The most hotly debated article on Education Week last week was the Education Reform Dichotomy, with about a hundred comments. Some of the comments reveal the deeper thinking behind the two schools of thought that are in contention.
Commenter Paul Hoss offers the following:
...privatization is contemporary code for competition, as in opposing the public school monopoly that failed poor/minority youngsters for far too long, and not just in Chicago. If urban officials appear quick to allow (private) charter schools into their districts, it's because they've had it with the cavalier attitudes of the local district for too long. Their way, or the highway, has been replaced. I for one believe competition is good for most entities, schools included. No one can continue to sit complacent and believe people MUST tolerate their ways. That philosophy is thankfully expiring from coast to coast. Will the new paradigm succeed? Only time will tell but anything is an improvement over the deplorable results too many districts were (not) producing from prior generations. All kids deserve a shot at the American dream. ALL kids.
Inner city families finally have a choice as to where to send their children to school, a choice previously afforded only to families of means. The public school monopoly failed these kids. The problem with that, the families realized they had no alternatives, no choice. Poor/Minority parents had to send their kids to these god awful "schools." The public school monopoly resulted in a dead end, with little to no hope for parents or their children. The cavalier attitude toward their constituents was not the main problem but it contributed toward the poor performance of everyone involved, teachers and students. Now, all of a sudden the urban schools are wondering why all the complaints regarding their outcomes, their product?
You also know many of these families opt out of urban schools strictly as the safest alternative for their child. No one can blame them. Gangs, violence, in-house police, metal detectors, bullying, etc. What parent wouldn't opt for a charter or any alternative to that horror show for their child? And yes, the traditional public schools must keep ALL students while charter schools don't. That still doesn't help the parents who want their kids in a safe environment for the school day. Some day lawmakers are going to figure that one out also.
It's, of course, also worth mentioning that families/children living in poverty contribute a great deal to the culture/climate of these urban schools and that can be the most significant cause of the problems/failures. Some of the circumstances poor/minority youngsters show up with at the schoolhouse gate are all but impossible to overcome. No one can deny the deleterious effects that poverty has on so many of our urban school students. What are these schools missing that the selective enrollment schools and magnets have within the same district? Today, nothing, because many of these families today have a choice and are NOT LOCKED INTO the chronically under performing neighborhood school.
A Chicago teacher, Katie Osgood, responds:
So I'm still not clear on your belief on WHY some schools are "god-awful" besides that the kids in them are involved with gangs and have bad "culture" or something. I want to make clear that there is nothing about charters that fixes safety problems. In fact, I've had kids in my hospital from some of the big-names like Urban Prep report that they have terrible discipline/gang violence but that UP is very careful to keep the reality from the public (it's all about marketing, not reality). Also, many charters in our city, because they draw from kids from all over the city, often across gang boundaries, actually create gang violence and see increases in behavior problems. Many are not safer environments at all.
Ultimately though, what we see in the "successful" charters is a concentration of kids at the upper end of the free/reduced lunch spectrum and kids with fewer intense needs. Nothing has been changed or fixed. The teaching is not miraculous, the teachers are not superstars, the curriculum is ordinary or even worse. They just have an easier, healthier, and less deeply impacted by poverty population. I ask you, is the solution to inner-city violence and safety issues--which I agree are so important to families--to throw away the poorest, sickest, and neediest of our children into grossly under-resourced and overwhelmed buildings set up for failure? Mayor Emanuel once told the teachers union that 25% of Chicago's kids are worthless and that he wasn't going to waste money on them. Is this what "choice" is? Just one more way to segregate and divide us? Punish the sickest, the homeless, the poorest? Throw away the schools that are overwhelmed with the neediest kids instead of helping them? Make parents fight between themselves for the scraps of funding being sent to poor neighborhoods, dividing communities?
Or is it possible to fight for a system that leaves no children behind, which promotes equity and equal opportunity to ALL? Can we commit to spending the MOST resources on the neediest children to address safety and learning issues? Can we commit to addressing the underlying poverty which creates so many of the behavior, learning, and safety issues in schools? Can we commit to ensuring that no matter where you live, you will have a well-kept, EQUITABLY resourced (more resources for needier schools), properly staffed school, complete with access to libraries, up-to-date technology, social workers, counselors, and foreign language, arts, music, etc?
