Teaching Human History

“In this room, our colleagues across history have abolished slavery; granted women the right to vote; established Social Security and Medicare; offered a hand to the weak, care to the sick, education to the young, and hope to the many, doing ‘the People’s work.’”     

 Nancy Pelosi, this week          

The idea that history is written by the victors is—like most cliches’—an inadequate framework for learning about the powerful forces that have shaped our world. I say this as an American baby boomer, born when the future of the United States seemed limitless, and its citizens were justifiably proud of having saved the world from evil. The history I was taught, in the 1950s-60s, was full of stories about our scrappy upstart nation that freed itself from British colonialism, survived a civil war—then made the world safe for democracy.

When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer backpacking in Europe. I stayed in cheap hostels and went where the Eurail pass would take me. At the very end of the trip, the day before flying home out of Munich, I went to the concentration camp in Dachau.

It was a gray and rainy day, and I had the place nearly to myself. Dachau had been open to tourists for 10 years, but—some 30 years after the camp was liberated—there weren’t many exhibits and no docents, then. That’s not to say that the place felt empty. Far from it.

I’ve been in some historic places in my lifetime, but nothing like Dachau.

The first thing people notice is how the village, with its flower boxes and tidy homes and beautiful church, sits next to the main camp. I remember it as an easy walk from the train station, through a lovely old German town, which encompassed tens of thousands of German citizens in the 1930s and 40s, most of whom claimed they had no idea what was going on behind camp walls. Of course, those people assumed they would be the victors, and get to tell the story of their glorious conquest.

The camp—in 1977—was mostly just cleared space, its buildings torn down. There was a bunkhouse or two, and a horrific crematorium to see, some photos on display. But the power of being there was in the voices.

I sat on a bench, under my umbrella, for a long time, listening to and sensing what had happened, around me and under my feet. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whatever evil happened there was not erased, not by a long chalk.

Clint Smith, who wrote the powerful How the Word is Passed: A reckoning with the history of slavery across America, had a wonderful piece in the Atlantic this week, about Holocaust remembrance.  Smith begins by noting that Germany has a global reputation for handling their past with honesty and reparation. I’ve written about this myselfwanting to believe that nations can be redeemed, can be humbled, admitting guilt and teaching their children to do better.

Smith’s piece mentions stumbling stones or solpersteine—small brass plates in the sidewalks of places where Jews once lived or were assembled and sent to their deaths. There are more than 90,000 of these now, in 30 European countries. Schoolchildren raise money to plant more of them.

I was in Germany last month, and our walking tour docents frequently pointed these out. Americans whipped out their phones and took photos. I did not hear voices, but seeing them was sobering. In fact, Smith says that not everyone thinks putting brass plates in places where people can walk on them is the right thing to memorialize the loss of six million people. But, at least, the Germany citizenry is wrestling with the questions around its own guilt. Smith:

In recent years, Americans have seen a shift in our understanding of the country’s history; many now acknowledge the shameful episodes of our past alongside all that there is to be proud of. But reactionary forces today are working with ever-greater fervor to prevent such an honest accounting from taking place. State legislatures across the country are attempting to prevent schools from teaching the very history that explains why our country looks the way it does. School boards are banning books that provide historical perspectives students might not otherwise encounter.

There was, IMHO, way too much celebrating last week over anti-teacher, anti-‘CRT’ school board candidate slates NOT sweeping into power. Data on this, however, is a little murky:  

Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks U.S. politics, has so far counted 237 school board winners who took a stance on hot-button topics, including race and gender. Of those, 55 percent took the conservative side on at least one issue, compared with 43 percent who took liberal stands (the remainder had mixed positions).

Hardly a resounding victory, and the thing about school boards is that they’re the first access point for anyone with a political beef (real or imagined). You don’t even have to have children in that school, or live in the district.

There’s dark money behind school board races and vocal protests these days—and the reprehensible folks and thinking at Hillsdale College haven’t gone away. There’s also the Heritage Foundation and its faux education ‘research.’ The state of Virginia just removed Martin Luther King, Jr. from the elementary social studies standards.  

I’m happy that the nation seems to want to pull back from the political abyss—thrilled, in fact—but there’s a reason why lots of school boards, if not a majority, turned over last week, and the impact is just being felt. These are the people who do not believe we need redemption, to admit guilt and teach our children to do better. These are people who—as my friend and new State Board of Education member Mitch Robinson says—find the made-up problems in education more useful than the solutions.

There is no more important study than our own history. Nancy Pelosi illustrated that beautifully in her graceful step-down speech, as first female Speaker of the House this week. If we can’t learn from our own accomplishments and failures, we’re doomed.

Thank You, Supporters

Dear Friends,

Well, we gave my opponent, She Who Shall Not Be Named, a run for her money, but lost by 195 votes.

