Commentary: Bishop’s talk on education shows he knows nothing about it

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Rob Bishop talks to the Sutherland Institute about innovating education, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019.

This past week, the Sutherland Institute hosted an event in the Congressional Series on Innovation in Education and the Teaching Profession with U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop. It is a rare experience for teachers to hear firsthand their congressman’s views on education, and we were grateful to Sutherland for sponsoring this event.

It felt surreal to look around this small space filled with Utah’s movers and shakers and think, “These are the people shaping Utah’s education. Will educators’ voices have a real impact?”

As Bishop spoke, there were those in the audience fervently nodding along. Not the teachers. We listened to his rehashing of stale myths around Common Core and federal education dollars with a growing sense of disappointment. How can a report on education policy from a sitting congressman still be this reliant on such a narrow, inaccurate narrative and not current teachers’ experience?

Bishop offered four ideas for education reform:

• Decentralize.

Bishop already represents one of the most, if not the most, decentralized state education systems in the country. Utah has the lowest administrative costs of any state in the nation, save Hawaii, which is one big school district. Administrative work that in other states is done at a district or state level, in Utah is often passed down and added to a teacher’s workload.

What has this relentless focus on decentralization achieved? Rather than economies of scale that benefit teachers and taxpayers alike, we have a burnt-out, underfunded and under-supported teacher workforce. It is important to note that every current educator at the event spoke repeatedly about the need for more support staff in the school system.

• Don’t involve the federal government.

“To get out of the trap, you have to let go of the cheese,” stated Bishop, and he repeatedly stated that “the federal government should not be making decisions for all states.” These comments were perhaps the most disconcerting, as they revealed the congressman’s apparent lack of understanding of how little the federal government is involved in Utah’s education system.

No, the federal government does not set education standards, nor do they dictate curriculum. With almost two decades in Congress, it’s surprising that Bishop is unaware of these issues. Or worse, that he continues to push tired and inflammatory rhetoric.

The areas in which Utah does partner with the federal government deal primarily with programs that serve our most at-risk students, including those with special needs. And the “strings” that Bishop warned of are actually regulations in place to defend the rights of parents and students. For example, FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) is a federal law that requires any school receiving federal money to ensure parent’s access to children’s education records. It also requires that education records are treated as confidential.

In our digital age, with schools working and storing data across state lines, it is imperative that such protections remain enforceable at the federal level.

• Empower Parents.

Bishop discussed the need for parent choice and parents’ rights to make decisions about what is best for their child. We agree. And thankfully, Utah is rich with a variety of school choice options: home-schooling, neighborhood and charter schools, virtual and blended schools, private and parochial schools and even early college high schools. We believe every school should be an excellent school and every teacher a highly qualified teacher.

Truly empowered parents are those who know they don’t have to buy a new home in a new neighborhood just to be able to have confidence in their child’s education.

• Empower Teachers.

When asked how he would engage current classroom teachers in bringing about changes in Utah education, Bishop did not offer specific ideas. The lack of teacher involvement in education policy discussion is not a new problem, but we are glad that people have started to acknowledge the need to have teachers at the table. We appreciate the many policymakers and community influencers who are invested in Utah education, but effective change won’t take place until teachers are included as key decision-makers.

One of the most telling moments of this event came during the panel discussion, when Utah’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, Aaryn Birchell, spoke about what she sees as critical needs in our education system. Several of those who had been enjoying Bishop’s comments shook their heads and walked out.

Effective education policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is dependent on the input of multiple stakeholders. Key players in education policy and innovation should be those who are invested in this work every day. Teachers are ready and willing to engage. Are politicians ready to listen?

Submitted by Brooke Anderson, teacher specialist, Jordan School District; Michele Morgan, special education, Granite School District; Tabitha Pacheco, director, Utah Teacher Fellows; Bridget Varner, science specialist, Alpine School District; Tony Zani, literacy coach, Salt Lake City School District.

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