I've seen what "choice" does to kids. These are MY students being thrown away. And I prefer a vision of schooling where equality and justice, healing and compassion are the norms.
Paul Hoss responded:
Your utopian vision of school is what everyone would want for all children, rich and poor, all across the country. I have no problem with any of your aspirations. However, we all realize it's a very different story on the ground.
Chicago, apparently the homicide capital of the US last year (close to 500 murders?), claimed a greater death toll last year than all US soldier fatalities in Afghanistan (303). That's a bit disconcerting, to say the least.
Here in Massachusetts, many parents (no way of knowing the actual %) opt for charters for higher safety rates for their children for the school day. Based on what I've read, that presumption holds true in many urban charter schools nationwide. Charters incorporate behavior codes into their charters that allow them to counsel out the serious behavior problems which traditional public schools cannot do.
Your desire for more/most resources to our neediest schools would be optimum, it also demonstrates you're uncertainty on how school financing works. I didn't create the school finance formulas (many are quite complicated) in any state. I am aware of a number of parameters they operate under and they do not realize many of your hopes. Again, there are numerous factions pulling from many directions to optimize their "share" of funds available. As I stated previously, the process often ends in favor of the involved constituents/parents as opposed to the passive group. It's simply a reality that no one seems to have an answer for.
I hope you are reading between the lines here as to what Mr. Hoss is suggesting. But just in case you missed it, a commenter named Harlan Underhill, over at Diane Ravitch’s blog, where she highlighted the Dichotomy post, removes any doubt as to what is being said.
Harlan Underhill wrote:
The pro public school/union side has become as utopian as the TFA "no excuses" crowd. There is a dichotomy, but it is between freedom and equality. Equality will never be achieved because no matter how much you invest in health care, eye exams, and support, bad families will produce bad kids. Freedom, however, can be achieved by expecting every person to live the life which their character provides them. There is tremendous waste here too, because bad family produces, not in every case, but in most, bad character. Choices do have to be made. Do you chose to promote public education that will sacrifice all the children in trying to save the bottom 20% or do you sacrifice the bottom 20% to save the top 80%? It is a Hobson's choice, neither alternative is morally acceptable. But you public school advocates MUST concede that the present public school/union system produced the electorate that put Obama in office for the first time, and now for the second. His administration is already a disaster, and will become an even greater one. The public school system is responsible for the low information voter which perpetrated the disaster on America, and thus, for me has zero credibility. The public school system either by design or negligence has become populated by the socialist/ communist philosophy of government and national culture. It has, therefore, in my view, zero claim to support from the public taxpayers. It is foolish to blame those who are providing the education services, but that blame would make sense if the public school establishment is fundamentally anti-capitalist. At its simplest, if you support the public schools, you are anti-capitalist. Deny it if you can. But you can't; all you can do is abuse the messenger who shows you your true face in a mirror of words.
I replied to Mr. Underhill:
Perhaps No Child Left Behind might be renamed "No Good Child Left Behind."
This shows what happens when we push the conversation forward. In the past, the No Excuses Reformers cloaked themselves in utopian rhetoric. They claimed that it was the public schools that were leaving children behind. Here we have an open acknowledgement that, in the views of some on the "no excuses" side, the idea of leaving no child behind is not only false, but communistic.
There is a countervailing idea of the public good, of public services and government that exists for the general good of all in a community. And there are extremes to which each idea can be taken. Communism suggests everything ought to be commonly owned and managed, while Harlan Underhill apparently wishes for an Ayn Randian society where we leave the poor to suffer the consequences of the poor choices or ill luck of their parents and ancestors. I think most of us would like something just a bit towards the middle of these two extremes. And our public schools are designed to create that.
Another commenter on my original post named Django offered a fitting conclusion to this series.
I am parent in a low income suburban community. What we want are great neighborhood schools. We are so discouraged by the draining of resources away from our community schools that serve all to upright a parallel system of choice to serve the few. Talk about a pinkie promise! Reformers can't be bothered to drive resources back into the neighborhood, but will offer you a shot in a lottery for a crosstown school you may not even have the means to get to should you draw a lucky number.
Families want vibrant, clean, safe neighborhood schools. Choice is never their first choice.
What do you think? Are school choice advocates starting to admit that they have a lifeboat strategy that leaves many students on sinking ships?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.