I learned a lot of things about the place where I live–and remain convinced that big changes are coming to Solon and Kasson townships, and we need to get out ahead of them. We need to stop pretending that there are no problems with housing, that our lakes are (and I quote) ‘sparkling clean’ and not in need of protection, that broadband is a luxury, and that nothing will ever change in our rural paradise.

Change is coming–we’re surrounded by natural beauty, and the largest bodies of fresh water in the Lower 48. Compared to other states, property is affordable. Unless policies are put in place, and residents understand what happens when expensive housing is dedicated to vacationers and workers can’t afford to live here, we’re on a destructive path.

During the campaign, I never misrepresented myself or my beliefs about what’s needed here, in the heart of Leelanau. I know that to some, I was just one of those ‘liberal’ newcomers–but the data and doorknocking told me that there are more and more of us here, concerned about the same issues. We did some good work for future elections, and I’m proud of that.

Why did we lose? For starters, the largest church in the district drew out its voting members, in an attempt to keep Proposal 3, which kept our current (clear, regulated) abortion laws in place, from passing. (It did pass, 56-44, statewide.) I was also relatively unknown in a place where family roots and reflexive voting habits go deep.

THANK YOU to everyone who voted for me.

Thank you to Allison Kimpfer, Mary O’Neill and Julie Kradel who ran against me in the primary, then turned around to help my campaign. We agreed, last spring, that our mission was proving that four smart Democratic women were willing to take on the Charles Grassley of Leelanau County, and we accomplished that.

There is a great deal of good news–it was a blue night for Michigan, and we held the County Commission. The three good proposals were all solid winners. All the work done by Voters Not Politicians, back in 2018, has paid off. It’s a fairer and more progressive state, un-gerrymandered–maybe even a model for other states–and both houses of the state legislature flipped blue, for the first time in 40 years.

Michigan has been a purple state, forever–and now our election results match our popular beliefs. That’s a great feeling. I’m going to be represented in the State House by Democrat Betsy Coffia (photo below), who has promised me that she’ll talk to teachers first when someone gets a big idea about how to ‘fix’ public education. That’s awesome.

Thanks for being on my side, readers. I appreciate all of you.

Vote with Heart, not with Hate

There’s only you and me—and we just disagree…  Dave Mason

It’s been fascinating, this weekend, reading about our actual President’s heartfelt plea to save democracy, and the opposing party’s response: Gas prices (with a healthy side of chicken-fried lies) are going to get us elected, so let’s double down on the destruction. Whoo hoo!

I’ve been voting for 50 years, and there’s never been an election like this one. I know we keep saying that this is the most important election of our lifetime–we say it every two years—but holy tamales. The thought of a Republican-led House launching four impeachments simultaneously, with Jim Jordan preening on the news every night? Nauseating.

And yet, here we are.  

In those 50 years, I have voted for Republicans. In fact, I used to vote in the Republican primary in the district where I lived for 20 years, because it was the only way I got to endorse mainstream candidates over crazypants candidates. I knew that Democrats would never win there, so it was a prophylactic exercise.

That was back in the days when the truly whacko candidates were pruned in the primaries. Unlike 2022.

Those of you who were voters in 2000 might remember compassionate conservatism, George W’s election slogan. I was in the .52% margin of voters who chose Gore over Bush, but I can’t remember anything about Gore’s campaign message. Something about a lockbox? Compassion, on the other hand—compassion and action—I can get behind.

God knows we need it. A more compassionate electorate, one concerned with actual facts about our rapidly changing climate and its outsized impact on populations in poverty, about human rights, about all the policy tweaks we could make to lift up our families and neighbors… what’s not to like?

We’re moving in the wrong direction, away from voting with our hearts toward voting with anger, hate and naked self-interest. Voters have been not only given permission to stomp all over their community’s needs, but are now being encouraged to wrest control of election results from township and village clerks.

Two stories about compassion:

A little more than a year ago, one of the communities I hope to represent on the County Commission, Maple City, raised a civic outcry against having a Dollar General in the center of town. Maple City is a modest little town, with a Post Office, a cute restaurant and a gas station, and lots of similarly modest homes. But its residents did not want to be a Dollar General town, or labeled—as Dollar General Corporate did—a ‘food desert.’  After rejecting Dollar General, that parcel of land was designated as space for six small homes—ground was broken, with lots of enthusiasm, a year ago, and the community seemed poised to welcome six new families. Compassion had beat out Dollar General, it seemed.

Right now, however, there are only foundations in place for four of the homes. A request for a tax rebate was soundly rejected, as the price of building new homes and availability of builders rose. Speaking with the people of Maple City, while door-knocking, there’s a lot of confusion and angst over promises made and promises stalled—or broken. The gap between the haves and have-nots—the thing they were trying to prevent by not plunking a Dollar General down in town—has not decreased.

