Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be

Mr. Holland Won’t Get His Final Opus – Where Obama’s Education Agenda & Reality Collide

Mr. Holland Won't Get His Final Opus - Where Obama's Education Agenda & Reality Collide

Wayne A. Miller, Band Director of the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, FLA., is a real-life Mr. Holland, a music educator whose department was selected as one of the top ten music programs in the country by the NARAS (National Association of Arts and Science) Foundation and was declared a GRAMMY Gold Division School.

Yet, if the School District of Palm Beach County and its embattled superintendent, Dr. Arthur Johnson, has its way, one of those “best and brightest” teachers that President Obama and pro-education members of Congress like to champion will be out of a job for good.

Don't D.R.O.P. Mr. Miller Poster

A protest concert was held by hundreds of students, alumni, and parents to try to keep Wayne Miller teaching.

Miller, fifty-seven, has spent three decades in the School District of Palm Beach County (FLA), changing the lives of thousands of young people who have used a musical education to find themselves as students and as people.

A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts is a shining example of magnet education and the power of passion of individualism in our schools. Students audition from around the county to come to a school which Business Week often has ranked academically in the top 50 of 1300 public schools nationally, and which artistically is seen nationally as one of the top high schools for both the performing and the fine arts.

Students integrate peacefully, and kids from neighborhoods with failing schools have a real opportunity to use their skills to get partial and full scholarships to college. Dreyfoos graduated 100% of its students, many of whom were given more than $18 million in college tuition assistance in 2009 alone.

Even though the vast majority of his students never go on to musical careers, the self-discipline and life skills which Mr. Miller has instilled in his students has not been forgotten, as many of the thousand students, alumni and friends on a Facebook Group protest page attest:

“In this day when educators don’t care one would think you would hold onto a teacher such as Mr. Miller. I personally had Mr. Miller as a director when I was in high school more than 30 years ago and to this day I use several of his philosophies which have gotten me far. Shame on the school system.” –Eric Merickel

“Mr. Miller is far more than just a teacher or band director. He is a mentor, an educator, and maybe a saint. (He certainly has the patience of one.)… Without the guidence, direction, and knowledge he had provided me, I am sure I would not be the person I am today. Music is the great equalizer. It transcends us all. His love and passion for music has touched all of us and helped shape who we are now and will become. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a student of Mr. Wayne Miller. This man deserves nothing but greatness.” – Matt Smundin

“Any teacher that could have put up with my ADD mixed with a mediocre talent for the Tuba deserves to teach forever, or at least as long as he wishes. He made a profound effect on my life and my brother’s life. A positive affect that I am sure he has on each of his students today. There is no logic here. This is not what is best for the students. So someone please tell me how this is justified.” – Ken Altman

So why would anyone in their right mind not keep a teacher like this, who still wants to teach?

Mr. Miller, like many exceptional teachers in Florida, voluntarily signed on to a state program to preserve their retirement benefits called DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Program). Ironically, the program was designed to encourage people to keep working longer.

The program lasts for five years. Originally teachers were told that they could retire, or take extensions of three years and continue teaching until they reach a mandatory retirement age of 62.

The GOP-dominated Florida State Legislature, though, has cracked down on extensions. Next year, when Miller would be seeking an extension to continue teaching, that doorway will be slammed shut. There will be no more extensions allowed.

If he still wants to teach, a small window opens for a very short period of time in June. He can retire a year earlier than his maximum on DROP, wait thirty days, and be try to be rehired by the school district.

The only problem is that there is a hiring freeze in effect for the School District of Palm Beach County , whose reported $69.18 million school bureaucracy has found itself with an $83 million dollar budgetary shortfall for 2010-2011.

It is in these byzantine programs, bureaucracy-laden school districts, and the political maneuvering of the education system where Mr. Obama has grossly misunderstood what plagues education.

For every three new teachers hired by Palm Beach schools in the last decade, the Sun-Sentinel reports, the school district hired one new bureaucrat, and nearly four support personnel.

