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California's 'Fire Next Time'

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As I write this Malibu continues to smolder from the firestorms of 1993 and the last air is escaping from the balloons of the parties celebrating the defeat of Proposition 174, the voucher initiative proposed to privatize California's schools. I feel like a survivor of two major disasters. My home is still standing, and the public schools have survived yet another onslaught by those who would burn them, in order to save them.

These two events have more in common than a proximity in time, for the firestorms provide a useful metaphor for educators to consider when contemplating the voucher movement.

The California firestorms were fueled by a combination of years of accumulated underbrush, dried by an extended drought. Once the fires started, they were driven by the dry Santa Ana winds that blow from the desert in the autumn of the year. Some were started by natural causes and others the work of arsonists. And once they started, all resources had to be applied merely to containing them--there was no thought to the possibility of putting them out. They have to exhaust themselves as they used up their fuel. After they die down, those who were spared breathe a sigh of relief and the victims are left to clean up and count their losses.

Proposition 174 was the largest attack yet on the sanctity of common schools in this country. It would have provided a voucher to the parents of each of California's five million children to apply to any school of their choice. The only real limitation would have been that the school had to have 25 students. It would have financially devastated the public schools as it would have given these vouchers to anyone already in private school and would have created a double loss of funds (through a quirk in the California funding system) for any student transferring after its passage.

It was defeated for two reasons. First, there was an all-out, unprecedented political effort by the stakeholders of public schools (parents, teachers, administrators) to see its defeat. This effort was funded by millions of dollars from the California Teachers Association, arguably the most powerful lobby in the state and certainly one of the strongest in the country. The proposition also fell, to a certain extent, by its own weight. The proponents, in their eagerness to deal the public schools, if not a death blow, then a major example of corporal punishment, drafted a proposal that was so flawed and potentially damaging to the state that even some who favor private school choice came out against it.

In the 2-to-1 vote dooming Proposition 174 to its rightful demise, there is a tendency to think, "Well, that's over, now it's back to business as usual.'' That would be a huge error and as shortsighted as the fire survivors who not only rebuild in the brush-covered hills, but do so with the same wood-shingled roofs that allowed their homes to burn the last time.

There are important lessons from 174 that not only California, but public educators from across America, should heed. We need to take a close look at the underbrush that fuels the voucher movement and the winds that feed it. If not, we will someday find our children homeless in the aftermath of a successful dismantling of the public schools.

The first major cause of the voucher movement is the general level of discontent about the quality of the public schools. The firestorm of criticism has been sparked by a variety of critics and causes, each causing a conflagration of danger to the schools. It is tough to take because, to a certain degree, it is a bum rap. Public schools have been scapegoated by other institutions in our society that are unwilling to take responsibility for their contributions to our social and economic ills. Other critics search for simple answers to complex problems and think that by beating on public schools they can make our society compliant and well-behaved. The fact is, schools are better than they have ever been and are more effective at educating the portion of society they were traditionally asked to educate, the children of our middle class.

The problem is that we now need to educate, to a much higher level, a much broader portion of society than we have ever done. Just as the throw-away society has given way to an emphasis on recycling, we, as a nation, can no longer afford to allow a portion of our population to be thrown away because of an inadequate education. We need everyone operating at their full capacity. We must recycle those who in the past would have been allowed to fail. This means that we must not only reform our schools, we must transform them. Schools cannot merely do a better job of what they have always done. They need to do a different job. We need to re-examine and change our historic mission. We are no longer the sorting bin for society, separating the wheat from the chaff. Now, we must bake the bread.

The underbrush of discontent, can, to some extent, be thinned out by our making sure that the public is clear on what we have done well and what challenges we face in doing things better. We, as a profession, have historically done a poor job on our relations with our public. We have to gain skills and knowledge in getting our story across. However, public relations alone will not transform education. We must exert leadership in seeking a new approach to educating. This will call for taking risks and being innovative in trying very different approaches to education. Once we can show new and effective ways of educating our bottom third (the real hot spot in American education), then we will know that much of the fuel for the next fire has been cleared out.

But we cannot afford to ignore the winds of discontent blowing across America, even if we would like to. Much of this comes from what we perceive to be the enemies of public schools--the religious right, and the other exceptionally disgruntled parents who feel that the schools are unsafe moral wastelands. It is time that we look past the rhetoric to what they are telling us about the schools.

What they are saying is that they are afraid. They are afraid for their children and their children's future. Much of the fear is based in the changing nature of society. This does not seem to be a world safe for their children, and they fear for their children, particularly in school. They are afraid of gangs, violence, drugs, and a promiscuous society that draws no boundaries. They feel schools are not addressing these issues, or worse, are dealing with them in ways that exacerbate the problem. If we are honest, any of us who are parents should be able to relate to their fear. It is an unsafe world, and much of what we do in school has not made it safer.

We who operate the schools must find ways to allay their fear and remove the causes of it. While we need to be sensitive to all the children, we must not be afraid to make sure that schools are havens of safety in an unsafe world. That means we must provide strong discipline and a framework for acceptable behavior. The beauty of public schools is that they are for everyone, but that should not mean that anything goes. Students who endanger others should not be allowed to be a part of the broader population.

Further, and this will be much more difficult, we must rediscover a moral center for schools. In the religious wars that have raged for decades, and in the aftermath of various court cases that have strengthened the barrier between church and state, we have shied away from character development and values. Schools are perceived by many parents as not only godless, but valueless. The only thing that the values-clarification movement may have clarified for parents is the perception that schools aren't very clear on our values as a culture. Furthermore, it is not clear that many homes have done much better by raising children with sound character. Consequently, we, as a society, are raising children who seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. If schools are going to regain the confidence of the public, they must become places not only where children learn to add and subtract, but also where they learn to navigate their way through the moral minefields of a materialistic, confusing, yet empty human landscape.

The real strength of our American culture is that it is based on big beliefs--equality, justice, liberty, opportunity. While we, as a nation, have never really lived up to these big ideas, our history is one of trying to work toward them. Our dissatisfaction with our progress has been the impetus for change and improvement. The power of the public schools is that they have been the one place in our diverse, rambunctious, and rowdy country where folks have come together to learn and internalize these ideas. If the notion of the common school is to survive, we must rededicate our schools as places where the core values of the nation are explored and celebrated. Otherwise, the fire next time will engulf the one institution in this country dedicated to its preservation.

Paul D. Houston is the superintendent of Riverside School District in California. He will become the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in March.

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