THE BLOG
06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Your Ideal Society Who Gets The Most Status, An Educator Or An Athlete?

I want to introduce you to a great congressional candidate from western Michigan who I've been talking with on the phone, Fred Johnson. People in Michigan's second district, from his hometown in Holland through Grand Haven, Muskegon, Ludington and out to Cadillac, don't need the introduction. They know Fred, at least, because of the spirited race he ran against entrenched incumbent Pete Hoekstra in 2008, garnering nearly 120,000 votes. This year Hoekstra is off on a quest for higher office and the GOP is likely to nominate a lunatic fringe extremist for his seat. Fred's got a much better chance to win in November than he did in 2008. There are a number of facets to Fred's life that make his candidacy so compelling-- from his international expertise to his service as a U.S. Marine officer, to the authoring of the most valuable book on the life of... Tupac, Tupac Shakur: The Life And Times Of An American Icon. But what I asked him to post about today was something I felt was most essential, American education policy, not surprising for a man who has devoted his life to teaching. So from a Ph.D., a professor and an inspiring congressional candidate whose two favorite Tupac songs are "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" & "Brenda's Got A Baby," a guest post:

If only people in the U.S. could be as serious about funding and supporting education as they are about shoveling money into the pockets of professional athletes and team owners. For the last decade or more, Americans have watched with growing alarm and frustration the mounting struggles in the nation's classrooms. Unfunded mandates like the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind wreaked havoc upon public schools. This program, another one in a series of "silver bullet" quick fixes, continued a long process of hollowing out (or eliminating) subjects like Art, Music, Physical Education, Geography, and Languages which educators had long identified as critical in the learning process. Worried parents demanded action and accountability from public officials who routinely deflected the angst with new initiatives that generated more spin than results. But for all of the public outcry and political bluster, Americans have demonstrated time and again that they are more willing to enrich those who make their living playing games rather than supporting those dedicated to educating the nation's future. The late 1990s insanity in which the citizens of Cleveland, Ohio were bamboozled by Cleveland Brown's owner Art Modell and co-opted by the Cleveland Indians baseball team offers a classic case.

Modell's Stadium Corporation had paid the city of Cleveland $1 per year since 1973 to lease Cleveland Stadium. The revenues streams generated from renting suites and scoreboard advertising boosted profits to celestial heights. The management of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, which also played at Cleveland Stadium, wanted a share in those profits since substantial revenues were produced during baseball games. Modell refused. Indians' management took their cause to the public and convinced city and county officials to build them a new facility by imposing a "sin tax" on alcohol and tobacco. After much wrangling, the tax passed by a close vote of 193,390 to 185,209 and the new stadium, Jacobs Field (named after team owner Dave Jacobs and eventually renamed Progressive Field) was constructed.

Modell's revenue intake dropped subsequent to the departure of the Indians from Cleveland Stadium. Those were losses he refused to endure so he asked the voters for $175 million to refurbish and modernize the decaying facility. On November 7, 1995, with one of the most challenged school systems in the nation, and even after Modell's announcement on November 6 that he had signed a deal to move the Browns to Baltimore the following year, the people of Cleveland, Ohio voted by a significant margin to provide public funds for Modell's stadium remodeling project. Following the success of Modell's tactics, cities like Detroit and Baltimore, both reputed to have some of the most dismal educational performance in the nation, agreed to construct new sports facilities with public funds in order to keep their teams from relocating. Other cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, each with their own respective fiscal woes relative to education, also surrendered to the extortion.

Over ten years later, American educators are now scrambling to qualify for funds offered by the federal government's Race to the Top initiative. Elected officials at all levels of government profess limitless devotion to the nation's children and future while simultaneously vilifying their teachers for not being able to squeeze more academic water from their budgetary stones. Those officials have also rushed to join the chorus of teacher bashing since educators are a far more accessible and less dangerous target than companies outsourcing jobs overseas, powerful Wall Street interests, environmental polluters, and the scads of lobbyists who prowl the halls of Congress. A relentless campaign from numerous media outlets has succeeded in turning a once honored profession into being perceived as a last chance destination for those whose limited competency will not allow for much else.

The demands for excellence, dedication, and proficiency that citizens and their elected officials rightfully expect of educators and what they are willing to invest in education are chasms apart. But those great gaps of reality do not exist when those same citizens and elected officials are confronted with a choice to financially coddle sports franchises and professional athletes. The predicament presents a cognitive dissonance that's so obvious it should defy the necessity of being mentioned. Nevertheless, Americans seem mystified that vast numbers of beleaguered and berated educators are not consistently producing more intellectual miracles in their crumbling facilities and environments which often require metal detectors and security guards. People who themselves would not tolerate such underpaid wages and conditions seem generally puzzled by the growing trend for young people to choose professions other than teaching. The increased "importation" of teachers from overseas to fill a growing U.S. teacher shortage does not strike educational critics as a situation that constitutes a crisis.

Conversely, the crisis events that took place in Cleveland, Ohio relative to the Browns' 1996 move to Baltimore required little explanation. Normally tax-averse citizens responded with faithful urgency to keep their beloved Browns in Cleveland. As they cast their votes, much of the city's educational infrastructure was crumbling around its teachers and students. The message from Cleveland and other cities across the land was plain enough: Americans place more value on those who play games for a living than those entrusted with educating the nation's future

The protests of public officials, worried parents, and opportunistic opponents of public schools will ring hollow until Americans are willing to put up or shut up. A nation that prefers paying exorbitant salaries to athletes for playing games while allowing its teaching professionals to languish beneath opprobrium, economic distress, and constant curriculum experimentation from ill-informed (indeed, often barely informed) policymakers cannot legitimately claim its grave concern for a democratic future.

I hope you read that and had a chance to think about it a bit, not just on its wonderful face value but in terms of how much Congress would have to gain for someone like Fred Johnson, rather than another bumbling ex-athlete like Steve Largent, Jim Bunning or Heath Shuler-- like, for example, retired Bills and Steelers tight end Jay Riemersma. If you think Fred's is a voice that should be a part of the national dialogue, please consider donating to his campaign through ActBlue.