THE BLOG
11/05/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Political Extremism Has No Place in Our Classrooms

Co-authored by Joseph Thomas

If there were ever a doubt how public figures like Ted Cruz and the Tea Party operates, the recent D.C. shutdown should unveil the slash-and-burn methodology for what it is: unbridled ideology running rampant. Despite what you believe about the Affordable Care Act, it was passed and confirmed by all three branches of our government. It is in fact the law of the land. Rather than win enough votes to repeal the law, Cruz and his faction were willing to follow a scorched earth policy to impose their minority opinion upon the will of the masses.

In the meantime, Senator Cruz was apparently so concerned about the country's finances that he leisurely read Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham during his 21-hour talk-a-thon while thousands of federal employees were furloughed and without pay.

So what is next? We don't have to guess, they have already told us: "The Federal Department of Education should be eliminated. The Department of Education is unconstitutional and should not be involved in education, at any level." -- Sharron Angle, July 12, 2010

Tea Party candidates are uniformly advocating for a freeze on taxes, including on revenue sources for public education. In order to reduce the level of funding for public education, the candidates suggest diverting public funding to private schools and vouchers, not implementing Common Core standards, and changing school curricula.

These are dangerous proposals considering Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has already reduced state education funding by close to $1 billion since 2010, and local school districts, like Franklin Regional, are more dependent on local revenues. A further drop in revenue for public education, therefore, could be catastrophic, resulting in staffing cuts, increased class size, less individual attention for children, and the elimination of extracurricular programs.

But Pennsylvania's millage system for local finance relies on a formula that does not account for inflation, rather requiring millage rates to increase annually to maintain the status quo. The gradual increase creates a perception that "taxes are going up every year" when real taxes (taxes adjusted for inflation) are actually decreasing because state funding for education is decreasing.

Yet, the debate on taxes seems to shroud a more fundamental effort to alter the American public education system.

Teri Adams, the president of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association, is quoted as saying, "public schools should go away."

Franklin Regional's Tea Party representatives have called full-day kindergarten taxpayer-funded "babysitting," with unfounded statements that full-day kindergarten has detrimental academic consequences. At a 2012 School Board meeting, meeting minutes captured Candidate Susan Ilgenfritz saying that "her child is performing far above the standard" even though he/she attended a half day program.

At the AAUW (American Association of Women) Candidates Night before the Spring Primary, Tea Party candidates suggested that larger, lecture-style classes, like those in college, are a positive learning environment and could be used to save funds.

One of Franklin Regional's current school board members, Jane Tower and one of the prospective school board members, Jeremy Samek, have home schooled some or all of their children. Jeremy Samek, among others, is calling for early graduation without reference to necessary standards.

Proposals to change the current curriculum are also troubling.

A seminar was recently held at Cornerstone Ministry, a Christian fundamentalist church in Murrysville, to profess the academic merits of teaching "Intelligent Design," aka creationism, in public schools, even though there is a State Supreme Court ruling that bans it from being taught in Pennsylvania's public schools.

During the June 3, 2013, School Board meeting, School Board Director Dennis Pavlik defended criticisms he made against multicultural literature by saying, "I grew up with Jews, blacks, and Americans." Mr. Pavlik implies that "Jews" and "blacks" are not "Americans."

At the May 20, 2013, meeting, School Board Director Jane Tower implied that multicultural education was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, one month after stating proposed social studies textbooks were too harsh in their treatment of slavery, pleading that teachers encourage students not to judge slave owners. "We have 20/20 hindsight," Tower said on the matter, a comment supported by the district's third Tea Party member, Dr. Larry Borland.

When the Literacy Department's multicultural texts were approved despite Tea Party criticisms, Tower voiced her disapproval, calling the department's curriculum "unconstitutional."

The national blog, Wonkette, is turning Pavlik and Tower's rants and antics into a national embarrassment for Franklin Regional.

Pennsylvania school boards are comprised of nine members, the relative amount of damage done by the Pavlik, Tower, and Borland have, to this point, been limited. Link The imminent danger is next week's election when four new candidates -- George Harding, Susan Ilgenfritz, Gregg Neavin, and Jeremy Samek -- seek to join these three incumbents (none of whom is up for re-election) to form a seven-person majority. In the event of that majority, the following measures are already being discussed:

(1) The elimination of full-day kindergarten
(2) An attempt to close Newlonsburg Elementary, one of three elementary buildings in the district, in order to consolidate elementary education into two buildings which will increase class sizes for the youngest of students;
(3) The furloughing of teaching staff and a subsequent increase in average class sizes from approximately 24 to 30 or even 40 students per class;
(4) The elimination and/or reduction of many non-mandated programs, such as music, the arts, foreign language, family and consumer sciences, and physical education, among other electives that distinguish Franklin Regional as unique and excellent. Candidate Greg Neavin called for an ROI to justify "good programs" in order to avoid elimination;
(5) The micromanagement of school curriculum -- attacks against multiculturalism and reserved judgment against slave owners only being the tip of the iceberg;

These measures could also lead to several additional unfortunate and unnecessary results:

(1) Difficulty in hiring and/or retaining professional and competent administrators because of the changes, especially on the central administrative level;
(2) Potential labor issues in a district where the teachers' union has never gone on strike;
(3) And finally, the potential reduction of property values as families leave or choose not to reside in Franklin Regional because of a declining quality of education.

There is a definitive cause and effect that is being played out in Ohio school districts as the Tea Party and its 912 affiliate groups infiltrate local boards and committees. If you don't think it's happening in your district, take the time to research the candidates and their associations with groups such as "912," "United or Die," "Patriot Camp," and other Tea Party synonyms.

But this cuts against common sense. Franklin Regional School District ranks among the best in the State of Pennsylvania, scoring ninth in Western Pennsylvania. It does not need to be dismantled or altered. On the contrary, it should receive additional funding as the United States tries to improve from recent drops in world rankings.

As the election approaches, there are relevant and valid concerns by important segments of Franklin Regional's constituency. The religiously devout see their rights violated by not allowing creationism in public schools; Libertarians do not like the idea of national education standards like the Common Core; and, the aging population on a fixed income feels violated when millage rates are incrementally raised to keep up with inflation.

Taken together, these issues could represent an attack on the premise that government should provide a quality and free public education to its citizenry. Several more moderate candidates are on the ballot who are committed to have proven track records and are committed to Franklin Regional's continued success in public education. The national Tea Party strategy is to eliminate as many government programs as possible, including public education.

Kimberly Bondi, Dennis Irvine and Paul Scheinert are Republican incumbents seeking re-election for School Board, along with Democrat Bobbi Watt-Geer, CEO of the local United Way. They served on the School Board when Franklin Regional was recognized as one of 25 high-achieving, low-spending districts in the state, but do not sync with the far right direction that the local GOP Committee has taken and do not have its endorsement, despite being incumbent Republicans.

And given the choice, these three proven individuals would opt for Dr. Seuss' Oh, the Places You'll Go! to encourage American children and students to grow into educated, productive members of society rather than repeating, as Senator Cruz did at taxpayer expense, a shutdown of local schools.

The views of the authors do not represent their employers.