EDITORIAL: The Quest for Adequate Public Education, Part Two

Read Part One

A week ago, I promised “Part Two” of this editorial series would appear on Monday. Unfortunately, our website was shut down by our hosting company for excess server usage in the early morning hours of December 18. (You can read about that event in this Daily Post article posted yesterday.)

So “Part Two” appears this morning, Friday December 22. Three days before Christmas. A light blanket of snow fell upon our little rural community yesterday, just enough to remind us how precarious driving can become when cold pavement gets covered with a few inches of frozen water particles. Not nearly enough snow, here in downtown Pagosa, to make sledding practical. Barely enough for making snow angels. So, for all the school-age children who are home during Christmas Break, the weather is acting like something of a tease.

Meanwhile, the community’s brand new charter school — Pagosa Peak Open School — held a lengthy “special board meeting” yesterday evening at their facility in Aspen Village, near Walmart. It’s a well-known fact that most Colorado charter schools that fail, do so because of financial problems… and to judge by the discussions at last night’s meeting, Pagosa Peak is seeing its share of “first year” financial issues.

As an organization supported by public tax dollars, Pagosa Peak Open School is required to be transparent about its board decisions, and about its financial condition. Minutes of meetings and financial documents must be available for public inspection, and in most cases are expected to be posted on the school’s website.

I’m a member of the Pagosa Peak Open School Board of Directors, as well as the editor of the Pagosa Daily Post. An awkward arrangement, in some ways.

One of our key missions at the Daily Post is government transparency. Meanwhile, as a volunteer Pagosa Peak Board member, I have a “duty of loyalty” to help insure the success of this innovative new school.  Some folks might suggest that “loyalty to the Open School” would mean Board members who openly emphasize the school’s ongoing successes, and who try and keep any problems at the school hidden from the public. I personally don’t agree with that approach.

When a Board is guiding an institution funded by tax-dollars, that guiding process becomes, in some ways, more challenging when problems are meant to be a matter of public knowledge. But challenge is a good thing. Sweeping problems under a rug of governmental opacity might help a school board “save face,” but it doesn’t necessarily encourage effective solutions the way transparency can.

In my humble opinion.

We will be discussing, here in the Daily Post, the financial situation at Pagosa Peak Open School — next week, when I hope to understand it better — as well as the steps the Board is taking to meet the challenges facing a (possibly “underfunded”?) charter school. I hope the discussion will be helpful to the larger community.

But while we are on the topic of possibly underfunded schools, and some related challenges — like a national shortage of new teachers coming from our colleges and universities, and also teachers exiting the profession — we will return briefly to the presentation given to the Archuleta School District Board of Education on December 12, by Middle School Principal Chris Hinger and his staff.

That presentation was summarized by Mr. Hinger with a slightly humorous reference to a Powerpoint slide that looked like this:

Mr. Hinger talked about the fact that Colorado 8th graders received “above average” scores on the national NAEP tests (National Assessment of Educational Progress) when you compare our 8th graders to their peers in other U.S. states. (A comparison to their peers in other nations? That’s a different story.)

Meanwhile, as Mr. Hinger pointed out, Colorado is statistically “below average” when considering the “amount of money spent per student per year” in our state’s public school system. This could mean that our Colorado schools are “underfunded.” It could also mean that Colorado school districts are wonderfully efficient, compared to school systems in other states. It could mean that other states are wasting money, right and left, with no benefit to their students.

But the title of this article series uses the word, “adequate.” Unlike the folks who like to look at “averages” — and we have a lot of those kinds of people directing our public schools nowadays — my question is about “adequacy.” Not quite the same thing, and not nearly as easy to measure with a nationalized, standardized test designed by a well-heeled corporation in Princeton, NJ. (The NAEP test is designed and scored by Educational Testing Service, a ‘non-profit’ corporation that pays, in general, no federal taxes on its average $1 billion in annual revenues.)

When I began writing the first draft of this editorial installment last weekend, I had picked out the following quotation to introduce Part Two:

And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average…

The quote is the closing phrase used by humorist Garrison Keillor in his “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues, performed on NPR’s weekly A Prairie Home Companion radio show between 1974 and 2016.

I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Keillor’s wry, unpretentious, inoffensive humor, and thought his familiar comment about children fit the theme of this article series perfectly, since we are talking about both “adequacy” and “averages.”

We will no longer be able to hear re-broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion, it seems, due to a development here in America known as “sexual harassment.” (I plan to write about that subject next week. But we are sharing an essay this morning by writer Robert Koehler, on this very topic, which you can read here.)

Meanwhile, what can we say about a town where all the children are above average? Certainly, that town is not Pagosa Springs. In fact, there’s not much here in Pagosa that’s “above average,” in terms of the things that statisticians typically count in order to impose their statistical judgments on a community.

We could claim that the scenic views of the surrounding San Juan Mountains are “above average,” and I suspect many people would agree with that assessment. But if we are focusing on education — as we are, in this article series — there’s little statistical evidence that our local public schools are providing an “above average” education.

The statistical evidence, in fact, could easily be interpreted to indicate that what we have here in Pagosa is a decidedly average education system that is also struggling to hold onto or recruit high quality teachers. But then… that seems to be the situation everywhere in America at the moment…

Read Part Three…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.