to serve everyone who might want to use vouchers, especially in rural areas.
That’s what is so wonderful about a free market system. New schools will emerge as the demand increases, even in rural areas. And these schools, especially grade schools will be able to educate the children for less and the results will be amazing. Much like some of our local charter schools that are making education work.

And even if you don't live in an area where there are private schools, our society still benefits because overall we are educating children better. Take my own situation, for example. My children already attend a private school and as I understand it I will not be eligible to receive the voucher. That doesn't bother me because I am still a part of society at large and will benefit indirectly.

Private school teachers don’t have to be certified teachers.
So what? They still need to be experts at what they do, which is far more important. For instance, I don’t have a degree in writing, but I could teach your child or you anything you want to know about writing. Bill Gates is a college drop-out. What could he teach? I know I’d love to take a few classes from him. The world is full of smart people who are better teachers than many who hold a fancy degree.

However, having said that, private school are careful about their teachers. All the teachers in my children’s private school have degrees, but it wasn’t always the case. Regardless, parents actually have a say, so if the teacher isn’t up to snuff, he or she won’t last long. That’s one of the best thing about a private school. If parents don’t like a teacher, they can act. They can pull their child out and go to another school, they can talk to other parents and the administration, they can insist that the teacher be accountable. Thus, parents are empowered. A bad teacher will not continue teaching in that school. Period. Yes, this is frightening for bad teachers, but great news for the many, many good teachers who love what they do. Once at a public jr high school, I met an honors English teacher my son was going to have for English. After meeting her, I immediately changed my mind and put him in a different class. I knew as a parent that she would be horrible for my son. So he didn’t take honors English that year. Turns out this teacher was not only a boy-hater, but a person who denigrated the religious faith of the children in her class. No one liked her, and as a result, they didn’t learn nearly what they should have. What happened? Well, the school got rid of her, but since she had tenure, the school district couldn’t really fire her. She just moved to another school to torture other children. Now that’s a crime. I would have done a much better job, degree or no.

My son also had one bad term with a math teacher who spent the class period railing against the students and giving them more homework because they talked. My son basically taught himself from the book. I had to do some fancy dancing around the school to get him out of that class and into another teacher’s class. After a week my son said, “Wow, he actually teaches the concepts.” He was much happier. I learned that teacher had once worked at a private school and had been fired, but here he was in the public school making more children hate math. Yes, my children have had many great public school teachers as well, but the bad ones are so hard to out of the classroom! Private schools remove that problem.

I also believe vouchers will open the way to pay good teachers a better salary. As school compete for good teachers, they will have to offer more. All teachers are not paid equally, even now. Free market will help them earn what they are worth, in or out of the current system.

Vouchers are just going to help the rich.
Not a chance. It’s a tiered benefit based on what you make. And keep in mind that the rich will continue to have choice regardless, so voucher are for the poor and lower middle class. Besides, the people who already have their children in a private school like I do, don’t qualify for benefit. Vouchers will help those who need another option. If you need to make up the difference, there will be a way, whether it's making more meals from scratch or cleaning the school a few hours at night.

Public schools will lose money.
Actually, they’ll lose students, not money. In fact, they keep half the money for that student. If you do the math, you’ll see that will definitely help our overcrowded class rooms. With more and more children destined to enter the education system, vouchers might be the only way to actually keep our public schools running smoothly. Well, that or double your taxes. I know which I’d prefer.

The other thing is that vouchers is less than four tenths (0.04 percent) of the entire multi-billion dollar education fund. Ten times that amount wouldn't even be half of a percent of the budget. It's a minuscule amount compared to the good it can do. So why not try it out? we have $150,000 more children soon entering schools. There is simply not enough room for them, unless you want to see your education taxes triple to pay for more facilities. I know I can't afford that. Can you?

And if the voucher system doesn’t work, don’t you think the legislature and parents are smart enough to pull out? If you answered no, well, shame on you. Parents want the best for their children and they will fight for it.

Vouchers will lead to segregation.
Actually, it will encourage a more diverse student body. Currently, children are assigned to schools based on where they live, so there are many schools in Utah that have only poor and minority students. Vouchers will give these students a wider choice of schools, which will mix backgrounds and races a lot more than the current system can. Private schools don’t have sports programs. Many don’t because sports eats up education dollars like nothing else. I personally am more interested in education and could care less about the sports. (In fact, if my daughter wanted to be a cheerleader, I’d be horribly disheartened because I want her to achieve things for herself, not watch from the sidelines as someone else tries.) But my son loves soccer so if he continues playing, I’ll likely end up sending him to a public high school. But it will be MY CHOICE, not something forced on me.

Vouchers will involve Utah in a lawsuit if it gives money to religious schools.
I don't even want to touch this one. I'm trusting out leaders to see that the bill is written in a way that will save us from this. But I for one don't CARE what institution gets the money as long as they teach reading, writing, arithmetic. Who cares what else they teach? Isn't that up to parents? It's not something forced on the general public as it would be in a public school, so who cares?

Again, the main issue I see is control. And it’s high time parents took back that control. We should be deciding what schools our children attend. We should have more say in the curriculum and the teachers, not a union or a small group of administrators. A free market education system will increase the quality of education across the board. Look at America. Even our poorest people make more money than in many other countries. Most of us aren’t starving or standing in line for rations. Why? Because of the free market system that encourages competition based on the law of supply and demand. When schools compete for our children and our money, they will become better.

Think about that the next time you’re waiting in line at a some government-run bureau. I’ll bet you’ll start wishing they had a little competition.

For more information about Referendum 1 visit http://votefor1.org. If you would like to get a sign supporting Referendum 1 in your yard, please contact Perry Renner at perryrenner@gmail.com.