Opinion | Scott M. Estill: Education for all students

If anyone is interested in a thankless job, the Summit School Board may be your cup of tea. The current board is looking with interest at online alternatives to in-person education, along with curriculum and textbook choices for the 2022-23 school year. I wish them luck!

While most people are wired a bit differently, we are (almost) all equipped to want the best for our children and to give them best opportunities for success with whatever path they choose to take in life. While we can control, to some extent, what happens within the four walls of our home, the game changes when we hand off our children to the school system.

The legal concept of “in loco parentis” (in place of a parent) often was used in the past with respect to K-12 teachers in that a part of the job was an overall responsibility for the health and welfare of the students while they acted in lieu of the actual parents. What this meant was that the teacher should treat the students much like a parent would do so at home.

This of course posed a major dilemma for teachers given that there was — and still is — a great deal of different parenting methods. In reality, the number of parenting methods is only limited by the number of parents. Over the years the courts have gradually eroded a teacher’s role with respect to discipline (physically striking students was accepted in the past and will now subject the teacher to arrest and a likely civil lawsuit) and other classroom conduct that perhaps a parent would have dealt with differently.

Education, like everything else, is constantly evolving. And while we can hopefully all agree that all children have the right to a public education, at least through high school, what form that education takes often results from decisions that the school board is tasked to make. Take online learning. Prior to COVID-19, this option did not exist as far as our public schools were concerned, as the in-person model was the sole option.

Now post-COVID, it would seem that there is no need to continue the online model and can safely head back to the pre-pandemic traditional method.

There are currently 3,592 students enrolled in our Summit County public schools. This past year 68 students utilized the online learning program, or about 2% of the student population. The current board recently voted 4-2 in favor of eliminating the existing online learning option, noting that the costs for such a small subset of the overall student population were not justified in lieu of the overall budget considerations for the student population at large.

The county couldn’t justify spending $362,003 for this program, for which I can understand from a solely financial perspective. But, given today’s technology, it seems to me that it is disingenuous not to consider other online alternatives to meet the important needs of the 68 students who may need this option.

Simply because this online option wasn’t available pre-pandemic doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be available post-pandemic (assuming we are “post pandemic” today). A viable solution exists to permit these students to obtain a public education (via Zoom or the like at little or no strain on the budget) without having to suffer the mental, physical or emotional consequences of attending the in-person model. While the school board cannot be expected to accommodate every last need of every single student, this issue seems easy enough to resolve so that these 68 students reap the benefits of a public education they are entitled to receive.

I would hope the board will reconsider this decision, not about spending $362,003 on this (they shouldn’t), but about solving this very solvable problem.

If this issue wasn’t messy enough, what will happen when curriculum and textbook choices are subject to a public debate?

Hopefully, nothing like what we have seen in the rest of the country, where book banning has become an embarrassing symbol of censorship under the guise of protection. As parents, we all want our children to be “protected” while at school. But hopefully our board will limit this “protection” element to instances of physical and/or emotional abuse and not when it comes to thinking. While there is no place for bullying, there is a place for discussing the works of Harper Lee, Toni Morrison and countless others at grade-appropriate levels, even if such works contain words that may make people feel uncomfortable.

There is no way to sterilize history to make all students comfortable with the often-ugly truth of the past. And let’s not even go near Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust using a cartoon mouse to convey the horror to younger readers. It has been recently pulled from a Tennessee school district due to the violence, suicide and nudity it conveys about life in a concentration camp. This is a book that the conservative Wall Street Journal reviewed as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.”

And this brings me back to the concept of what parents can expect of teachers. The purpose of our public schools, according to the district’s website, is to “prepare caring, courageous, community-minded people who create a better world.”

While we must try to accommodate all students to obtain a valuable public education, including virtual classrooms (if necessary), we must also make sure that the education is free of any undue influences from the fringes of the political spectrum.

There is no place in our education system for restricting our children from receiving the necessary knowledge to become better community citizens upon graduation. While courts are not really an avenue to ban books today due to decisions involving the First Amendment, the local school boards are where the current action is. Throughout history and centuries before the world had Nazi Germany, books including the Bible, Torah and Quran, along with the Merriam Webster dictionary have been publicly banned. Add in a disparate list including Helen Keller, Jack London, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and even Harry Potter himself (J.K. Rowling) and it is apparent that in retrospect banning books lands you on the wrong side of history.

A final thought to consider: “If a public school were to remove every book because it contains one word deemed objectionable to some parent, then there would be no books at all in our public libraries.”

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