School Choice & Charters Opinion

Who Are the Education Experts?

By Nancy Flanagan — July 06, 2015 2 min read
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The headline in the Detroit News, Michigan’s second-largest daily newspaper: Education Experts Descend on Detroit. Especially grating is the verb “descend,” indicating that advice is needed from on high, that Detroiters can’t be expected to solve their own on-the-ground problems.

For the general public in Detroit or any other urban system, the headline (and, frankly, the article) are snooze-worthy. Just more of what we’re used to—the latest round of troubles in the state’s largest public school system, more proposed solutions to Our Failing Schools. Same old, same old.

The piece has the feel of a tarted-up press release from one of the “experts,” or the grant-funded foundations they’re associated with: Here come _______________ (in this case, Michael Petrilli, CEO of Fordham Institute, and Eric Chan, partner at the Charter School Growth Fund) with their exciting new plans to save our educational bacon!

Or not.

Haven’t we had enough blue-ribbon commissions, slick data-rich presentations and spurious happy talk about soaring scores and college enrollments? Haven’t the so-called experts failed—repeatedly and often miserably—in rebuilding the strong, healthy, fully public systems we need? The neighborhood schools kids and their families can walk to, where everyone is welcome, without lotteries and admission screening and parent-provided transportation? Staffed by veterans with hard-won experience and instructional expertise earned in precisely those neighborhoods?

Where are the experts who will help us reconstruct and re-energize that idea?

Shortly before his death in 1995, 20 years ago, Ernest Boyer said:

The harsh truth is that America is losing sight of its children. In decisions made every day, we are putting them at the very bottom of the agenda. While people endlessly criticize the schools, I'm convinced that the family is a much more imperiled institution than the schools. I'm further convinced that, in many neighborhoods, the public school is, in fact, the only institution that's still working.

Where are the experts who will put the well-being of children and families at the top of their agenda, building on the foundation of the only institution in a beleaguered city that’s still working, however imperfectly?

Seriously. I’d like to know just who qualifies as an education expert.

The DPS elected governance structure has been disenfranchised, to a greater or lesser degree, for over 15 years. Emergency managers, nonprofit advisors, celebrity charter founders, big-ticket consultants and carefully assembled commissions—all touted as expert in transforming public schools—have come and gone. And failed. Their net contribution has been reducing the student population by 75% and amassing incredible debt.

I’m tired of hearing that this is the fault of the only people still slogging along in the public sphere—teachers and school leaders—because they were promised a retirement plan in exchange for years of investment in the community.

Once again: WHO are the experts, the people who understand that the real issue is not solving the “puzzle” of financial success in a “tough marketplace?

Correction: A previous version of this piece misstated the circulation of the Detroit News.

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