School officials need civics seminar

By Leonard Pitts Jr.: Syndicated columnist

The other day, I gave two teachers I know $300,000 apiece.

Hypothetical money, that is. If $300k fell out of the sky, I said, and you could use it to improve your school, how would you spend it?

Mary Ann, who works at an elementary school in Los Angeles, wanted to hire classroom aides to work one on one with “troublesome students who have not been properly diagnosed so they can be educated and not just written off.”

Sonya, who teaches in the Chicago area, envisioned an incentive program — not necessarily monetary — that gave kids an attaboy for doing well in school and showed them “some kind of immediate connection between academic success and real-life success.”

That’s how educators in normal places would spend $300,000. In Miami, they want to use it to go to court. To fight a battle. That they will lose. That’s not my opinion, by the way. It’s the lawyer’s.

For those who live in normal places, a quick recap: Two weeks ago, the Miami-Dade School Board voted 6-3 to ban from school libraries “Vamos a Cuba,” its English companion, “A Visit To Cuba,” and 22 other titles in a series of travel books for children ages 5 to 7. This, after a complaint from a parent who felt that the book, which contains observations like “Many kinds of fruits grow in Cuba”, was inaccurate.
In this case, “inaccurate” was a synonym for, “does not say that Cuba is a failed communist state where the president for life has people imprisoned or killed if they commit the crime of free speech.”

I did mention that this was a book for 5- to 7-year-olds, right?

Anyway, it was reported last week in The Miami Herald that the school board’s lawyer warned repeatedly that banning the books violated the board’s rules, not to mention multiple legal precedents. It seems that if you ban a book for inaccuracy, the law requires that it actually be, you know, inaccurate and not just something you disagree with. A legal expert consulted by the paper said that if the matter goes to trial, it could end up costing taxpayers $300,000 or more.

Three hundred grand. To fight over a children’s book. And, in all probability, lose.

Can you spell idiocy, boys and girls?

If you were educated in a Miami public school, there’s a good chance you can’t. Yet, the school board has $300,000 to waste on this foolishness?

Take it as further proof that these are harrowing times for civil liberties.
Of course, civil liberties are always under siege in South Florida, where you can get pelted with batteries for being insufficiently anti-Castro, where a city commissioner once vowed to take to court anyone who “offends” the community, and where a magazine was once pulled from newsstands because it advocated repealing the U.S. boycott against Cuba.

But lately, things are getting weird even in normal places. Like Bethesda, Md., where two employees from the county Department of Homeland Security undertook earlier this year to ban library patrons from accessing naughty Web sites. Like Albany, N.Y., where a man was arrested in 2003 for wearing a T-shirt that said, “Give peace a chance.” And though it’s a stretch to define Washington, D.C., as a “normal” place, what about Cindy Sheehan being kicked out of the State of the Union address in January for wearing an anti-war T-shirt? Not to mention the narrow margin (they missed the necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote) by which the Senate recently rejected a proposed constitutional amendment banning “desecration” of the American flag?

You know what I’d do with $300,000? Offer civics seminars for lawmakers and other public officials. Apparently, the schools don’t do civics anymore. What else explains the constitutional illiteracy most recently epitomized by Miami’s would-be book banners?

As Sonya told me, “It’s a waste of $300 grand. I could do a lot with $300 grand.”

Spoken like somebody from a normal place.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com