Also—I was horrified to read that Leelanau County is among the top five counties in Michigan for parents opting out of the standard series of vaccinations that Michigan schoolchildren are required to get before entering public schools. More than 10% of our local schoolchildren are now entering kindergarten and the 7th grade unvaccinated.

This number, statewide, used to be vanishingly small, with waivers granted only on evidence-based need, and herd immunity not threatened. For children whose medical conditions contraindicate vaccination, herd immunity is the thing that lets them go to school safely. I taught school for over 30 years, and we never had to deal with anti-vaccine parents.

It’s not a thing we can ‘disagree’ about. It’s not a parents’ rights issue–I strongly believe in parents’ rights. It’s a rejection of science, for starters, overlaid with ginned-up political rage. It’s a rejection of the genuine needs of other people—vulnerable children who need protection!–in order to win some unnamed contest.

So. Vote with heart, not with hate. Compassion and community hang in the balance.

Back to Basics

Here in the Mitten State, our very good governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is running against a political novice whose qualifications seem to be that she resembles the current governor and that she used to host a right-wing TV show: GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon defended blackface, called hijabs oppressive garments, and amplified racist remarks and conspiracy theories during her two years hosting a daily TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice.

Not a nice person, but she is attractive. Stephen Colbert called her ‘Kirkland Gretchen Whitmer’ and followed up with several substantively awful but amusing things she’s said and done. I have been intrigued by her rehearsed talking points (which you can practically see her mentally retrieving), especially the blah-blah she’s been spouting about public schools.

She’s gone full-tilt Youngkin, of course, with the ‘grooming’ and ‘pornography’ accusations, kindergartners being shown how to have sex and pumping up scary nonsense about transgender athletes (the MI HS Athletic Association says there have been 10 documented cases of transgender athletes in the past five years, hardly a trend, let alone a crisis of ‘unfairness’).

But she’s also been talking—repeatedly—about taking public school curriculum ‘back to basics.’  She is clear about what this involves: reading, writing and arithmetic. All the rest is, in her opinion, unimportant, and the reason that our test scores have gone down in Michigan.

Dixon’s four daughters attend private schools. Now, I am a great believer in parents’ rights—the kind that let well-heeled parents send their kids to any school they choose, because of their religious beliefs, the kind of programming they want, or because they think public schools are where the unwashed send their unfortunate children.

If you can afford private school, fine. You go. Just don’t use that as an excuse to cheese out on public education, using deceptive language and–let’s tell it like it is–big fat lies.

As it happens, I know exactly where Tudor Dixon lives—I grew up in that town, and remember factory after factory, places where our dads worked, shutting down in the 1970s and 80s. I know the schools there—I graduated from one of them. People I know and love teach there, and put their trust in public education. My social media stream is awash in photos of their children in those very schools: fall carnivals, Friday night games, and student-of-the-month certificates.

Those are the schools that Tudor Dixon wants to ‘go back to basics’—a term that seems to be evergreen.

“Frankly, our schools have lost their way,” Dixon said, announcing the first of her policies. “Somewhere along the way, radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments, and our children are their lab rats. And we’re saying enough is enough.”

Well. Veteran political activists teachers may remember other back-to-basics agendas, through the years. Here’s one definition:

Back-to-Basics Movement– During the late 1970s and early 1980s, a perceived decline in the quality of education, as evidenced by declining scores on standardized tests and attributed to students’ choice of so many electives considered to be “soft” academically, led to a back-to-basics movement. Proponents urged more emphasis on basic subjects, particularly reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also science, history, geography, and grammar. They wanted schools not only to teach content but also to help children learn to work hard. They wanted the schools to demand more orderly and disciplined student behavior. They wanted the authority of the teacher to be reasserted, and they desired a more structured teaching style. Finally, back-to-basics advocates often wanted the schools to return to the teaching of basic morality and, in particular, the virtue of patriotism. In many ways, the back-to-basics movement was a reaction against the personal freedom movement of the 1970s, which emphasized drug use and sexual freedom, symbolized by the culture of the “hippies.”

I was there, in the classroom, when a recession in the early 80s triggered a slice-n-dice on the enriched curriculum we were building, in the name of going back to ‘essentials’ which didn’t include music or art. I remember waves of ‘back to basics’ under certain other—Republican—governors, including a proposal to create ‘value schools’ where public school kids would get a ‘basic’ education for less than $5000/per pupil.

Back to Basics has always been code language for ‘spend less money on public education and those kids.’ (Preferably, a lot less.) It’s always been Betsy DeVos’s core mission, and of course Dixon’s campaign is being largely financed by DeVos.

Back to Basics is also a vague and empty idea. Aside from literacy and numeracy, it’s hard to define just what is meant by a ‘basic’ education. The least children need? Foundational principles—and then you’re on your own?

We’ve already stripped comprehensive social studies education and—God help us—recess from the elementary curriculum. Now, apparently, we’re taking interesting books out of the library and relegating active classes to sit-and-get. What else can we yank, because it’s not basic?

