Education Matters: Setting the record straight

A complimentary email from a reader about my recent columns concluded with a P.S. that surprised me: “I know you’re Republican but …”

Then there was a critical reader who wrote anonymously online that my columns should be dismissed because I’m a “biased conservative” journalist.

Biased I own. I’m an opinion columnist.

But conservative? Those who know me found it laughable.

I’ve been called a lot of names over the years, but this is the first time I’ve ever been called a Republican or a conservative.

Let me set the record straight: I am not politically conservative or Republican. I have never voted for a Republican in a partisan race, ever.

Once, I confess, I did register Republican. That was in 1980 so I could vote for my political hero John Anderson who was running for president at the time. Once he went independent, I re-registered where I’m at today — No Party Preference.

That does not mean that in non-partisan races I don’t sometimes vote for someone who incidentally happens to be Republican.

When I know the candidates personally and am convinced of no agenda to attack the social causes dear to my heart, I’ll do it.

Many are registered Republicans primarily because they believe in strong fiscal policy and are not interested in limiting or infringing upon the rights of women, gays, immigrants or minorities.

Women’s rights, religious freedom, free speech, tougher gun control laws, sexual orientation, the ACLU, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, universal health care, and separation of church and state are tops on my list. A conservative clearly I am not.

But tops also on my list is accountability in government spending — which apparently trumps everything else I stand for and places me in the Republican camp.

Many of us are socially liberal and fiscally conservative — or as I prefer to say, fiscally responsible.

This is the problem. Why is it hard to accept that people can hold two seemingly opposing viewpoints at the same time?

In public education, teachers unions have done an excellent job of polarizing people into two strict classifications. Anyone who opposes union policies must be against students — and therefore is labeled ultra-conservative.

People are more complicated than 100 percent one way or the other and cannot be pigeonholed into clearly defined categories with solid boundaries.

These are false dichotomies. No one is that one-dimensional.

Unions represent teacher interests, not students first. Those of us who point this out are labeled as something we are not.

More and more self-identified liberals have come to believe that many union policies have not been good for public education. These same people can defend and champion hard-working teachers while simultaneously casting a wary eye on union motives.

Twisted logic

Criticizing school board members who happen to be Democrats and are aligned with union demands does not mean one is anti-teacher. It can simply mean opposition to reckless spending of taxpayer money.

And there’s been plenty of that in local school districts.

In the San Dieguito Union High School District, the vast majority of teachers are excellent, committed, devoted even, to their students and public education.

But many of us who applaud the work teachers do were appalled when the school board approved the 12.5 percent wage increase in the last union contract.

To call that irresponsible is not the same as saying teachers are not respected.

Teachers picketing outside San Dieguito board meetings last fall held signs blasting SDUHSD trustees Mo Muir and John Salazar, one of which read: “John Salazar voted against district fiscal solvency.”

Given rising pension costs and declining reserves in the district’s general fund, it’s twisted logic to claim that Salazar voted against fiscal solvency.

Rather, it’s the board majority who “voted against district fiscal solvency” by approving the massive raise for all employees, not just teachers, which is costing the district $6.5 million annually.

I don’t agree with everything the board minority says or does, but in this case they were right to oppose the massive wage increases.

In a letter to the editor in this newspaper last fall, a writer said, “When an overwhelming number of my district’s teachers do not support, do not trust, and do not have any confidence in Muir’s and Salazar’s leadership, it should be of great concern to all our community.”

A bit of reframing is in order.

If the local union and its teachers take a position against particular school board members, it should cause voters to ask themselves why the union doesn’t like them. That’s where the concern should be.

Unions use their power and significant financial influence to persuade voters to elect school board members who are in effect the teachers’ bosses. Nice and cozy.

Teachers unions like to claim the moral high ground, saying they represent the best interests of students. But unions exist to promote policies on behalf of teachers.

Using children as pawns to advance their own union interests is a manipulative tool that attempts to guilt citizens into voting for hand-picked school board members who are fully aligned with the union.

There has been a dereliction of duty by school board members who vote lockstep with union positions, to the detriment of school district financial stability.

In San Dieguito, escalating pension contributions and dwindling reserves, coupled with increased reliance on parent donations, prove the point.

Is it possible to recognize unions and sympathetic/accommodating/compliant school board members for what they are — and still care deeply about students, teachers and the future of public education?

I believe the answer is yes.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at