Below you will find my written response to an opinion piece that was published in a local newspaper, the Sun Times, in my hometown, Chelsea, Michigan. I have tried several times to publish this piece directly in the newspaper, using two different google accounts (my personal email and my University of Michigan affiliated work email), my Facebook account, and my Twitter account. However, all of these different methods have been blocked, and the contact form to reach out to the newspaper to troubleshoot has also been disabled, leading me to self-publishing here on my personal website as the only option.
To be clear, this is a response to the opinion piece written by John Dunn. My name is Saige Rutherford. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life in Chelsea, Michigan. I attended Chelsea public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating from Chelsea High School in 2010. My parents, Julie Sverid and John Rutherford, have lived in Chelsea for 33 years. My older sister, Jenica Rutherford, and I attended school with two of the Dunn children (Elise and Meghan). For the past 2.5 years, I have been living in the Netherlands, where I am completing my Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. Before starting my Ph.D., I studied biomedical physics, computer science, and statistics and worked for the University of Michigan as a data scientist in the department of psychiatry for five years. I describe my personal and professional background to establish that a) I understand and relate to the local Chelsea community (and school district) and b) the fact that I am a scientist who studies human behavior and cognitive processes. As an American citizen living abroad in a country that has the highest child well-being outcomes (mental well-being, physical health, and academic and social skills) in the world (the United States is ranked 36th), I also have a unique perspective to share.
The purpose of the initial opinion piece by Mr. Dunn, and all of the responses, including this dialogue, is to determine which candidates for the school board are most qualified to make decisions on the education of the children attending Chelsea public schools. All of us, though we have different opinions, share the same goal to give children a good education in a school where they feel safe, so they have the best chance at becoming healthy and happy adults. With this shared goal in mind, rather than attacking each other’s opponents, we should focus on working together to achieve this goal. The inherent flaw of a two-party political system, as we have in America, is that we are always against the other side. In most European democracies, political parties must form coalitions to work together, which results in unification rather than polarization.
Despite a call for being kind and respectful and having less political polarization, Mr. Dunn proceeds to compare one set of candidates (that he does not support) to Hitler, saying that they are “godless, manipulative Marxist/socialist political trojan horses who are infiltrating our schools at every level and, effectively, trying to indoctrinate our children in this belief system, that try to tell children what to think rather than how to think.” It is hypocritical to call for the end of politics in school while simultaneously bringing a clear political and hateful (calling for anti-trans policies is hateful) agenda to the table.
Mr. Dunn’s flawed arguments are causal in nature, as he infers that the falling test scores, low enrollment, and polarization that is observed in Chelsea are due to the “Ann Arbor progressive mindset” of the past Superintendent. Mr. Dunn provides no unbiased evidence to support these claims beyond stating that his friends, who are past administrators, say this is true. However, if you look at the unbiased data collected from a popular representative study in the US, test scores have been decreasing across the nation, in both republican/conservative states, AND in democratic/progressive places. This decreasing trend was seen prior to the pandemic. Therefore, you cannot infer that progressive policies are the cause of this national decrease in test scores and educational outcomes. You could speculate that the low salary and benefits of teachers, overall poor conditions of teachers in regard to working hours and resources provided, and gun violence all contribute to the overall poorer educational performance and decline in youth mental health in the United States despite increased educational spending compared to other countries. All of these policies (lack of gun control, decreased spending on public education) tend to be supported by the republican/conservative political agenda rather than the progressive agenda. If you consider the countries that rank highest in child well-being (Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Switzerland), you will notice they all share “progressive” policies, such as paid parental leave and government childcare support.
Holding the tension of opposite views, leaving emotional reactions aside, and thinking critically are necessary qualifications for those in power. Improving educational outcomes is a difficult task, and the republican perspective of “less government involvement, just thrown some money at the problem” has failed the children of America. Rather than attacking one another, as Mr. Dunn has done with the group A vs. group B strategy, we need to ask ourselves how we can work together, despite our different opinions, to achieve the common goal of improving the education system. Let us spend more time discussing how we achieve improved educational outcomes rather than throwing biased opinions at one another. I believe the Chelsea community will vote for the candidates that are most capable.