Monday, November 5, 2007

Face-to-face reasoning with invested individuals OR a chance encounter with Senator Margaret Dayton

I'm going to start with a seemingly unrelated item. I got a little board game as a stocking stuffer last Christmas. I tried it out with family members and we just didn't like it. In fact, we thought it was poorly designed. I later posted my opinion of the game on a website that gathers reviews and information and didn't think any more of it. A few months later, I received an email from the designer of the game, apologizing for not meeting my expectations and offering me a free game if I tried his company's products again. I was taken aback. I had never previously felt bad about criticizing Monopoly for example, but now I had received a friendly email from a designer who had laid the results of his creativity and effort bare to the public and was probably trying to earn at least part of his livelihood with the product. The purpose of the site I posted to is to gather useful information so that others can make better-informed decisions, and I felt like my criticism of the game was fair, specific, and accurate...but I still felt uncomfortable with the situation.

It's not quite the same, but I've been pondering if I'm comfortable with what I write in this public forum. I met Senator Margaret Dayton today in her driveway right after taping my personal anti-voucher flyer (see Oct. 30th post) to her door. It was quite a surprise to recognize her there, right in front of me. We had, I guess, a six or seven minute conversation about vouchers. (And for the sake of full disclosure, if you read this Senator, I really don't remember who I voted for in your race last year, but I'm guessing I would have learned your voucher position and voted against you.)

Sen. Dayton was nice and gave me experienced campaign advice on how to best tape flyers to doors so as to not annoy the owner. I was thinking on the way home that it is hard to reconcile my normal neighborly feelings to someone in the neighborhood and my strong negative views of something she firmly believes in. She could be a friend or advisor if we were acquainted under different circumstances. We share a common neighborhood, an interest in kids and schools, and probably the same religion. I get along fine with my voucher-supporting neighbors and have had excellent discussions that gave me a lot to think about (I've convinced at least one, maybe two of my neighbors to come around and see the problems with vouchers now too =). ) But they're not for the most part emotionally attached to the effort, and we can talk rationally about the different issues without feeling attacked.

During our discussion, I saw that we have vastly different perceptions of the UEA, teacher pay, and privatization of services. My experience with unpaid school level reps. and unpaid district level reps. who negotiate things like co-pays on prescriptions, and feeling attacked as a liberal, socialist, and power-hungry lover of the status quo, etc. differs dramatically from hers as a long time capital hill battler, negotiating with the paid UEA people, while journalists, the public, and lobbyists watch your every move. She remembered a specific ad from a couple years ago that took me a minute to recall and was obviously referencing specific bad memories where she felt things were done in bad faith. How do you communicate to someone that is saying they care about your contribution and profession, and apparently even believes they care, the intense disconnect between our perceptions, between what I have felt as attacks and other ideological priorities over education? That we're "not grateful," as explained to me by an Orem city council candidate relating a conversation with Sen. Valentine, because we don't feel that giving the largest education funding increase ever last year, in what was also the year with the largest surplus ever, when public opinion polls heavily favored more money for public ed., was some huge favor. Couldn't it just as easily be seen as a duty to your constituents? Especially because it could easily be perceived as an attempt to guilt trip anti-voucher people in education from speaking out against the voucher bill.

Or how do I communicate the ignored, bad faith feeling of a bunch of teachers over last year's legislative session? We had actually defeated one of the PCE candidates in the Republican primary, Jim Ferrin, who was and is continuing to profit from charter school construction enabled by laws he worked on. I was personally impressed by his successor, Stephen Sandstrom from his even-handed comments while on Orem City Council. He had an intense personal disagreement with the principal of his son's school, but didn't illogically carry that thought over to "public education, or at least this district is broken." He had campaigned as someone from the outside, not a "good ol' boy." Teachers were emailing him frequently as reports of the Republican leadership pressuring all of the new legislators came out. I have a copy of an email he sent in response to a Jr. High teacher, promising to stand with us public education voters, just a few days before the house vote. But then the canceled vote and the extra day of leadership twisting arms happened...and Sandstrom caved to the rest of the Utah Valley delegation and voted for vouchers. We don't know whether to be more frustrated with him or with those who pressured him. We too feel betrayed.

Just while writing this, I think I might have had a stroke of understanding. I think most teachers feel this way--I perceive myself as closer to the people than the legislature. I'm not an elected official, but I feel like I'm in the trenches together with my students and parents fighting for correct principles against a distant, entrenched body with different agendas than ours. (A little stadium with your vouchers?) And I think Senator Dayton, and maybe all of the legislators kind of feel the same way in reverse--democratically elected officials representing the interests of Utah citizens against greedy, protective unions with personal agendas. That could partly explain why our base presumptions are so different.

Anyway, I'm determined to try and express my vigorous disagreement in productive terms, but how do you say something is a lie, purposeful or not, and be respectful?

I have it on very strong neighborly authority that John Valentine is a kind, gentle man who is easy to get along with. But my resolve gets tested when I see this: President Valentine and and Speaker Curtis again cite the USU study that claims more than $1 billion in savings. This makes it hard to believe they really care about truth over ideology. Have they read this study...even once? A little bit? Are they telling the public that they read the Executive summary, or pgs. 45-47 and actually accept a marginal cost thousands of dollars more than total cost per student because of "Cost Function" estimates? That the state and local district actually save $8675 cumulatively each time a student leaves the district? Really? How can I conclude that they're prepared or honest if I don't believe they've read the fantastical study they use as evidence? I am forced to conclude again that the incomprehensibility of voucher funding is their greatest defense. Thus, this blog.

Or do they really think that they're making a case for understanding when they try to use the "out-of-state" union money as a reason to vote for vouchers? It's like the deep ebony pot calling the grey kettle black. The public knows where the money came from for both sides. Or scheduling a voucher advocacy meeting, but just calling it a "voucher discussion" in the paper and wondering why people don't trust you? The "trust the parents" movement treats the public like they're stupid and it's inconsistent with their stated views.

I'd like to work together with legislators and respect each other's views, but as I explained in all of my Nuts and Bolts posting, I must conclude the entire shell game of funding is a lie, and apparently a purposeful one. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst gave them different information; he or they told the legislature about the best estimates and scenarios, and they chose to believe their agenda rather than their own analyst's estimation of reality. And as Rep. Daw explained at the meeting last Thursday, they go out on a limb with their own assumptions partially because they received 4,000 applications for vouchers. But they simultaneously chose to ignore the fact that many applicants would be ineligible, and that there were over 3,000 eligible kindergarteners and current private school students under the income line who would be applying:

Senator Dayton, or whomever else reads this, please see that my anger gets stirred up by the conflict of ideas, not personalities. Just like your voice and demeanor stiffen a bit when talking about local rights versus national encroachment, something you feel strongly about, I get riled up when I see what I interpret as deception. Maybe we can have some real discussions of common ground after the vote and furor die down a bit.

(I'll post my thoughts about the union, and about the free market in education over the next couple weeks as I won't have to worry so much about the specifics of this bill.)

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