Education

Barb Rush: Not Your Candidate for School Board

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I had the opportunity to attend the weekly Hometown Helena meeting this morning before a day of doctor visits and was able to listen to School Board candidate Barb Rush speak about her views of “school reform,” which consisted of a 30+ minute tirade against the Helena School District that was largely devoid of facts and reason. As one attendee put it, Rush wants to impose her 1950s ideas of education on 21st century students.

During the question phase, current Board chair Michael O’Neil may have put it best: “I’m not sure what the opposite of seeing with rose-colored glasses is, but Mrs. Rush seems to view our schools that way, always choosing to highlight the negatives.” Criticism can be a powerful catalyst for social change, but not when it is compulsive, angry, and just wrong.

Mrs. Rush does not represent the views of our community and simply put, doesn’t have the best interests of our students and schools in mind. She would make a dreadful Board member, and here are a few reasons why.

Hungry Children Should Pull Themselves Up By Their Bootstraps

When pressed for a solution to Helena’s struggle to graduate all of its students, Mrs. Rush offered a novel solution that violates both logic and most tenets of moral living: stop giving food to hungry children.It’s a not a new idea for Mrs. Rush, but one that stands out for its singular cruelty and stupidity. Hungry children do not learn. Programs that provide free, nutritious meals in schools with rates of poverty are incredibly successful, as the research points out. Eliminating this program to instill “work ethic” in children is obtuse beyond imagination.

The Helena School District Should Reject Federal Funds

One of Mrs. Rush’s central arguments was that the Helena School District should reject federal funds, because, for some reason, the development of the Department of Education in the 1970s was responsible for wholesale collapse of the educational system. While I am working on finding out just how much money that would mean giving up, I know with certainty that our schools with high poverty and students with special needs would suffer significantly. Mrs. Rush is putting her ideology ahead of the educational needs of students, a pattern that will become more clear over the next few paragraphs.

Update: A fair estimate would be $4 million dollars, not including lunch programs. Gone–if Barbara Rush had her way.

Health Education is Bad, Even If She Has to Lie About It

Once again, Mrs. Rush wheeled out her tired, dishonest arguments about the adoption of health curriculum in the District. Flinging around buzzwords like “secret agenda” and “San Francisco values” may play well to her crowd, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Board offered an incredibly open process to adopt the curriculum, with two large public meetings and thousands of e-mails read and received.

Mrs. Rush lost. Just because the School Board voted the other way, the right way, doesn’t mean that the Board didn’t listen. It just means she was wrong. And shrill. And misinformed.

The School Board Should Ban Books

Mrs. Rush and I got into a discussion about her characterization of a book by “Alexie Sherman.” I think a basic rule of censorship ought to be that the censor know the real name of the person whose books she hopes to ban, but that’s a minor point. Mrs. Rush asserted that Alexie’s book could be objectively evaluated as inappropriate, while titles like Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath do not contain objectionable material. She referred to these title as “more competitive literature,” a phrase I’m almost certain she borrowed from a speech at Nuremberg in the 1930s.

Of course, her facts are wrong. The books she has mentioned are hardly uncontroversial texts.

Not Of Mice and Men, which was banned in Kansas for being a worthless, profanity-riddled book” which is “derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled” and is ranked #10 on the Banned Books List. Not Of Mice and Men, in which a character says, “Give me a good whore house every time” (61) because he knows what he will be getting there.

Not The Grapes of Wrath, one of the most banned books in the past sixty years, and one that questions traditional Christianity, capitalism, and big business. A book that contains frank discussions of sexuality.

As I told Mrs. Rush, I think she needs to read these books again.The point is fairly obvious to anyone who’s read and understood literature: good books inspire, provoke, challenge, and even occasionally offend. No teacher in the District requires any student to read a book she or her parents object to, and to say otherwise is simply a lie. She might also have mentioned that only four people spoke against Sherman Alexie’s novel at the Board hearing while scores spoke in favor of it and more were waiting, if time allowed.

Even Anecdotes Should Be True

While many of these items were quite insignificant in the scope of the entire presentation, I was actually amazed at how casually Mrs. Rush distorted the truth on a number of issues. She wrongly claimed

  • that Helena High has eliminated honors classes at the freshman level for the sake of academic teams, which is absolutely false. Our honors students are still taking honors classes in math, science, social studies, and English, despite the development of teams.
  • that textbook funds are only paid for out of “end of year” money, “if money happens to be left over.” As someone who has recently developed a new course and who received textbooks from the curriculum budget, I know this is false. Departments were also given the opportunity to purchase new books to meet demands this fall as well.
  • that all teachers are “required to do community service, serve on two committees and share in school governance.” I assume this is a distorted reference to our PCAP program, which offers wide variety of student-driven responsibilities for teacher to choose from. As for “shared governance,” teachers themselves negotiated for it because we want to be a voice in the decision-making process.

If we can’t trust Mrs. Rush to either do the research or tell the truth before making decisions and casting critical votes, we can’t afford to have her represent us on the School Board.

The Bottom Line

I’m a critic of our educational system, who always pushes for more innovative and effective strategies. As I have written a number of times, there are areas in which I think our schools could see significant improvement and I don’t think there is anything objectionable about that position. A board member, though, has to remember another responsibility: to be willing to work to improve schools through consensus, discussion, and negotiation. In her interaction with the Board, her speeches, and her letters to the editor, Mrs. Rush has shown herself to an intemperate, inflexible ideologue who would rather destroy than build, rather attack than compromise.

Our students deserve better.

Tomorrow: Barbara Rush’s Greatest Hits

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a seventeen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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