Hidden costs

I shut the engine off at the gas pump, but before I could even open the truck door a man who looked like he’d been living close to the knuckle stepped up to my open window and rested his hands on the frame. Peering intently into my truck, and at me, he asked if I had any spare change.

“I am a veteran,” he added.

“Me too,” I replied.

The man’s eyes widened in disbelief, then his lips narrowed into a suspicious grin.

“What branch of the service?” “28 years in the trenches of public education.”

He started laughing, as if it had been a long time coming. Then he moved away from the window, bending at the waist, holding his stomach, laughing. I reached into my pocket, but he’d wandered away, wiping the corners of his eyes with his sleeve, dismissing any offer of money with a wave of his hand.

“Come back,” I shouted after him, but he’d set his sails for a convenience store across the street, and I watched him go.

Maybe it was ridiculous to compare what teachers do every day to the service of our military personnel. I know the business of putting one’s life on the line is a much taller order than trying to drill a platoon of hormones and teach them how the weight of their education might be carried like survival gear into adulthood, but still, I wondered. My visitor laughed like he was on fire. His laugh, so genuine and infectious, made me smile too.

School teachers, however, are not smiling enough these days, but it’s not because they’ve been having a bad week. It’s more like a bad century. Consider this early example of economic restructuring.

God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price. — Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

It’s hardly educational reform, this notion that it should never cost more money to deliver a quality education.

The greatest portion of our nation’s budget goes to the military. Certainly, a General commands from military experience. And one who sets policy and direction for America’s teachers is a civilian General, so to speak, in the war on ignorance.

Our politicians saw fit to approve the nomination of a woman who has absolutely no experience in public education to oversee our educational troops. She attended private schools, never studied pedagogy, and has not been employed by the public school system.

But she’s a billionaire. Working teachers must be climbing into their foxholes at night and dreaming she’ll put her bankroll to use by purchasing the classroom supplies they have been scrambling to find.

Even more depressing is the news that fewer college graduates are choosing to enter the teaching profession. Six consecutive years in Colorado where recruitment numbers have fallen, an overall 24 percent decline. If Denver schools are “feeling the pinch,” then rural schools are on the verge of hemorrhaging. New Mexico reported the second-highest rate of teacher turnover in 2013, topped only by Arizona. Two in five teachers leave the State of Utah within five years, but its legislature thinks the problem is solved: They passed a law that allows schools to hire people who have no teacher training. No combat duty whatsoever.

Someone needs to stand beside General Betsy DeVos’s car window and explain how public schools will not be served by sending taxpayers’ money to the private sector. That amounts to little more than passing the ammunition our soldiers need over to a band of unaffiliated mercenaries. Vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools that offer religious programs without any mandated curriculum, and where testing or accountability is always optional hardly seems like a good choice for our children.

In the Vietnam War, 47,434 soldiers died, and another 153,000 suffered injuries. A terrible cost. But in the war on ignorance, we’re only starting to count the casualties in the next generation.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/

From David Feela.