( Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series examining the International Baccalaureate program in the Coeur d’Alene School District.)
Duncan Koler likens it to being in a courtroom, sparring in words before a judge and jury.
Standing at the podium in front of the trustees and board members of the Coeur d’Alene School District, the Hayden attorney has in recent months become a frequent critic of the district’s International Baccalaureate programs at Lake City High School and Hayden Meadows Elementary School.
Since becoming the unofficial spokesman for dozens of parents and concerned community members who oppose IB, Koler has presented his findings and research at the monthly meetings, arguing that the public school system is polluted by an advanced learning program that’s expensive, endorses a progressive political agenda with close ties to the United Nations, and is a waste of taxpayer money, $1.3million in the seven years since its inception.
Meanwhile, the supporters of IB, which Superintendent Hazel Bauman described at a recent board meeting as being “the vast majority of parents,” contend that the high school and elementary school programs provide a better understanding of American values through an inquiry-based program that encourages students to become globally aware individuals.
“We enjoy the intellectual challenge of it because there is give and take and they do have points to raise on the other side,” Koler said about attending the board meetings, which he described as going from sleepy affairs last fall to rocking debates this year. “We don’t have to agree with (the school board) and don’t, but quite often some of them we agree with. So we’ve, yeah, had a lot of people come forward and want to help and we are running active on this and we’re not giving up.”
Not until IB “is dead and buried,” he added.
Digging deeper into the program spurred Koler into action. At public protests and school board meetings, critics like Koler have made their position clear: the programs push a global education that supersedes American history.
Program backers challenge those assumptions. By helping develop the intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world, as the IB website states, Bauman said students in the programs will emerge better prepared for the future.
“The U.N. is not controlling the curriculum in the school district,” Bauman said. As for offering international points of view in IB coursework, she added, “We are competing with those countries. We are competing with those countries for jobs and for resources, and it’s better to know more about those you are competing against.”
To help settle the debate, Bauman is organizing a task force this summer to answer the questions that critics have brought up. Those issues include: outlining the requirements to become a Primary Years Program, the K-5 program offered by IB, and examining who controls those requirements; determining if the U.N. or UNESCO has any control in the IB curriculum and if the programs teach radical environmentalism or promote socialism or communism; and concluding if IB undermines the founding U.S. documents.
“We are going into this with an open mind,” Bauman said, adding that the exploratory committee will primarily consist of educators along with two community members representing both sides of the issue. “We are hoping that we will find evidence, and I believe we will find evidence, to refute the allegations that the opposition group has made.
“However, if there are any grains of truth in what they are saying, we will be transparent and mitigate those issues…. The report will answer these questions definitively and with evidence.”
The task force will present its report to the school board in August.
Koler worries that the verdict is in. If it’s not an independent inquiry, he fears, it could amount to an act for the crowd.
“I think it’s going to be a snow job and a beat-down by the teachers and the administrators and the one person – the parent – that’s for it against the one person that’s not for it. So it’s nine against one, and there’s just no way,” he said.
The school board, he added, has previously shown a commitment to the programs, offering as an example the speaking time provided to the different sides of the controversy. At the June board meeting, a handful of IB critics were given three-minute time slots for statements, while a few supporters were given nearly twice that.
The task force proposal is nothing new, he said. “It represents a continuation of (the school board’s) effort to control the process, to control the publicity regarding this issue, and to funnel it toward the findings that they want.”
Yet despite the debate, Koler is quick to point out that IB program participants are typically outstanding students. “It’s pretty well known that there’s a ton of work that these kids do – lots and lots of reading, especially every night, and that’s great,” he said. “I buy into it that these students have earned the right to go to these colleges. We’ve got bright kids and we do have good teachers – we have very good teachers. They are very defensive, but they are good teachers.”
The high school and elementary programs are two of the seven “schools of choice” in the district. School board members are unanimous in defending the value of the IB programs, especially in the context of the ‘schools of choice’ initiative.
