The mythological figure Sisyphus was a cruel king. As punishment, he was forced to push a huge bolder up a hill only to have it roll back down, where he would start all over… for eternity.
Sisyphus’ struggle feels like where we are now with education reform. The regular session of the Legislature ended in early March with the collapse of Senate Bill 451. The Republican-driven omnibus bill could not garner enough support from majorities in both chambers or the backing of Governor Justice.
Justice called lawmakers into a special session, but then dispatched them to their home districts on a listening tour to find out what “the people” thought should be changed about our public education system. The State Board of Education conducted a series of town hall forums to gather opinions.
That now having been done, all parties should be ready to move forward on what Justice has called education “betterment.”
But they’re not ready.
Frankly, I’m not sure leading policy makers are close to agreement on what should and should not be done to improve outcomes. Perhaps the only consensus at this point is that student achievement must improve. It’s the how-to-get-there part that keeps rolling the Sisyphus stone back down the hill.
The newest idea to get traction is for the state to abandon the current “top down” approach, where Charleston dictates with mind-numbing specificity how local school systems are supposed to spend their money. Instead, counties would get the money in a block grant, as well as the authority to allocate resources as needed.
Of course, the state would still have to create some framework for the spending and have controls in place so some scofflaw doesn’t waste taxpayer dollars on her son’s wedding, as former Logan County Superintendent Phyllis Doty did.
Governor Justice is not opposed to the idea, but he is concerned that an attempt to push through on short notice such a significant change of how hundreds of millions of tax dollars are spent on education could turn into a bitter public fight.
Republican leaders are still all in on having at least a few charter schools. However, that’s a non-starter with the teacher unions. Apparently, they are willing to go so far as to sacrifice a pay raise to keep charters out. If so, that takes away legislative bargaining power; the Republicans can’t dangle the pay raise and other school improvements to get the unions to back down on charters.
A few weeks ago, it appeared lawmakers would use May’s interim committee meetings, starting next week, to tackle education reform, but Senate President Mitch Carmichael said on Talkline Thursday that Republicans will not be ready by then with their reform package, which is now named the Student Success Act.
However, Democrats have said they have their own education bills they want to introduce next week. They’re in the minority in both chambers so their bills won’t run, but it tells you the two parties are far apart.
And as for Governor Justice? It’s hard to say. He’s a bit of a moving target. Yes, he’s a Republican, but GOP leaders cannot always count on his support and, as a high school basketball coach, he’s often more sympathetic to the teachers’ positions.
And so, this brings us back to Sisyphus. Even when the great stone of education reform approaches the top of the hill, it rolls right back down to the bottom.
We knew that comprehensive and meaningful education reform—true changes that improve outcomes—was going to be a heavy lift, but sometimes it seems nearly impossible.