COLUMN: Sorry, teachers, it's not radical

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By David Giuliani

In high school, my biology teacher often showed films during class. I remember people would often point to the teacher in the darkened classroom as he dozed off. During lectures, he would often veer off course, talking about mice in the school or bees buzzing in the classroom.

In short, we didn’t learn much.

Then there was my U.S. history teacher. He provided hands-on lessons to make our nation’s story come alive. In one instance, we conducted a mock trial of Eugene V. Debs, the prominent socialist from the early 20th century. Debs delivered an anti-war speech amidst World War I, and the government arrested him. We learned firsthand about the importance of the First Amendment, especially when it comes to unpopular ideas.

This teacher sparked my lifelong interest in history.

What’s the difference between these guys? The biology teacher was in his late 50s, nearing the end of his career. And the history teacher was in the beginning years of his career.

In the status quo of American education, the biology teacher made far more than his history counterpart.

To me, this is ridiculous. To the teachers unions, this is a desirable situation.

A week ago, Time magazine ran a story on Michelle Rhee. She started in 2007, heading a district where the schools are abysmal.

Her first orders of business: identifying incompetent teachers and principals, then firing them. So far, she’s let go of 270 teachers and 36 principals. And she’s gotten rid of 100 people from the district’s excessive 900-person central bureaucracy.

As such, she has plenty of fervent supporters as well as bitter enemies.

She told Time that people tell her, “Why did you fire this person? She’s a good person. She’s a nice person.”

But Rhee is looking for competent people. Schools aren’t jobs programs; they’re supposed to ready the next generation for the real world.

Teachers have tenure after just a few years. In other words, it’s practically impossible to fire a teacher short of some particularly egregious act. To make matters worse, teachers are largely paid based on seniority.

Rhee has tried to change that in Washington — with pay based on performance. But predictably the unions oppose such an idea.

The unions always say merit pay would be vulnerable to political favoritism — an excuse for mediocrity. After all, performance can be based on tangible data such as test scores.

Is it radical to suggest that a good teacher be paid more? The unions say yes; many others say no.

• • •

On Dec. 15, those wanting to run for East or West school board should file with the county clerk’s office in the county courthouse. The election is Feb. 3.

On the East board, the seats held by Philip Leger and Elaine Luna are up for the election. For West, the terms of Christine Ludi and Ralph Garcia are coming to an end.

Embroiled in scandals over the last couple of years, Garcia is not expected to run again. He’s been there for nearly three decades, and he was honored during West Las Vegas High School’s graduation earlier this year.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or giuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.