Did you notice the definition of the movement in the late 70s was driven by ‘declining scores on standardized tests’? Michigan was the first state to introduce mandated, statewide assessments in the 1970s—the MEAP—so it’s worth asking how those new, baseline scores were declining.

There was a dip in SAT and ACT scores in the 1960s as the first baby-boomers went off to college, and established a new and much larger testing pool. But it’s taken decades and lots of laws to put every student under the testing microscope—is this all so we can take away things that make school fun and joyful?

Back to basics. See it for the propaganda it is.

Church and State

I have been a churchgoer much of my life.

Initially, my parents went to church, so I went with them. Aside from ditching Sunday School with my friend Sue in high school, I never really rebelled against their conservative religious training.

Then I went to college.

I experimented with other faiths—occasionally—on campus, but spent most Sunday mornings sleeping in, procrastinating and regretting my life choices. There followed a long stretch of life where church was not on my to-do list. Then I had kids.

It seemed important to give them some experience with religion. We fumbled around, rejecting churches that embraced the death penalty or excoriated abortion. One church— a campus-based Catholic congregation—refused to baptize our first-born because both of us had been divorced. We settled on a liberal congregation where our kids were part of services and programs. Eventually, I became the music director there.

Since then, I have worked for seven different congregations, my side-hustle of choice. For me, church is not about being saved, whatever that means, or being told what behaviors and beliefs are good or bad.

It’s about finding an inclusive community whose core mission is doing good. And it’s about the music.

There aren’t many places, anymore, where group singing is a regular occurrence. I’m a dedicated, lifelong musician, and much of the world’s musical literature has sacred roots. The central purpose of music is to illustrate powerful ideas, to release emotion, to spark joy. If you’re not getting live, participatory music in church, where can you get it?

I share these personal details, because I am worried about the separation of church and state—and I want to establish myself as a person who is not anti-church or anti-Christian theology (another thing I’ve seen a lot on social media).

I strongly endorse every person’s right to choose and practice any faith tradition or reject the idea of a higher power entirely. Up to you. But please—keep your religion out of government, be that the public school, the statehouse or the county commission. Or the midterm elections.

I’m well aware that mainline Protestant denominations in America are fading. Evangelicals are in decline, too, although not as fast. Roman Catholics aren’t doing much better. Modern first world nations –the places where people have universal health care, free post-secondary education and report the highest levels of happiness—are largely secular. Islam is by far the fastest-growing religion in the world, but the right doesn’t seem to acknowledge that.

So why did the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy—the Bremerton, Washington HS football coach who prayed with his team at midfield—spur another round of educators feeling as if Christian prayer in schools is somehow the answer to our national problems?

I’m also a veteran teacher, one who has wrestled with church v. state issues in my overwhelmingly Christian school district, mostly around Christmas music. I understand the difference between cultural expressions (OK) and proselytizing (not OK).

I used to share my classroom and office with a Catholic congregation that was building a church and paying to use our cafetorium, attached to the band room, for services. Father Dave kept his cassocks and vestments in my office closet, because he often went for a run before mass.

We all got along. But our functions, while in the same physical space, were distinctly different.

What music is OK in schools is a perennial, often heated, topic in social media groups for music teachers. The Kennedy decision isn’t going to help, or clarify. It seems to suggest that Coach Kennedy’s personal beliefs and freedom of religion—expressed by praying ostentatiously on the 50-yard line—did not impact his influence (this is where the proselytizing comes in) on his football players.

Baloney.

I was not a coach, but if I had ever talked to my students in December about a baby born in a manger, sent by God to save the world, I would have to believe that some of them, especially the youngest, would have thought I was telling them something important and real—something that might be On The Test. Unethical, to say the least.

Similarly, I am troubled by Republicans on our County Commission who, in May of 2021, passed a policy on partisan lines, to open Commission meetings with prayer. A flurry of rules, sub-rules and adjustments followed: Only official clergy could pray. From recognized religions. That had real churches. In Leelanau County (meaning that the closest synagogue, across the county line, could not send a representative).  

Eventually, after lots of letters and right-wing media attention, the Commission revisited their vote, and settled on a moment of silence. But it took nine months and diverted attention from their real work.

Which raises the question: Whose idea was inserting formal, clergy-led prayer into prosaic local government meetings?

The biggest church in my district makes subtle suggestions about how folks should vote—I read a column on the church’s website this summer, re: which party reflects this particular church’s values, urging congregants to choose that party in the upcoming primaries. I went back to find the piece and insert a link into this blog, but it was no longer there.

Probably because it’s illegal for churches, as tax-exempt organizations, to tell their members how to vote.

Separation of church and state. It’s a good thing.

Election Denial Blah-blah Goes to Local Schoolteachers

Two years ago, at this time, there was a national conversation speculating about what would happen if Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. Barton Gellman, in a much-discussed piece in Atlantic Magazine, posed several scenarios of what might occur if Trump refused to concede.

