Being right, but not so sure

Michael Norton, Mindset
Posted 8/23/12

What if you are wrong? Have you ever asked yourself that question? I have. Of course, I’ve been married for 17 years, and I have two daughters, so …

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Being right, but not so sure


What if you are wrong?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? I have. Of course, I’ve been married for 17 years, and I have two daughters, so being wrong is pretty familiar territory.

But I mean about big things — presuppositions about the world, entry points into conversations, things like that. I think about things like that a lot when it comes to politics, which, I admit, I spend way too much time thinking about. Professionals tell us that about 90 percent of the American electorate is settled in its ideologies, either right or left, and that they will vote reliably that way.

But, what if we’re all wrong? What if that whole left/right split that seems to drive our debates is completely inadequate to describe the issues at hand, much less find solutions to the problems.

Take public education, for instance. It seems to me that the typical positions of the left and the right just don’t work. Believe me, as a lonely conservative voice in a sea of liberalism, I see both sides. The right wants you to think that the solution to all of public education’s problems is found in school choice, in charter schools and vouchers. There is some merit to that; I think charter schools are wonderful test tracks for reform ideas and new teaching approaches.

But they’re hardly true test; as long as charter schools have the ability to select their students from a pool of applicants, they will never reflect real public schools. And vouchers are much more likely to widen the gap between the educational “haves” and “have nots” than they are to solve what ails the public schools.

The left, on the other hand, would have you think that if only the schools were adequately funded, then all our troubles would disappear. Again, there’s some merit to that. In this day and age, a minimum level of the funding that is necessary just to keep buildings functioning is available, much less money to enact ambitious programs of technological integration and functional literacy. But no amount of funding can adequately compensate for children who don’t believe that what they’re learning will have any bearing on their lives, much less overcome the philosophical quagmire that passes for educational debate.

What if both sides are wrong? Or, what if both sides are correct? What if school choice is a great idea, but is actually good for every student? And not in the sense that students go to different buildings for different programs, but that students who want increased rigor have it, right in their home school, as do students who want a vigorous arts program, as well as students who want technological and vocational training. And, hey, guess what? That sort of programming would take money, lots of it. Both sides are correct.

Now that the campaign for November is getting into swing, you’re likely to be hearing a lot about Jeffco schools’ mill-levy request. The opposition to this ballot issue is taking umbrage about the increased costs to Jeffco schools of teachers’ retirement fund. And, you know what, they’re correct. PERA is costly, and needs structural reforms to be solvent in the long term, but it’s a promise we’ve made to these public servants. In many ways, it’s the same argument Paul Ryan is making: fulfill the promises made, but fix it for the long term.

At any rate, no money from the mill goes to cost of retirement. It’s a straw man argument. The supporters of the initiative want to maintain the programs and staffing that have made it possible for Jeffco to lay claim to the second-highest graduation rate among the 50 largest school districts in the country. And, you know what, they’re correct, too. The failure of this initiative would mean the elimination of any number of unique programs and drive staffing levels to a point that the idea of personal instruction for our students would be a thing of the past.

We’re both correct, and we’re both wrong. Jeffco needs more money, and Jeffco needs more innovation. The question you’ll be facing, as a voter, is are you willing to get past your presuppositions to objectively analyze this question? Are you willing to give a school district that has earned accolades for financial transparency a chance to stabilize itself enough that it can push the reforms that have proven effective in its dozens of innovative schools?

Michael Alcorn is a music teacher and fitness instructor who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. He graduated from Alameda High School and the University of Colorado-Boulder.


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