School Choice & Charters Opinion

Here’s Why They Don’t Listen

By Deborah Meier — May 12, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

You ask: “Why don’t they listen?

They, the “billionaire boys club,” have a different agenda, and the issues we raise are truly not important to them. Or at least to most of those in the public eye these days.

Some see the chance to destroy another public stronghold—our schools—as a lifelong dream come true. They are 100 percent convinced that market competition is always the best. Period. Probably the only institution they believe should remain public is the military, and they are already nibbling away at some of what we used to consider a soldier’s job.

Second are those that see the great advantage of using the moment to destroy the one and only organized body contesting over the “proper” distribution of wages and profits—the American trade unions. This includes many non-billionaires. Having destroyed most of the formerly powerful unions in the private sector, they are coming after the Johnny-come-latelies, the public-sector workers.

Third are those who, perhaps unconsciously, need to divert attention from the faults of Wall Street et al and insist that schools are the source of all that goes wrong. It’s a view that many a pro-education advocate easily falls for because it goes along with being the cause of all that’s right, too—and puts our work at the center of the stage. If we had more people with a good education, the line goes, we’d have more jobs. It’s a myth (based on a nugget of truth) that my well-educated children and grandchildren are hanging onto. It at least increases the odds in their favor.

Plus those who have a financial stake in this project, and to whom money is a form of popularity. These people can pay public relations experts to sell their goods. The group includes, of course, some who will directly benefit like employees and stockholders of Pearson.

And then there are those who are so accustomed to “seeing like a state” that they use their fine educations to make grand plans for refashioning the lives of others.

But there’s something else, too. It came to me in an odd way on my latest trip to Chicago.

National-Louis University put on an event in the glorious Shakespeare Theater on the Navy Pier. There were nine panelists! They had apparently tried to get people of different ages and with different backgrounds in terms of reform experience. The moderator greeted us during the hour-long “rehearsal"—as representatives of the new “consensus for reform” and hoped we’d each provide our particular take on it. There were four young school people: a charter school founder from KIPP and several others preparing for careers “reforming” public schooling; plus, Sonia Nieto, Bill Ayers, and Harold Levy. (Levy was the New York City schools chancellor before Joel Klein.) It turned into a love fest—mostly—of critiques of the current so-called reform “consensus.” The audience was clearly friendly to the critique, and it was a lively session despite the considerable agreement. In short, it was fun for my side. (By the way, I’m going to D.C. on June 8th to disagree with Rick Hess, at the invitation of the American Enterprise Institute; that event will clearly not be such an unqualified joy.)

After the panel last Monday, with drinks and tasty tidbits in hand, a wealthy supporter of the current wave of reforms and I got into a tiff of the sort we probably both try to avoid. It began by his telling me that he funds and directs school turn-arounds. A turn-around school was one in which you first fire everyone who works there, he explained, with zest and enthusiasm. He was surprised that I recoiled from his words with an expression of horror. How can you enjoy what you’ve done to the people who work in that place, I asked? He said he got his pleasure in doing right by children. Why are you so sure the children will do better with different adults, I probed? He essentially told me he considered the former teachers worthless human beings, products of low-status state schools, the dregs. No wonder children didn’t learn much from them. When they are replaced with higher-caliber humans—products of our top universities—scores naturally will go up.

What stood between us was probably not resolvable and “listening to each other” was not going to help. His cheery distancing from a “kind” of people scares me. First, you turn them into lesser humans and then you can do your worst to them with moral impunity. (And their unions; If they were really any good they wouldn’t need unions, I was told by people like him when I first started teaching.) If he has disdain for my colleagues, what must he think of the children and families of our students? Still he and I have mutual friends who tell me he’s a great guy.

I was struck by his passionate certainty. Maybe he just had a hard time sitting still and listening to all the panelists. Maybe I’d have burst out similarly had I spent the past two hours unrelentingly listening to “the other side.” Maybe I will be in just his position on June 8. I’ll let you know. (Any advice, Diane?)


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.