Gellman was more than prescient, but it all seemed faintly ridiculous at the time. The article quotes Joe Biden, who suggests that Trump might be briskly escorted from the White House if he was refusing to leave, providing us with a mental picture of two big dudes in dark suits and earpieces, frog-marching Trump out of front portico. Bye-bye.

The reality, of course, has become so, so much worse. And it’s still with us. Growing, even.

A majority of Republican nominees on the ballot this November for the House, Senate and key statewide offices — 291 in all — have denied or questionedthe outcome of the last presidential election, according to a Washington Post analysis. Although some are running in heavily Democratic areas and are expected to lose, most of the election deniers nominated are likely to win: Of the nearly 300 on the ballot, 171 are running for safely Republican seats. Another 48 will appear on the ballot in tightly contested races.

There’s been a steady drumbeat of concern—the collapse of our faith in free and fair elections means the collapse of American democracy. This election could go horribly wrong.

But—like Gellman’s and others’ warnings in 2020, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that one party would blithely destroy 250 years of confidence in voting as the democratic means to access political power.

Republican candidates are talking about overturning an election held nearly two years ago that every audit has concluded was fair, transparent and free of systemic fraud. These conclusions include a Michigan Senate Republican report and an analysis by conservative Republican legal experts.

As a Democratic candidate for local office—the County Commission—it’s disconcerting to see that election denial has filtered down to local politics. Several statewide and congressional candidates are deniers or skeptics, but suggesting that local elections were deliberately corrupted is a new wrinkle.

For the past few months, the County Commission has been hearing from local election deniers during public commentary. It’s a lot of the same people, showing up again and again, repeating stuff they found ‘doing their own research.’ And now, they’re organizing—meeting with the sheriff, calling themselves ‘Patriots.’

Even worse—one of their ringleaders emailed 251 County employees and 336 educators with the following message:

Hi to 336 Leelanau County Educators:

 I’m forwarding this message to you that I sent to the Leelanau County Commissioners on October 4, 2022.  I got all of your email addresses as directed from the Leelanau County Government website. I have been attending all the Leelanau County Board Meetings since March, and have given the Commissioners [plus all other listed government leaders (262 total)] 13 Flyers showing the massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, which you can read on my [ ] website.  I know that you all are very concerned about protecting children.  With that in mind, Founding Father Thomas Paine said: “To take away (voting) is to reduce a man to slavery.”  I’m also concerned about adults marketing the false foundation ‘LGBTQIA+’ to children.

There was lots more, including crazypants attachments, but you get the picture: Election denier (and gay-basher) gets access to all public employees to spew baloney.

It’s one thing for the County Commission to patiently listen to yet another election denier direct them to a random website or to consider the Sheriff’s role in secure elections. It’s another for a local crank to disrupt the work of teaching children about civic values and their personal worth.

Really—teaching is hard enough without having to be harassed by election deniers.

Deniers locally seem to be fixated on Dominion machines, and the need for hand counting paper ballots. The county already uses paper ballots, which are always available for hand counting. Our voting jurisdictions are small—a couple thousand voters, at most. Any race can be (and often is) re-counted by hand. As a candidate who won by a single vote in the primary, I’m all for ‘trust but verify’ in local elections.

And plaudits to Dominion for fighting back:

Dominion’s $1.3 billion lawsuit against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who was a leading figure in pushing the lies that the voting machines were rigged, is also moving forward, although in March she asked a federal judge to dismiss the case against her, saying that “no reasonable person would conclude that [her] statements were truly statements of fact.” On September 28, a federal judge dismissed her countersuit, in which Powell claimed Dominion was suing her “to punish and make an example of her.”

You can’t vandalize fairly run, democratic elections without damaging communities.

A significant majority of Americans see Trump and the MAGA movement as a threat to democracy. Those folks need to act in November.

Vote.

What Parents Really Want from Schools

Remember Peter Meijer (pronounced MY-er, national news jockeys)?
He was the freshman Congressman from Western Michigan with the golden name and the conscience—the one who voted to impeach Trump, post-January 6, as a freshman in the House of Representatives. I say he was a congressman, because he was primaried in August.

The guy who’s running on the Republican ticket in Meijer’s former western Michigan district, John Gibbs, recently said this:

Folks, did you ever think that one day in America, we’d have to worry about schools putting obscene books in their libraries? This is simply insane–we must stop the madness. Voters overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in public school libraries.

Well—folks. I’m not worried about obscene or sexually explicit books in public school libraries. Because there is no madness, no insanity, no pornography in school libraries.

Teachers and school leaders also overwhelmingly oppose sexually explicit books in school libraries. The word we use is ‘inappropriate’—materials are selected by trained school media specialists, who know inappropriate when they see it.

