The following are the prepared remarks from Rep. Brian Cronin (D-Boise), who addressed the Idaho Education Association Delegate Assembly on April 21, 2012. Rep. Cronin, who will not seek re-election to the Idaho Legislature this year, has been one of the most compelling voices against the 2011 education refom laws that will be on the Idaho ballot in November 2012 as Propositions 1, 2, and 3. A No vote on the propositions will overturn the laws.

Hello, educators! It’s always such a pleasure to be amongst friends. Friends who do the most important work on earth.

I was originally scheduled to be here at 9 o'clock, but I asked Robin if I could push it back a few hours. The reason is because just weeks after the close of the legislative session, I find myself as a soccer coach for a group of ten third-grade girls and we had a game this morning at 9.

This wasn’t actually a job that I sought out. In fact, I resisted the idea. It’s true that part of the reason I’ve chosen not to run for re-election this year is because I wanted to spend more time with my family and be more available for activities such as this with my children. Still, there’s a fairly drawn-out psychological hangover that comes at the end of each grueling legislative session and I wasn’t quite ready to jump in to a big commitment so soon. But when seemingly no other parent was available to do the job and the options were for the team to disband or me to coach, I begrudgingly agreed to do it. I’ve since gotten help from two other parents, which has made it a bit easier.

I tell you this because the experience has dredged up memories of the early days of my relatively short teaching career. And the lessons that I’m learning (or perhaps relearning) as I’m coaching this group of girls seem relevant to the ongoing public dialogue we are having about public education these days.

It turns out I’m probably a mediocre soccer coach at best. Which is troubling, because really I don’t like to be mediocre at anything. And it’s particularly troubling because I happen to love the game of soccer and, in fact, played for my entire youth and adolescence. I know the game of soccer. I really like kids. I obviously love my daughters, who are on the team. And I love getting outside and doing something that doesn’t involve a computer, a desk, a phone, or politicians.

But here’s the thing—all of these factors don’t make me a great soccer coach. Because I’ve never coached before. And because the team came together late and I committed to coaching late, I’ve received no training. Since starting the season, I’ve received no support or even a “Hey, how’s it going?” from the league director, who actually had the audacity to refer to our team as “The Bad News Bears,” in an email. And although I think I have a good understanding of the game, I’ve never taught it to nine-year-olds. And it turns out there’s a lot to learn.

Now the girls are terrific and I’ve been impressed with how they’ve jelled as a team. A few have played together before. But half of them (five out of the ten) had never played organized soccer before this month. Which is to say, in case the comparison isn’t obvious, not every child comes to the field with the same level of preparation. And yet we work with what we’re given and make the best out of the talent that is there.

At our practice this past Wednesday, things didn’t go very well. The girls were more focused on the boys playing football on the adjacent field than on passing drills. We tried some new drills and it was as if we had explained them in Chinese. They seemed bored, listless, and/or confused. And though we’d had some a few good practices previously that felt really positive, this was not one of them. And I stood out on the field wondering why things weren’t clicking and suddenly began to remember what it sometimes felt like as a first-year teacher.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that working with our society’s most precious assets—our children—is rarely easy. And no matter how smart one is, no matter how committed one is, no matter how badly one wants those children to learn and succeed, such success as a teacher does not come overnight and rarely comes naturally. I’m certain that many people in this room have a knack, a gift—you’ve rightly responded to a calling. But it’s a rare educator who masters the craft without significant experience, trial and error, formal and informal training and professional development, support and mentoring, and some hard knocks along the way. And I don’t know of any educator who gets to choose which students will show up in their classroom or select what types of home circumstances they come from.

And it’s these simple realities that American society seems to have lost sight of as we find ourselves awash in rhetoric about various ill-defined and in some cases imagined crises and the alleged urgency of “reform.”

Education is a profession, first and foremost. It is a noble profession. And it is a demanding profession. And it is a profession that requires high levels of training, practice, and skill. This isn’t the rec soccer league. And so the moment we start comparing our teachers to the teachers of the rest of the world, and the moment we start comparing our students’ test scores to their counterparts in Finland and Korea, we need to consider to what degree our educators receive the respect, societal status, compensation, and working conditions that they need to succeed—in other words, to what extent they’re treated as professionals—vis-à-vis educators in these countries that are now supposedly beating us.  That’s a comparison that many of these supposed reformers don’t want to draw.

Teaching must be treated as an elevated profession and the most serious of endeavors. And I fail to see how blaming teachers for all of our society’s woes—from the loss of global dominance to our greed induced, economically ruinous, depraved financial system on Wall Street—moves us in that direction or even contributes to an honest conversation.  We want the best and the brightest—what Mr. Luna calls high-performing teachers—and yet we create policies that say, in effect, teachers should be seen and not heard. Education policy is made without educators. In any other context, such an approach would be considered absurd. I defy anyone to find a single piece of insurance legislation that we’ve passed in the state of Idaho—and believe me, we vote on a lot of insurance legislation—that was written without ever consulting with anyone in the insurance industry.

We say we want high-performing teachers and give lip service to how important our teachers are and then send the exact opposite message when we cut salaries and aggravate already challenging school conditions by reducing district funding for training, mentoring, new text books, counselors, school resource officers, arts and music programs, etc.

I realize I’m preaching to the choir with all of this. What we all must recognize is that the things that may be intuitively obvious to us are not always so to the public, for whom we operate a system of public schools. The very notion of free public schools that serve a societal purpose and the common good is under siege. And it is incumbent upon on all of us to re-educate our friends and neighbors about why a system of education that has been for so many years the envy of the world must be fiercely defended. And supported. And financed.       

