Thursday, March 27, 2008

I’m not kidding about those teachers…plus an anti-climactic and slightly disappointing caucus experience

Crucial preliminary notes before talking about the caucus: computers hate me, night classes are exhausting, and my bracket is not looking so good. I went a little upset crazy this year and only predicted 9 of the Sweet 16. (I did pick both the Davidson and Villanova first round upsets.) Redemption possibly lies in the fact that 7 of my Elite 8 are still in the tournament.

My first ever caucus experience was similar to a lot of the others—it wasn’t extremely well attended and featured a limited number of candidates. I wish I had known to do a couple things differently, but at least I’m armed with a lot more knowledge for next time. I am a little frustrated with some of the results, but happy that everyone seemed to be accepting of divergent views. The chair made a point of explaining that accepting a position did not dictate a straight party vote. There were 13 people in attendance when apparently there had been only 4 or 5 at the last couple caucus meetings. The precinct chair and his wife, the secretary, were very welcoming and friendly. I found out that my neighbor two doors down was the vice-chair. I personally knew 7 of the other 12 people in attendance and that for sure, 5 of the 13, counting me, were pro-education. I also knew that 4 people were pro-voucher including the chair and his wife. I wasn’t sure of the rest, but I’m fairly sure one other couple was also there for pro-education issues.

I had come prepared to be elected delegate with a few remarks on my pro-ethics-reform, pro-education platform of moderation, but we only had one nominally contested race and no debate. From what they told us, having so many people was a new thing and they were a little lax on formal nominating procedure and votes. Upon talking to others today, I could have suggested a point of order that everyone explain their views or answer questions, even if they were running unopposed.

No one was volunteering to run for chair—maybe next time—until someone finally nominated my neighbor, the vice-chair. He accepted and was quickly elected. He didn’t make a little speech or explain his views. The current chair was nominated for vice-chair along with another staunchly pro-voucher neighbor. My wife and I get along well with him and his wife; we just avoid that topic. The chair was going to immediately vote, but I asked if they could explain their views. Their brief remarks centered on the fact that they love politics, and the current chair understandably said he’d like to see someone else have a chance after 8 years in the position. We had just enough other willing candidates to fill the remaining spots: the current chair and I as county delegates and another man for state delegate. None of us spoke of our positions on any issues. We were just nominated and unanimously voted in after accepting.

The meeting was about to end when a long-time caucus participant who had planned with me to vote for pro-education delegates asked that I share what I had prepared. I spoke for 3 or 4 minutes about the bi-partisan ethics reforms I wished to see, against vouchers, for class room size reduction and honest discussion of those funds, local autonomy, the role of public and private entities, and transportation issues here in Utah County. From the reactions of those in the room, I think my comments were well received, even by those who I know hold views to the right of mine. They asked the state delegate to speak, and he quickly agreed with my stance on moderation and promised to work hard. I am certain moderate delegates would have been voted in had there been a chance to compete for election. We ended in well under an hour and I was happy about everyone respecting each other.

Afterwards I pinned down my extremely nice neighbor who was elected precinct chair and asked him his opinion on education and vouchers. I hadn’t expected to hear that he thought vouchers were a good idea and that the teachers union had distorted the facts. He is a kind, good man and was a little uncomfortable telling me because he knew my views. We politely agreed to disagree and I gave him my blog address. (Then we peeked in on a couple other precincts together and saw a few mostly boring remarks from delegate candidates. I heard two specific positions in about 15 minutes worth of “I love America” and “I love politics.” Loving America is a given in meetings like this I hope, and “loving” politics shouldn’t necessarily be a qualification in my view. What if politics often angers you, but you still feel the need to get involved to fight for principles you believe in? What of too many politicians who in my opinion love the power that comes with politics more than any service they render?)

My frustration and disappointment come from the fact that we had 5 people there to vote pro-education and I almost certain another couple would have joined us, making 7 pro-education votes. The pro-education people with me were either first-time attendees and intimidated by the prospect of accepting a position, or older and wary of the commitment after many past positions. End results: At least 5 of 13 caucus meeting attendees were anti-vouchers in my precinct, probably more, but 3 of 4 county delegates are pro-voucher, an issue which was not discussed at the meeting. We don’t even know our state delegate’s views. The current chair and vice-chair were very gracious and demonstrated their willingness to vote for any new face wanting to serve; there just weren’t any other candidates.

But my experience was very bland compared to those of some other teachers I spoke with. The point was made in one caucus that opposition to vouchers is actually promotion of the “liberal, gay agenda.” Seriously…Huh? I’d just laugh about it, but this sadly represents a certain portion of public opinion in Utah as seen in my post before the caucus. What’s more insulting is that this comes from people who have teachers as neighbors and acquaintances. “Well, of course it’s not that teacher we know and trust from the neighborhood. It’s other unspecified evil, liberal teachers infiltrating Utah Valley and corrupting our children.”