The entire slate of MI Republicans running for statewide or national office, not just Gibbs, is hell-bent on insisting that schools have become (in the past two years) hotbeds of sexual orientation and gender identity transformation, not to mention racial tension and guilt-inducement. They are led in this effort by the Republican candidate for Governor, Tudor Dixon.  

What Tudor wants to accomplish is very simple and common sense. She wants to get radical sex and gender theory out of our schools, remove classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-3, make sure gender specific sports remain gender specific given biological differences in boys vs. girls and post all curriculum online for parents to see and be involved in their child’s education. Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it.

So let’s break this down.

Radical sex and gender theory? (Not a part of the curriculum in any school I’ve been in.)

Classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for the littles? (Likewise—nope, nope.)

Gender specific sports? (The Michigan High School Athletic Association has a policy adopted in 2012 that determines post-season tournament eligibility for transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis. The group received and approved 10 applications in the past five years—so this is hardly a burning statewide issue.)

Post all curriculum online? (Sure. Most districts post their standards framework—what gets taught, when– and public high schools in Michigan have adapted the Michigan Merit Curriculum.)

Every child deserves a world class education and parents should be in charge of it. (Right out of the Glenn Youngkin playbook, a statement like this, which is mostly true, really resonates.)

But here’s the truth (from 32 years of classroom experience): What bubbles up in classroom discussions and playgrounds is what’s on the minds of the kids in that classroom. This starts early, in Tudor Dixon’s forbidden zone, grades K-3—like this story about the boy who chose a ‘Frozen’ backpack.

Kids are curious and they’re paying attention to what their parents and their screens (and their friends, and their older siblings) are telling them. I taught music and math, two subjects you’d think were pretty straightforward and controversy-free, but can testify that anytime you get a cluster of kids together, provocative issues emerge.

When politicians say ‘post curriculum online’ and ‘parents should be in charge’ they’re missing the reality of classroom instruction: It’s universally messy and unpredictable, even when it’s highly effective and led by expert teachers. You just don’t know what ideas kids will bring to the classroom.

I think what Dixon wants is to catch teachers talking about Forbidden Subjects raised by students, encouraging parents to be alarmed and dissatisfied. Her campaign is unable to flesh out her policies, however—this article is well worth the read, for examples.

Parents absolutely have the right to have input into their child’s public education—but not the education of all children in that school. As a music teacher, parent control over curriculum is particularly challenging during the December holidays. But all teachers, school leaders and school board members have dealt with decision-making around curriculum, instruction and assessment. It’s our job.

To suggest that parents are shut out, or have no say, is just not true. To construct legislation designed to thwart ‘forbidden’ subjects and practices is 100% political, and often funded by outsider groups. Because the reality, in poll after poll after poll, is that public school parents are generally satisfied with their children’s schools.

Personally, I have observed parents protest any number of school policies at local school board meetings. Perennially dicey topics? Sex education. ‘New’ math (defined, roughly, as a math program that parents find different from the math program they had in school). Pay-to-play sports (anything about sports will draw a crowd, actually). Your district may vary.

So what do parents really want? Here’s my unscientific, no-data-just-observation take: 

  • A basic education—reading, writing, math, science, civics—that pushes children to learn essential skills for living and working in a democracy.
  • Teachers and school employees who understand and care about their child.
  • Childcare—a nurturing place for their kids to be while parents have other responsibilities.
  • A decrease in the emphasis on data and competition engendered by annual standardized testing.
  • Safety—healthy practices, secure premises.
  • A measure of happiness—all parents want their kids to be happy, and all of them have to learn that happiness cannot be mandated or arranged by schools, although classroom practices can help.
  • Programming that addresses their child’s unique needs—take your pick: Art, physical education, a library, music, learning about technology, extra-curriculars like sports, drama, leadership opportunities, and so on.
  • Friends.

Peter Meijer (whose name is universally known across Michigan) used a different spelling of his name while in high school to protect his identity.  I am guessing his parents, who could afford any kind of education, wanted the same things for him—a good education, a measure of happiness, programming that helped him realize his goals and dreams. Friends.

Watch out for craven candidates who want to trash public education. They’re not ‘concerned’ or ‘for Liberty’—they’re vandals.

Leelanau Needs to Get Out Ahead of Change

We all love Leelanau’s rural beauty—this is absolutely a ‘common ground’ issue for everyone, Republican or Democrat, who lives here. It’s nice to think that Leelanau could forever be pristine—sparkling lakes, rolling orchards, charming villages. We live in a very desirable place.

But change is coming—as it comes to every community. The trick is anticipating and preparing for that change. When one segment of the County Commission (including my opponent in the District Seven race) decides not to set goals for the upcoming year, they are abdicating the Commission’s responsibility to its constituents.

The Commission’s job is anticipating—or recognizing—challenges and addressing them.

Is this process always smooth and effective? Of course not. But it’s why you’re elected: to identify and serve the needs of your district, and your county.