Contrary to the so-called reformers, whose voices–amplified by powerful and monied interests—seem to drown out all others, I don’t believe that our fundamental problem is an achievement gap. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Does the pace of societal change and the global economy compel us to elevate our game, retool where needed, and recalibrate our expectations? Of course. But we can’t look at student achievement in a vacuum. More than an achievement gap, we face a resource gap—one that’s rooted in cynicism, false choices, and for some, a desire to completely dismantle public education as we know it. 

Many of my colleagues love to recite the old bromide that there’s no correlation between what you spend on education and outcomes. To that, I say, “Nonsense!” Can you imagine if our country’s leaders had employed such reasoning and rhetoric during the Cold War? “We don’t have to outspend the Russians—we’ll just do more with less, utilize our resources more efficiently, and focus on how we get rid of all our under-performing soldiers.” Resources matter and our commitment to identifying and marshaling the resources needed to meet the growing demands of the global economy is dwindling.

Perhaps you’ve seen a report that was recently released from Mike Ferguson, who served as the state’s chief economist for several decades. His report demonstrates, using a variety of data, that state support for public education has declined significantly in the last 12 years. Since 2000 Idaho public school spending dropped from 4.4 percent of personal income during the '80s and '90s to 3.4 percent of personal income. This is a staggering 23 percent reduction. Mr. Ferguson also draws attention to the very disturbing and possibly unconstitutional trend we see around supplemental levies and the ever-growing gap between the haves have have-not districts.

This year, which of course is an election year, you’ll hear the vast majority of legislators patting themselves on the back and boasting about the fact that schools got an increase this year. It was ever so slight, but they’re beaming with pride because they’ve barely reversed what was a devastating trendline over the last several years.  But please do not let legislators off the hook with this deceptive shell game and funny math. We are still more than $100 million dollars behind where we were four years ago. And the needs haven’t diminished, nor has enrollment.

I’ve witnessed and concluded that there is currently a lack of will to do what truly needs to be done to address questions of inequity across the state and to make the proper and necessary investments in our young people so that we can secure a bright economic future for Idaho, ensure that our children are prepared for a rapidly changing world, and allow our children to pursue a post-secondary education and find good jobs here when they come out.

So, what to do?

Without a doubt, the referenda to overturn the Luna laws are central to your discussions this weekend. A massive mobilization of pro-public education forces is imperative and those of you here today must lead the way. This is a critical opportunity to send a clear and unequivocal message to the Statehouse—in ways that no amount of emails, calls, or committee testimony ever could—that enough is enough. A message that says that people will no longer stand by as the Legislature and the Executive Branch wages an all-out assault on our public school system, farming out the work of our constitutionally mandated obligations to the highest bidders.

We must make it clear that we will not accept a so-called reform plan that demoralizes and scapegoats educators, swaps teachers for laptops, and advances educational ideas that are unproven, ill-conceived, and ultimately have very little to do with students, their achievement, and the challenge of getting more high school graduates to go on to college. And finally, we must send the message that making education policy without involving educators is the height of arrogance and stupidity.

Remember the overwhelming opposition that was expressed by so many Idahoans of every political stripe and from every corner of the state to Students Come First last year? We now have a golden opportunity to prove to those who would not listen to reason, would not listen to constituents, and would not listen to the experts that there is a price to be paid for dismissing the public and the popular sentiment on policy matters where there is so much at stake.

Now don’t kid yourselves. This campaign will not be easy. Gobs of special interest money will flow into the referendum opposition effort.  We will see some yoga-like stretching of the truth. We will see nasty innuendo and outright lies about who the IEA is and what the organization stands for.

The stakes are very high. But I see this campaign as the only way we can begin to reverse our current course, hold lawmakers accountable for their thoughtless votes and their adherence to party line over prudent policy, and begin the conversation on what our schools and children really need anew. It’s our chance to hit the reset button and hopefully give educators their rightful seat at the table as we move into the future.

It should be noted that we also have several educators who are running for office this year, which I’m very happy about. And there are candidates running for re-election who remain steadfast supporters of public education. We need to get out and support them—financially and in terms of your time.

This has the potential to be a transformational election, a watershed year, one for the history books. But no history will be made unless the supporters of public education engage in this election in an unprecedented way. This campaign will be won not on the airwaves but in the conversations that take place on front porches, neighborhood meetings, coffee shops, civic organizations and anywhere else you can share ideas with others who may not be equipped with all the information they need to cast a sensible vote. This campaign will only work with a massive grassroots effort that will have to involve many more than those who are present in this room today. I believe that this organization can and must pull off such an enormous effort.

And finally, let me just express my sincere and utmost gratitude to the IEA for all the support you’ve given me over the years.

Many of you may not know that I ran in 2004 for the first time and lost in a three-way primary. I was relatively new to politics and perhaps even a bit naive.  And I was running against two people whom I respected very much—people who were also strong public education advocates. I remember telling those BEA members who conducted my candidate interview that there was no endorsement that meant more to me than that of the Education Association. One of the most memorable highlights and notable victories in that campaign was in gaining the support the IEA that year.

It meant the world to me then. It still means the world to me now.

Please know that although I’m not running for re-election this year, I have every intention of remaining engaged in this critical fight for public education and for the future of our state. For now, it won’t be from within the House of Representatives but I will continue to pursue ways to advocate for my children, for all of our children, and for you. I know that it’s those children that drive you to do what you do—despite all the obstacles the state throws in your way.

Together we will defend the precious institutions of public education that have distinguished this great country and this state for so long. We will continue to uphold and validate the critically important work that you do and ensure that education continues to be regarded as our most urgent mission and the most noble profession. THANK YOU.

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