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Port: We have an acute teacher shortage, and some ND lawmakers are talking about punishing educators

Our state is struggling to find enough teachers to staff our schools. Meanwhile, we have grandstanding politicians and populist demagogues who want to punish educators for political crimes. What's next? Struggle sessions for teachers who transgress against the preferred political doctrines? Political officers in classrooms to ensure that the curriculum aligns with ideology? Is it any wonder that teaching isn't looking like such a good job any more?

Jim Kasper
North Dakota state Rep. Jim Kasper (R-Fargo)
File photo
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Minot, N.D. — On the same day this week, in two different cities, two panels of our state government held meetings related to education.

I think it is illuminating to put them in juxtaposition.

First, in Grand Forks, a meeting of the legislature's Interim Higher Education Committee advanced a bill for next year's session that it aimed at addressing the state's acute teacher shortage. The bill is aimed at greasing the skids for paraprofessionals to get full teaching degrees, but for our purposes, the details of the teacher shortage presented to the committee are what's pertinent.

Per our Ingrid Harbo's report : "Across North Dakota K-12 schools, there are 418 open teaching positions, said Josef Kolosky, director of school approval and opportunity at NDDPI."

School just started, so that's a big problem.

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Compounding the problem is that the stopgap school districts typically use to address a shortage - hiring some long-term substitute teachers - isn't viable right now because there's a shortage of subs, too.

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Kolosky told the committee that school districts are turning to options that are something less than optimal.

Some school districts are combining grade levels. Others are poaching teachers from other jurisdictions. Desperation abounds.

In that context, let's turn now to the other committee meeting. This one was held in Bismarck by the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction which is soliciting input on how to implement a poorly-thought-out ban on teaching "critical race theory" that was hustled through the legislature's special session last year by lawmakers looking to score points with the Tucker Carlson crowd.

The meeting was a rowdy one, with a lot of hot air from people who think North Dakota's educators — our neighbors, our family members, our friends — are secretly plotting to turn our children into homosexual communists or something.

At one point, Rep. Jim Kasper, who introduced the bill banning critical race theory — a term even those most agitated by it struggle to define — talked about the state needing to get tougher with educators.

"Kasper, who didn’t speak about the proposed rules, said lawmakers in next year’s legislative session need to add teeth to the ban so that complaints can be investigated and violators can be punished," our Jeremy Turley reports .
“We’re going to protect our parents, we’re going to protect our kids and we’re going to help our school system to get back on track so that they’re teaching what they ought to be teaching and get out of the things that they should not be teaching,” Kasper told the meeting.

Setting aside what we learn from the fetid, intellectually vapid hothouses of social media and cable news, it's not the least bit clear that our schools, and our educators, aren't protecting our kids. That they aren't teaching our children what they need to learn.

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"Kasper said an unnamed former Grand Forks teacher provided him with evidence that critical race theory and other 'far-left' viewpoints were being taught within the city’s school district," Turley reports. But I've actually seen the "evidence" this Grand Forks teacher sent Kasper — the teacher has apparently resigned — and his problems have less to do with critical race theory than transgender students.

I've obtained an email from the teacher Kasper forwarded to other lawmakers and DPI officials, and you can read it for yourself. I have to say, it does not come off as credible or compelling, nor does Kasper's endorsement of it.

But let's get back to the larger point.

Our state is struggling to find enough teachers to staff our schools.

Meanwhile, we have grandstanding politicians and populist demagogues who want to punish educators for political crimes.

We can't necessarily blame the former on the latter - there are a lot of factors, like the pandemic and the "great resignation," that are contributing to the teacher shortage — but the latter certainly isn't helping as we try to address the former.

That this is all being perpetrated by people who pound their chests and call themselves conservatives is all the more painful. Their approach to this situation is downright Soviet.

What's next? Struggle sessions for teachers who transgress against the preferred political doctrines?

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Political officers in classrooms to ensure that the curriculum aligns with ideology?

Under the guise of supposedly protecting children, we are undermining one of the foundational pillars of a free society, which is that you do not have a right not to be offended. Some people are going to have lifestyles you do not approve of. Others will have perspectives on our nation's history that don't align with yours.

You're going to be exposed to these things. Your children are going to be exposed to them.

That's the price of admission to a free society. If your beliefs and convictions, your ideologies and philosophies can't stand up to some dissent, then maybe it's time to rethink them.

Which isn't to say that it's not ever proper to object to the curricula used in our schools. But there's a better way to do it. One that eschews demagoguery, and the demonization of educators, in favor of respectful and local conversations with teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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