However, some IB opponents say plan was created in light of the controversy. District administrators said that is a false accusation.
“That’s absolutely not true. I have been promoting schools of choice for probably a decade,” Bauman said. “We realized that if we didn’t offer schools of choice, we would lose more and more of our market share.”
For parents who don’t want their children in one of the schools of choice in their attendance zone, the school board outlined an option that would allow the student to be transported to a different school.
So far, that hasn’t been a problem, Bauman said. When the district sent out resubmit-to-enroll letters to parents of students at several schools, including Hayden Meadows, Ramsey and Sorenson, “overwhelmingly, the vast, vast majority of parents want to be enrolled in those schools,” Bauman said. “As far as I know, we have no takers on the transportation option next year.”
The schools of choice, Bauman said, “are revenue-producing for us. We are generating more ADA (average daily attendance, which amounts to about $6,000 of state funding for every student that attends a public school) from these schools of choice. So if we have to transport students, the cost will be very small comparatively…. The bottom line is we are making money from the schools of choice.”
As for the cost of the IB diploma program and Primary Years Program, the initial expenses were the most expensive part, Bauman explained. Textbooks, subscription fees and teacher training soaked up most of those initial fees.
“It was an expensive program to get started, I would give the opponents that, but that was all the upfront costs,” Bauman explained. “The ongoing costs are not nearly as difficult to maintain as the opponents would want you to believe.”
With Coeur d’Alene High School’s advanced learning program, known as Advanced Placement, providing college credit at many universities, Koler and other critics want IB programs removed from the school district, arguing AP is currently accepted at more colleges. Supporters say IB courses are gaining ground as accepted college credit and offer more of an admissions advantage at top-tier universities.
“I think they have a lot of leeway within the framework provided by IB to create their own curriculum, but they agree when they become an IB school to teach in harmony with the IB program, which emphasizes environmentalism, social justice, things like that,” Koler said. “It’s a consistently designed, reinforced-at-every-level program that involves, in my opinion, social engineering on social, political issues. And I don’t think that has any place in our school system, our public school system.”
The Primary Years Program offered at Hayden Meadows uses the same district curriculum and state standards that are taught at other schools, only in an IB-style framework which focuses on cause-and-effect and compare-and-contrast lessons, according to Principal Lisa Pica. So far, the feedback from parents has been positive, she added.
“We have had exactly this year one student withdrawn because of the PYP program, and that was Mr. Koler’s child,” Pica said. “This is not politically driven whatsoever. I respect other people’s opinions and they have a right to their opinion, and that’s not even going to be an argument. Those that are anti-IB, they have a right to their opinion, but so do our parents. So I just think that we need to respect that on both sides and go from there.”
In the high school program, IB teachers, who are required to attend a two-day workshop once a year, create the coursework and lessons. There are course-specific guidelines and yearly updates, but that is the extent of the outside influence, according to IB teachers at Lake City.
“We have not received any directions from the U.N., UNESCO or anything else about how we are supposed to teach, and I love America,” explained IB Theory of Knowledge instructor Eric Edmonds. “I need to get my students to do their work, to do their homework, to think carefully, to write well, and not to be distracted by the millions of things that distract them. They have iPhones – that is a far bigger concern in my world than socialism, frankly.
“Teachers are not trying to convince their students of any particular ideology. Teachers are trying to teach their students to think for themselves.”
As the IB students across the hall in Derek Kohles’ class prepared for the bell, a handful of them took the chance to voice their support for the program. The students said they first learn about their own nation and culture before being taught about the rest of the world
“A lot of the people who are anti-IB, their whole thing is that IB creates a worldview. None of us understand why having a worldview or understanding how other people think is a bad thing,” said Brianna Loper.
Edmonds cited a number of students who have been accepted at prestigious universities in recent years: Harvard, Duke, Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and Columbia.
“In terms of the number of students going to top-tier schools, it’s significantly changed as a result of IB,” he said. “And that’s a shift from the past.”