Because those immediate needs—and the ones we can foresee on the horizon—are very real: Climate change and its impact on agriculture. An array of proposed recreation sites on our lakes, as legacy property owners sell to developers. Eurasian watermilfoil in our largest lake (and the county’s economic engine). A severe shortage of affordable housing (owned and rented), while 40% of the available housing is unoccupied, year-round. A potential uptick in tourism as cruise ships dock in West Bay—and perhaps rail-based tourism as well. The list is long.

And–not all change can be predicted. The pandemic, for example, which served as a divisive and politicized point of contention for countless local government officials, precisely at the time when we were called upon to act in community.

In 2020, a Leelanau County Road Commissioner made national headlines by spewing racist language and thoughts in a public meeting. It was another opportunity to act in community, addressing latent racism in a county where most of the land was deeded, in 1855, to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa, and strongly repudiating the Road Commissioner’s thoughts.  Some commissioners wanted to sweep the national embarrassment under the rug, however.

When we first moved to Leelanau County in 2010, my husband and I were both running businesses from home—he had a law practice, and I had a small business providing professional development webinars for teachers. And what we considered adequate internet capacity—we had cable internet prior to moving here—was unavailable. I was curious about why—Leelanau County is rural and rolling, and I understand that poses challenges to providers, but the county is also relatively well-off. Why weren’t providers eager to tap into this market?

Tracking the County Commission’s actions on securing broadband is how I got interested in Leelanau County politics. I heard commissioners describe broadband as a luxury, and the extension of internet services as spoiling our rural character. The Grand Traverse Band has been a willing partner in broadband development for years, but the Commission did not seem interested in working with them.

It took a pandemic and an infusion of federal money to get the Commission off square one, but they have now achieved a momentous first step of mapping internet availability across the entire county, uncovering the fact that 22% of the county had zero access to broadband. Think about how that impacted student learning during the pandemic—and how many clean, small businesses that could support a local tax base were turned away by lack of what is now considered a necessary utility.

There is no better local example of getting out ahead of change than what happened when Dollar General purchased property and applied to build a store in downtown Maple City, declaring that Maple City was a food desert, and the opportunity to buy cheap imported junk and off-brand canned goods would benefit its citizens.

Those citizens got wind of the plan and showed up in huge numbers at township meetings to protest. Dollar General withdrew the request—and there are presently two partially completed duplex homes (something we DO need) on the site. 

The irony is that Maple City is decidedly rural—there are fruit stands and community-supported agricultural (CSA) businesses everywhere in the area. Could the town use a small, pick-up grocery? Perhaps. But Maple City and hundreds of other modest small towns are now vulnerable to big corporations, with their eyes on the bottom line, rural character be damned.

The changes coming—inexorably—to northwestern Michigan are even larger than the ones we’ve been dealing with, like getting a septic ordinance in place, or resisting unnecessary gravel pits.  Climate migration is a real thing, and a beautiful, lightly developed area with ample water and a four-seasons climate is like a magnet for wealthy national and international investors.

Again—the County Commission is elected to identify and serve the needs of Leelanau.

Change is coming. Best to get out ahead of it.

This week’s take from the CSA box.

Leelanau Needs Cooperation and Transparency in Government

Every governmental jurisdiction needs cooperation and transparency in the way elected officials and appointed workers run the show. Calling for elected officials to get along, keep their mission uppermost in mind, and not engage in power struggles is hardly novel.

Cooperation and transparency have not always been the core principles guiding the work of the Leelanau County Commission—although the Board has very recently made great strides. They have involved the county in the work of identifying and developing attainable housing, building partnerships with non-profits whose goals align with the Board of Commissioners’. Their research and work are bringing fiber optic cable and towers to underserved areas of the county.

The current Commission just passed—after 30 years of wrangling—a septic ordinance to protect the watershed. They have improved relationships with staff at the Government Center—the folks who give you your marriage license, finalize your adoption and ensure that our local elections are well-run. They have expanded recycling programs and established public comment at the beginning and end of every one of their meetings.

All good.

But ten years of observing the County Commission at work proves that these accomplishments were hard fought, a long time in coming, and by no means guaranteed to remain in the next term.

In the last cycle, the Commission squabbled over wearing masks to meetings early in the pandemic, and tried to roll back spending on Early Childhood programming that was funded by a referendum, claiming that voters made a mistake, and it was their job to override the public’s wishes. They established mandated prayer at their meetings (but only by Christian clergy from this county). In what appears to be a personal vendetta, Republicans on the BOC attempted to wrest control of county finances and human resources away from the Clerk who has competently handled them for decades.

If I could set goals for a strong and productive Leelanau County Commission, the first one would be: Stay in your lane. 

