Guest editorial: Vt.'s female reps don't have a voice in education policy?

Vermont’s teachers feel picked upon by the decision makers in Montpelier and according to a Vermont NEA-commissioned study released last week, they think the reason is gender-based. Almost three-quarters of the teachers in Vermont are women and their fates are being determined by men who cannot empathize with their needs.

The report, conducted by two Rutgers University researchers, is titled “Women’s Work? Voices of Vermont Educators.” It includes a paragraph that reads: “This predominantly female workforce feels they are undervalued and disrespected because they are female. If they were men in these jobs, the men making the decisions affecting them would treat them with more respect.”

The takeaway is that Gov. Phil Scott and our legislators don’t understand their needs — because they are men. If women were the decision makers they would think differently about current policy proposals affecting our schools.

That’s a jaw-dropping conclusion.

In Vermont, women constitute 41 percent of the current Legislature. Only Colorado, at 42 percent, has a higher percentage. We’re almost double the national average and our Speaker of the House is a woman. No other state in New England comes close to our percentage.

It makes you wonder whether the researchers really did their homework, or whether they were simply paid by the teachers union to fire an arrow across the bow, the intent being to create a gender issue where none exists. It’s an election year, after all.

The survey was sent out to 11,525 educators but only 1,054 responded, which is not an overwhelming response to a survey that was obviously in their best interests. Still, what was the intent? To infer that the only reason the cost of education is an issue is because it’s a female-dominated profession and that gender issues are particularly relevant in our current political climate?

Not only is that wrong, it demeans the process. Women make up almost half our Legislature, and we have a woman, Rebecca Holcombe, who heads the Agency of Education. The union’s study is offensive to them at a basic level; not only does it ignore their existence but it assumes that despite their numbers their voices are not heard.

Really? That’s the message they want to put forth?

The Vermont NEA keeps making the same egregious mistake; instead of being part of a constructive dialogue that addresses the future of education in Vermont, the union tries to obfuscate the discussion by raising all sorts of side issues. This study, once again, makes the story about self-interest. And transparently so.

It’s a poor strategy at all levels, but the union makes itself doubly vulnerable when it pretends that the Legislature is male-dominated when it’s not. It’s just offended every female legislator in the building — or 41 percent of the total.

The union, and the dues assessed our teachers, paid for that level miscue?

As we have argued repeatedly, the missing voice in the state’s debate over education policy is that of our teachers. No one knows the classroom better. No one knows the changing demands being placed on them better than they do. But when it comes to discussing these challenges, and those of our changing demographics, they fall silent. The only voice we hear is from the union’s leadership, and it’s focused solely on pay and benefits and maintaining the status quo.

It’s so odd. A teacher takes participation into account when grading a student’s performance, yet, as a profession they don’t participate in the discussion about how Vermont should educate its children. The result is a lopsided conversation, one that is deprived of its most articulate defenders, our teachers.

The educational landscape in Vermont is changing, and it will continue to change. Few discussions are more important, and few have greater implications to the state’s future. Teachers need to find a way to the table. They can’t allow themselves to be characterized as a group motivated solely by self-interest, and they can’t allow themselves to be political pawns of misguided efforts such as last week’s claim that they are being oppressed by a male-dominated Legislature.

If accuracy carries any weight with this group, the Rutgers researchers report card would show a failing grade.

That’s not the conversation that needs to be happening.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger


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