Real education problems, not contrived ones, need attention

October 31, 2022 4:00 am

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Our future is on the ballot November 8.

Sure, races for governors, U.S. senators and a majority in Congress may capture headlines, but perhaps the most critical decisions we make will be closer to home: Who gets to sit on Nebraska’s Board of Regents, State Board of Education and dozens of local school boards across the state.

That’s not because of the well-worn and wooly conclusion that “The children are our future.” No, what’s at stake for us and millions across the country is who decides the direction and future of our public schools — large and small, K-12 and post-secondary, and professional and graduate.

School boards in particular are under attack from patrons and parents, two groups who have every right to question the policies under which public schools operate.

Sadly, too many of them show up at meetings clutching conspiracy theories, lies and other pearls of political propaganda. That does not mean public schools are without problems. They have plenty. Serious ones, too.

But the antics of protesters too often are well beyond using outdoor voices inside. Calling into question policies and issuing death threats are, obviously, incompatible. That, however, is where the self-proclaimed aggrieved have gone over a variety of issues including wearing masks in school, teaching about U.S. slavery and the presence of non-heterosexual characters in books.

So troubling were raucous and violent crowds at school board meetings, the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden last fall requesting federal support to keep school board meetings safe.

That set off a wave of criticism, including shots from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, the latter of whom called the request a “political hack job.” (I don’t get it either.) Nebraska’s state ed board cut ties with the national group, concerned — rightly — with the letter’s potential chilling effect on free speech: Florida’s current election police and history’s brown shirts come to mind.

Nevertheless, the organized effort of protesters moved into the classroom, where they accused teachers of being everything from crackpots to communists. Throw in their penchant for calling educators “groomers,” a reprehensible reference to their belief that a LGBTQ+ character in a book will result in children changing sexual identities. Using that logic, children who read books about Einstein or Tesla will turn into geniuses.

Then, with apparently nothing better to do, five state legislators held a press conference to call for an investigation of the Nebraska Department of Education. The quintet was shocked over a button on a department website that they’ve somehow equated with Nebraska public schools being awash in critical race theory — along with anything associated with LGBTQ+ issues, the preferred beef among those looking to undo public school leadership. The button was removed four months ago; the nonsense continues.

According to State Sens. Dave Murman, Steve Erdman, Robert Clements, Steve Halloran and Myron Dorn, they believe they have the receipts. Murman said, “Now we’ve uncovered documents that show unequivocally, unequivocally that the department has also been promoting critical race theory.” And?

He went on, blowing all the dog whistles he could. “Bureaucrats at the Nebraska Department of Education have decided Nebraska children would be better served if their time was spent learning to become activists and talking about woke gender theory.” I half expected a “Reefer Madness” clip or a reminder to students to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack.

The furor over critical race theory — also known by its proper name, American history — is a contrived crisis, a political ploy to promote a sanitized version of who we were … and are. True believers insist its tenets would make white students (or their parents?) uncomfortable with the details of slavery and its aftermath. If only Nebraska had a public school where critical race theory was taught, they could prove that assertion with some evidence.

Murman said the investigation wouldn’t start until January, so those of you thinking this was a political stunt to rile voters into electing leaders determined to undo our public schools are onto something.

Nebraska’s public schools have problems — none of which have anything to do with masks, critical race theory, gender or wokeness. We could start with a teacher shortage, work our way to recovering from the hit that education took during the pandemic and include demeaned, overworked and underappreciated classroom teachers.

Nor can we forget making sure Johnny and Janie know their reading, writing, arithmetic … and the truth. And, most importantly, how to think critically about them.

We could all learn from that.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.