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The Detrimental Effect of Cell Phones in Many of Virginia’s Public Schools

I read a rather sad commentary three days ago entitled “At This School, the Cellphones Rule” written by James A. Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion in Richmond. His commentary, which conceals both the name of the teacher and “high-poverty high school,” truly has to be read in order to be believed, but as a former high school Latin teacher it is not overly surprising. In my opinion, it should be required reading for all education students, especially their all-knowing, ivory-tower professors, in both the Commonwealth of Virginia and other forty-nine states. That also includes Governor Glenn Youngkin.

I first observed this serious problem of the highly addictive nature of cell phones, which some have likened to either nicotine or heroin, among high school students while teaching myself and listening to the frequent complaints of numerous other teachers beginning in 2009 in Roanoke City Public Schools. I later learned that Roanoke County Public Schools was often not much better depending on the high school. Now this problem has become truly dystopian in most major urban and “inner city” school districts throughout Virginia.

I primarily wrote my comments to Kathleen Smith’s posting on Bacon’s Rebellion on April 20, but I forgot to first click on the “Reply” link. She is the former head of the Southern Association of Accredited Schools and Colleges (AdvancEd [sic] or Cognia), who represented Virginia from 2014-19. I replied to her first question by stating that the people in charge of our local public schools are primarily the administrators and central office staff, who really only have three main concerns: their fat paychecks, lucrative pensions, and if in doubt, blame the teachers.

This serious problem is eerily similar to the Vietnam War where drafted soldiers, marines, airmen, sailors and especially lower ranking officers, who only wanted to “survive” their tour of duty of a year or two and then BE GONE. Any desire to win the war after 1967 was often rather pointless because of the poor leadership of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-69), Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara (1961-68) and the omniscient Pentagon. Winning or losing the Vietnam War was usually someone else’s problem.

Unlike the Vietnam War draftees, most but not all public-school administrators and central office staff are doing a twenty to thirty year “tour of duty.” Like the Vietnam War draftees, many of them truly and privately care about neither victory nor defeat in our “education war” except during an occasional newspaper, television or job interview, or some other minor public interaction, where a “wrong answer” could potentially become most problematic.

Therefore, in public or with unfamiliar colleagues many of these “out of touch” employees from the lowly switchboard operator to the mighty superintendent always wear their “victory face” in order to reassure the taxpayers, human resources or their superiors, especially in Richmond. After all, they have mortgages to pay, health insurance to think about and most especially their pensions to consider.

I once knew very well a retired four-star army general, who was General William Westmoreland’s chief of staff in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. He also briefly commanded the Green Berets in the early 1960s. In December 1983 he told me how he once briefed President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office about the Green Berets in 1962. I must say that I was rather impressed. I was also somewhat tempted to ask him about the details of his presidential conversation, but I instinctively knew when to shut my mouth. The general eventually retired in 1975 after thirty-five years of distinguished military service, and his last assignment was being in charge of the Southern Command in Panama from 1973 to 1975.

During an hour-long conversation in his apartment in July 1986 I privately asked him when did he realize that the Vietnam War was lost. He said in 1970, which was five years before South Vietnam collapsed on April 30, 1975. When I asked him why he did not speak up earlier, and say something, he honestly and simply replied, “I would have been kicked out of the service, and would have lost my pension.”

I was dumbfounded for a few seconds, but said nothing, and changed the topic of the conversation. I soon realized that an army four-star general may not be nearly as powerful in the chain of command as I once originally thought. The harsh vindictive treatment of Marine Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Scheller in regard to his public criticism of the war in Afghanistan in August 2021 immediately comes to mind.

However, what truly shocked me was when the general later privately told me in July 1987 that his proudest achievement in his entire life was when he became an Eagle Scout in Eugene, Oregon as a high school freshman on May 23, 1933. I was astounded to hear what he said, but it spoke volumes. Today he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in section 30, grave 877-LH.

In my opinion, the only person, who can really solve this dystopian problem with the rampant and defiant use of cell phones disrupting our public schools, is Governor Youngkin.

Let us not kid ourselves. That is because the Virginia Department of Education is full of feeble and apathetic bureaucrats, who really talk a good game, consider themselves educational “experts,” but are no different than the local administrators and central office staff in Virginia’s lowest performing to mediocre school districts. I personally think that the only solution to this pressing problem and a myriad of other educational “concerns” since the early 1980s is charter schools in order to give parents a choice, especially poor parents, and provide meaningful competition to the public schools.

One of the biggest fears that these public-school administrators and central office staff have is headcount. When those federal subsidies begin to diminish, they will hopefully snap to attention really quick. After all, when a non-special education student currently approaches the age of nineteen, most Virginia public school systems want that student “flushed,” which often results in work-ethic eroding social promotion among many seniors, an undeserved high school diploma and the need for remediation at the local community college or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the Virginia school boards, especially the Roanoke County School Board, often remind me of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. She most dutifully listens and privately provides pertinent advice once a week to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but she is basically a figurehead and somewhat powerless. However, unlike Queen Elizabeth II, Virginia’s school boards regularly, ceremoniously and respectfully interact with the general public (often to no avail), but are most definitely considerably less wealthy than Her Royal Highness, which is truly an understatement.

Much greater power, however, resides with Parliament, which in Virginia would be the local principals, high ranking administrators and a few erudite central office staff if they even exist (House of Commons) and the “venerable,” but useless Virginia Department of Education (House of Lords). Of course, the real power resides with the Prime Minister, who would be the esteemed Glenn Youngkin.

I truly wonder how much courage our governor has to improve Virginia’s public schools? Time will tell in the next four years, but I am not too optimistic. I suppose the ultimate question will be is he a statesman or just another damn politician or pig feeding at the trough? I unfortunately and cynically suspect the latter. Please prove me wrong, Governor Youngkin because many of our public schools, especially in eastern and southside Virginia, and elsewhere are FUBAR (f’ed up beyond all recognition), and most of the rest in the state are totally mired in mindless mediocrity because passing the SOLs (Standards of Learning), aka the anti-SATs, is like jumping over ten-inch hurdles.

However, if these solutions do not work I have a feeling that a lot of misguided decades-long policies relating to the failure of Virginia’s public schools, which are also rampant throughout the U.S., such as teacher retention, ineffective administrators and classroom disruption ad nauseum, will radically change when the U.S. national debt approaches $40 trillion, and Washington finally defaults on its gargantuan debt resulting in quarters and dimes on our pensions and a significant decrease in our Social Security retirement.

According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis our present GDP (gross domestic product) is only $23 trillion while our national debt is $30.4 trillion and rapidly climbing. However, Elon Musk, who is presently considered the world’s wealthiest man, thinks our true national debt is “at least $60 trillion.” Now THAT could be a major cause for some insomnia.

When the Las Vegas bookies start taking bets on both the amount and timing on the default of our nation’s debt, we will truly be in economic trouble or very deep in cow manure requiring boots well above our knees.

– Robert L. Maronic / Roanoke

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