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Bennish Controversy makes Case for More Choice

By Benjamin DeGrow

Through the recent spotlight on the Jay Bennish story, many everyday consumers have gained insights into the current public education system. Most revealing was the way the story unfolded.

A look at reactions to 16-year-old Sean Allen’s recording of the Overland High School geography teacher’s one-sided classroom tirade highlights the system’s structural problems–problems larger than the best intentions of any teacher or public official.

The rush to defend the teacher from his own recorded words clearly exposed some unsettling issues.

Many Bennish apologists claimed the 21-minute segment was just one part of an overall balanced presentation, overlooking the teacher’s passionate presentation of a one-sided worldview that lacked broader historical context.

Fellow Leftists went further, arguing that Bennish’s tirade provided the needed balance of “critical thinking” to perceived right-wing indoctrination given outside the schools.

Pagosa Springs High School teacher Jim Hicklin sent a revealing email to Colorado State Board of Education member Bob Schaffer, after Schaffer proposed an official resolution condemning the Overland teacher’s classroom behavior. Hicklin defended Bennish with the rhetorical question: “Since when is it incompetent for a teacher to expose his students to the truth?”

Several other Colorado teachers have told me they see colleagues who act like Bennish and Hicklin. They cited instances of teachers using their taxpayer-funded jobs to assign one-sided projects related to current events, or to proclaim their political opinions as “truth” to captive audiences of impressionable students. In other words, politically dogmatic classrooms are more widespread than just Overland High School.

While Bennish drew more attention for his unbalanced attacks on President Bush and capitalism, he also should have checked some facts before his February 1 class. For example, he said at one point in the lecture: “Who has the most weapons of mass destruction in the world? The United States.”

Setting aside the moral equivalency that implies the larger a nation’s arsenal the more “violent” and dangerous it is, best estimates indicate that Russia beats the U.S. in the WMD department by two-to-one.

After the recording was publicized, the state’s largest teachers union seized the story to step up recruitment efforts. The Colorado Education Association (CEA) called the situation “another darned good reason to sign up more members.” Bennish, who is not a CEA member, was cited as an example of those “who think that they can buy car insurance after the wreck.”

Union officials’ fears proved largely unfounded. Bennish’s employer, Cherry Creek Schools, conducted an investigation and then cut a deal to return him to his Overland classroom. Satisfying bureaucratic requirements, district leaders also refused to disclose the terms of the deal, or even to declare whether the teacher had violated district policy.

Most teachers–regardless of their political views–refrain from using their state-funded positions as soapboxes. Authorities who downplayed Bennish’s conduct showed disrespect to all the teachers who stick to the facts and keep their political opinions from dictating their agenda.

Even so, a harsh reprimand or other consequences for Bennish would not fix the underlying problem. The solution is to empower families with more options to take their business elsewhere. Let education tax dollars follow the child to any school his family chooses to meet his needs, whether for more rigorous academics or a different school culture.

Parents dissatisfied with biased classroom tirades would not have to enroll their children with others who would prefer a Bennish High. And families could judge the results of choice and competition for themselves.

Many current and prospective teachers would benefit, too. The opportunity to market their services in an environment most suitable to them could result in more pay, less bureaucracy, or more opportunities to interact meaningfully with students.

The Allens say Sean won’t return to Overland because of threats he has received. Current Colorado law affords Sean the chance to attend a public school outside his neighborhood, through open enrollment, charter schools, and online education.

In one sense, the family is fortunate: two decades ago, their legal choices would have been to stay at Overland or pay private school tuition. But with a limited range of current options weighed down by caps and waiting lists, there is abundant room for improvement.

A judicially-overturned voucher program was designed to provide Colorado’s neediest families with an escape from struggling schools. Having seen how officials responded to the Bennish affair, suburbanites might better realize the need for more competitive educational options.

For those who have studied the possibilities of what public education could be, the outcome of the Cherry Creek Schools’ investigation only reinforced the conviction that the current monopoly needs an overhaul. Thanks to Bennish and Allen, many more have awakened to a powerful reason for the urgency of school choice.