Another teacher was interrupted mid-sentence in her American Fork meeting by a man named Dan Early who claimed to have helped draft the voucher legislation. First, he was not even a member of that precinct and should not have been allowed to interrupt. Second, he initiated some contentious remarks, attacking the teacher who had been speaking. She had not been strident and the audience was not upset that she was representing a differing viewpoint. Mr. Early badgered the teacher as she attempted to ask him questions and take back her time. He eventually told her that she “should accept vouchers for the good of the party,” and that she should join the Democratic Party if she disagreed…before thanking the chair for allowing him to interrupt and walking out to assumably pester other precincts. That is the arrogant attitude that has driven off many long-time Republicans this election year.

I will edit my post and include the actual words of that teacher tomorrow morning when I can get my email to work. I also expect a couple others to email me about some troublesome experiences. But I want to think about one last point. The teacher in American Fork noticed her conservative, Mormon neighbors get visibly uncomfortable as she and Dan Early argued a little bit. The chair hurriedly moved on afterwards, not allowing the teacher to finish her comments, but 3 or 4 people in the immediate vicinity of her seat leaned over and whispered that they felt the same way.

In this area, contention is commonly viewed as coming from the devil and often avoided or ignored in public arenas. I can understand that, but to what extreme and at what price? I enjoyed my peaceful caucus meeting, but is avoiding controversy or discussion of potentially emotional issues worth dishonesty or the stifling of vigorous debate? I would submit that some disagreement is inevitable at a public forum, even among friends and neighbors. Being humans, that means that some emotion or contention is also nearly inevitable at meetings discussing political issues. It’s worth it. The contention and any permanent hurt feelings are a result of our own weaknesses, not inherent in the discussion of important issues. I get along well with various neighbors who felt differently about vouchers than I do and we had some great discussions about the topic. It is beneficial to individuals and our Republic for everyone to be exposed to and critically evaluate opposing viewpoints. You can monitor your own behavior to keep your temper and tongue in line and also not take offense when your position is attacked. Just let people speak…


Jesse Harris said...

I really do appreciate your thoughts and perspective, but I must object to the way you use the term "pro-education". It seems to be a very narrow label that implies that anyone with differing views or who proposes alternatives is automatically "anti-education". The reality is that most of us who support change in the education system, even if it is sweeping and upsets the current structure, are doing it to improve the system, not tear it down. The number of people looking to totally dismantle publicly-funded education are very few and far between and I'd bet an ever smaller portion of them are truly "anti-education".

Lyall said...

jesse you took the words right out of my mouth. education is much broader than vouchers. i don't know a single person who is anti-education. i know people who are pro-public education and know others who are pro-homeschool, etc.

what we disagree over is how to best educate our children and how to improve education in Utah so that it prioritizes children and parents over any system. and to that point there are as many opinions about how to do that as there are people in utah.

Barbara said...

I think what was meant was "pro public education" as opposed to "pro privatizing education." I have to disagree with you Jesse. I've talked to those who support change in the current structure specifically to tear it down and improve for a small minority as opposed to improve for the majority. The big money behind the voucher proposal in Utah do, in fact, want to totally dismantle publicly-funded education. Now, maybe those Utah citizens that voted to keep the voucher legislation don't hold the same view but that was/is the intent of the out of state backers that provided the millions of dollars to support vouchers.

UtahTeacher said...

Thanks Barbara--nice clarification there. You read my mind. But Jesse, you make a good point. I am using pro-education as a mental shorthand for something like "Public education is vital, and vouchers inherently move towards complete privatization which excludes large numbers of students and screws up our society."

As Barbara said, I think the majority of pro-voucher people in Utah are not "anti-education." (And I didn't use that term in my post...) But I am probably wrapping up a pretty involved discussion of education funding and motive into one term that could distract from my real argument.

I would argue that I am "pro-education" in every sense of the word,(Including private and home schools Lyall. That crazy California homeschool ban is one conservative bandwagon that I am on for the ride. Just don't "defund" public schools in the process.) but I would agree that use of the word in juxtaposition to pro-voucher is too broad.

I think my attempted usage stems from this--there are real problems with various private schools and some home schooled kids, but I don't support eliminating their many benefits to get at the few problems. Agency happens and deal with problems as they come up within a reasonable framework. On the other hand, I do feel that many pro-voucher people are violently anti-public-education, and I probably get too reflexive in my frustration. I think I want to write a post on my thinking here soon.