The point of have a bi-partisan County Commission is representing all the citizens—the strong progressives as well as the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. If democracy works the way it’s supposed to, the folks who have lived and farmed in Leelanau for generations will have their views represented, as will those who moved to paradise more recently, and are excited by its beauty and opportunity.

Leelanau County is home to a National Park as well as the Grand Traverse Band Indian Reservation. It’s a mix of rural, agricultural land and high-end resort towns. All of these varied interests and needs must be acknowledged and addressed by the Board of Commissioners. The BOC does not have time for pursuing individual beefs and enthusiasms.

Recently, the BOC has been forced into defending our competently and fairly run elections. The County Sheriff (who calls himself a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’) organized a group of election skeptics, ironically meeting in the County Building while the Clerk attended a conference on how to run clean elections.

These factors—‘constitutional’ officials, and election deniers trying to gum up civic processes—are popping up everywhere, even after a drama-free primary season. The Leelanau County Commission isn’t the only civic body trying to stay the course during political upheaval.

But stay the course they must.

There is hope. In Centerville Township, a greatly expanded lakeside campground has been proposed—one that would create an RV village larger than any town in the county, with a water park and three pools (not to mention traffic, septic and lake health concerns). Over 200 people showed up for the first explanation of the proposal, crowding into a vintage building with no air conditioning or restrooms.

They were residents from all over the county, demonstrating that people are paying attention. Speakers were well-prepared and polite. There was bipartisan cooperation and transparency.

It can be done.

Leelanau Needs to Address ‘Poverty in Paradise’

On a cold Sunday in January, a few years ago, Trinity Church in Northport hosted a Sunday afternoon panel discussion on ‘Poverty in Paradise’—hoping to start an ongoing conversation on how Christians could serve their neighbors who weren’t thriving. We set up chairs for 25, but more than 100 people came, standing against the wall, listening to the social workers, educators, local politicians and Tribal leaders talk about the hidden poverty in a county that presents as a natural paradise. 

It was one of the more heartening public meetings I’ve attended—great questions, viable proposals for helping Leelanau residents of all ages, connecting citizens who see it as their duty to help. One man, who owns a successful local business, said he could double his workforce—they had the orders and facilities, he paid well and offered a solid benefit package–if only these new workers didn’t have to drive from Buckley or Kalkaska, where they could afford to live.

Over and over, we heard the refrain: We don’t want Leelanau County to be a necklace of upscale resort towns, spaced along M-22 (the scenic drive that hugs the Lake Michigan and West Bay shoreline). We don’t want the most beautiful natural sites and farmland to be scooped up by international and out-of-state buyers, who see our natural resources as their cash cow.

We want people living here year-round, investing in the county, its residents and businesses. Putting down roots. Sharing in the benefits, building new opportunities. Paying taxes. We want folks with a moderate income: Teachers. Nurses and medical techs. First responders. Construction workers.

At this meeting, there was no dissent around the idea that addressing poverty would be good for everyone—from the million-dollar homeowner to the single mom supporting three kids while working at a nursing home. Businesses need workers (and need to pay them fairly). Schools need students and families. A vibrant service industry is essential, as is a new generation of farmers. When everyone is comfortable and secure, we all benefit.

There are genuinely poor residents here—families and individuals who live below the poverty line. Only about six percent of County residents meet that standard. But 37 percent of county residents are ALICE: asset-limited, income-constrained, employed:

Developed by United Way, ALICE is “a new way of defining and understanding the struggles of households that earn above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.” ALICE metrics take into account where families live on a state, county, and township level — and more crucially, what the cost of living is in those areas.

Looking at ALICE numbers tells a different story about Leelanau County…a staggering 43 percent of Leelanau County households cannot afford any unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, health deductibles) or increases in basic expenses (such as food, transportation, childcare, a basic phone plan).

The county government can create or influence policy to provide or incentivize the things that foster equity: Affordable housing. Early childhood programs, healthy public schools and dependable childcare. Reliable public transportation, like convenient BATA buses. Expansion of affordable broadband to every household.

Private and non-profit projects that address housing and food insecurity must be welcomed and nurtured. The Poor Farm Garden, in Kasson Township, raises and distributes hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, partnering with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and 5Loaves2Fish to donate healthy vegetables to food insecure households in northwestern Michigan, on the same soil as the original County Farm, purchased in 1901 by Leelanau County, to provide for the poor.

Here’s a quote from the Leelanau County Historic Preservation Society: Empathy and compassion is baked into this soil and has survived through this partnership. It also reminds us that after all this time we still have people in need…”

At a recent Township Board meeting, after a discussion about a small-scale affordable housing issue, a man in the audience stood up and said “I’m sick of giving people handouts. If they want to live here, they should come up with the money.”

The problem is—our property values (including that gentleman’s property) are rising precipitously. People have been priced out of their own homes, and are unable to fill jobs, raise families and build lives here. And we need those year-round, employed families.

Investment in programming and services is the rising tide that lifts all boats.