School & District Management Opinion

Reform for Other People’s Children

By Michael Klonsky — June 03, 2014 6 min read
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Author and advocate Mike Klonsky again writes to Deborah Meier today. This his final post before Bridging Differences takes its annual summer break. Deborah Meier will reply on Thursday.

What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” —John Dewey


I’m sad, in a way, that this will be our last exchange before Bridging Differences takes its annual summer break. After some early burning-bridges trepidation, I’ve come to enjoy our dialogue as I hope our readers have. I’m not complaining, though. I could use a little vacation, and I’m sure you could, too.

I hope you enjoyed the FairTest presentation of the Deborah Meier Award to Michelle Fine. Wish I could have been there. There’s no one I can think of who’s more deserving of an award named after you than Michelle, one of my heroes, whose work as a researcher and education activist has been an inspiration for so many in the field.

You made some great points in your last post about how America views urban and rural culture and schools, and how the term “urban” has taken on new meaning since the days of Blackboard Jungle. The point isn’t lost on us here in Chicago, where the mayor sends his kids to the expensive, private, and “progressive” University of Chicago Lab Schools, created by John Dewey himself over a century ago.

Lab is certainly not seen as an urban (code for failing, poor, black, or Latino) school, even though it sits on the city’s South Side. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who holds autocratic power over our public school system, wouldn’t dream of sending his own children to an “urban” school—not even one of his pet, privately run charters or his chi-chi selective-enrollment schools that are popping up faster than Starbucks in gentrifying neighborhoods.

He sends the kids to Lab (Arne Duncan’s alma mater) because he is a wise enough and wealthy enough parent to know the benefits of a small, well-staffed school with a highly qualified, experienced faculty (unionized) and a curriculum enriched with art, music, and physical education. He’s more than willing to pay the $30,000+/year tuition per child for a school that rejects both standardized testing and the Common Core, has an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio and a library stocked with 52,000 books.

But when it comes to the education of other people’s children, Emanuel’s “reform” program looks like the Bizarro World opposite of the Lab School. One of Emanuel’s first acts as mayor was to single-mindedly impose a longer school day on the district’s cash-strapped schools, even though it would mean more seat time for students with none of the enrichments like art and music, which his budget cut down to bare bones. As the saying goes, If it’s not tested, it’s not taught.

Meanwhile, over at Lab, the school day and school year were shortened to allow more time for teacher meetings, clubs, and after-school programming.

Another example of Emanuel’s idea of reform arose when he had his schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, ban the book Persepolis from public school libraries. After checking with the Lab School librarian, I learned that their middle school library had seven different editions of Marjane Satrapi’s book, both in English and in French. By the way, 160 of our city’s “urban” schools have no libraries or librarians at all.

Deb, several events this past week, stood out for me as topics I will continue to watch closely and blog about over the summer. The first was the death of the New Orleans public school system, a harbinger, I fear, of things to come for many other “urban” school districts. The Big Easy has become, according to The Washington Post, the country’s first all-charter school system. The story holds particular interest for me because the man who engineered this grand erosion of public space and public decisionmaking—the man who was brought into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to wrongfully terminate every one of the city’s mostly African-American teachers and replace them with mostly white TFAers—the man who disbanded the teachers’ union, was none other than former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. It’s also of special interest because Vallas, after being booted out of New Orleans and then out of Bridgeport, Conn., is back in Illinois now, running for lieutenant governor as a Democrat. Talk about the “lesser of two evils.”

I’ll also be watching billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s latest $120 million “gift” to San Francisco area schools. We still don’t know exactly how or even if his previous $100 million “gift” to Newark, N.J., schools was spent, except that some of it was used to create a couple of new privately run charter schools. We also know that about a third of the Newark money was used to pay political and educational consultants and contractors through a slush fund set up by former mayor Corey Booker and Gov. Chris Christie, and that it provided a nice tax haven for Mr. Zuckerberg.

What we know for sure is that all over the country, power-philanthropists are making “gifts” to resource-starved school systems. In return, the donors reserve the right to set education policy and funnel money to politically connected consultants and for-profit programs.

One more event that stood out for me this week: UFT leaders in New York are threatening to “blow up” the Working Families Party and forcing the party to endorse Gov. Andrew Cuomo at their convention. What a terrible example of union misleadership, and what a tragedy it would be if it led to the destruction of an organization that led the way in electing progressive N.Y. Mayor Bill de Blasio, electing progressive Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and in winning the Bridgeport school board elections that sent Paul Vallas packing.

Finally, I was asked by our editor to share my summer reading plans. I picture myself sitting by the pond at your house, reading a pile of books. They include biographies of some of my favorite people, and some stuck-in-the-'60s (I plead guilty) stuff.

  • Stokely: A Life by Peniel Joseph, the biography of ‘60s civil-rights leader Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Toure. I knew Stokely back in the ‘60s when he was a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
  • My two other summer bios are Dylan: The Biography by Dennis McDougal (no explanation needed there) and
  • I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway by music critic Greg Kot. Pops Staples used to come out to some of our small schools in Chicago and play, and one of my greatest thrills was finally getting to hang out with Mavis.
  • After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story by Michael Haney. A real-life ‘60s mystery, set in Chicago and given to me for my birthday. Looks great.
  • Last but not least (I’ve already finished it): This is Not a Test by my friend and N.Y. teacher Jose Vilson.

Deb, can’t wait to see you on our next road trip East. Have a great summer.


Michael Klonsky teaches in the College of Education at DePaul University. He is the co-founder and director of the Small Schools Workshop and is a co-author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He blogs daily at Mike Klonsky’s SmallTalk Blog, at //michaelklonsky.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on Twitter @mikeklonsky.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.