The school district is drowning in support personnel, but they cannot retain educators like Miller who not only fulfill their school’s mission statement, but who raise more than they earn. His reputation alone is worth substantial contributions to the School of the Arts Foundation (SOAFI), a non-profit which raises funds to make sure that every student has the proper tools and training in their art area.

The freeze will be reevaluated in June, but even if it is lifted, the principal of A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, Mrs. Ellen Van Arsdale, may not rehire the talented Mr. Miller back.

That head shaker may be explained by another bit of intrigue common to school systems that gets in the way of education: Educational politics.

Three years ago, at a Dreyfoos graduation, superintendent Johnson branded the magnet schools as “elitist,” which was ironic as the magnets replaced forced busing as a means of integrating one of the most real estate red-lined counties in Florida.

He suggested that their abolition would be an advance in education, even though the magnet schools have been huge academic and social success stories.

Some school district Kremlinologists speculate that Johnson is using the state’s DROP program as a means of shifting blame for the dismantling of the magnet schools through the attrition of key personnel like Mr. Miller, who are vital to the school’s mission statement. The principal, in effect, may have her hands tied because making the magnet school run well may not be the agenda of her boss who wants to see schools like Dreyfoos gone.

What is certain, though is that more teachers will be DROPping like flies as the state rule changes take effect, and rules against double-dipping also accelerate. Right now the schools in Palm Beach that will suffer the most are the magnet schools.

According to Mark Mitchell, Director of Human Resources for the District, there are no internal retention or hiring programs in place to deal with the magnet schools’ specialized hiring needs. That is true of both a pre-college band director, and an advanced chemistry teacher at a science magnet.

When these people leave the school or retire, the only avenue officially open to magnet school principals like Van Arsdale is to recruit a teacher out of the community high schools, which is not a popular idea with most students and parents from those schools.

The District human resources bureaucracy like to paint anyone trying to keep teaching by coming back as a re-hire as “double-dipping,” a practice of retiring and then working again in the same position to make more money.

Yet Miller, and most of the other teachers in the DROP, would be the first to tell you that they had the rug pulled out from under their careers when the state RETROACTIVELY changed the program ending extensions.

It would be as if you signed up for a bank loan at a fixed interest rate, and three years into your loan, the bank turned around and doubled your rate and changed the payment rules without your consent.

These teachers would gladly keep working under the DROP, if the extensions promised to them when they signed on were restored.

This, Mr. Obama, is the complex reality of our broken education system. Your lofty goals and the push for teacher accountability all sound great on paper, until you get into political and bureaucratic quagmires which teachers face in most public school districts.

At a time when school districts are taking a chipper/shredder to school arts programs, slashing and grinding them up as some sort of frivolous “extra,” it would be good to consider what people like Mr. Miller do for elementary and secondary education.

A child who learns to play music in elementary or middle school has a more native understanding of fractions, and spatial relationships. Music and band programs teach team building skills and self-discipline, and they open the door to history as well.

Miller introduces his students to American music forms like concert band, jazz, and the blues, which, without fresh generations to find inspiration in their sounds, would become endangered species of our culture. He does not just teach students the notes on the page, but the vitality of the moment in history where a Duke Ellington or a Glenn Miller or a Charlie Parker developed the sounds that would forever imprint the generations of our history.

What is going to happen when more and more of our great teachers like Mr. Miller find themselves trapped in programs tossed around the political winds by state and national legislators?

While no one would question the President’s goal to have our education system produce more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, we still need students who excel in the arts to keep alive and extend our cultural heritage.

We count heads and test scores when what we really need is to educate heads and develop character for life.

America could use three hundred thousand more Wayne Millers all over the country, and, in just three weeks, we won’t even have one left.

Shame on Dr. Johnson and the School Board for losing such a valued educator. Shame on the myopic Florida State Legislature for playing politics with our kids’ teachers, and shame on you too, Mr. Obama, for failing to call for the clean up of the rotting, bureaucrat-infested foundations of education before you slap a nice coat of whitewash on your national education agenda.

My shiny two.

About Brian Ross

Brian Ross is a writer, screenwriter, political satirist, documentarian and short filmmaker who blogs for Truth2Power, the Huffington Post, and the Daily KOS, among others.

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