Sunday, May 08, 2011

Please Don't Be Fooled

Up until third grade I attended Meadowbrook Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, a newly constructed school in a newly constructed neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, populated by middle class white families.  In second grade, there was one black child in our class, but otherwise my only contact with black people was with the maids some of our neighbors hired to come in once a week to clean their houses. This was a city with a huge black population, one approaching a majority even in 1970.

As an 8-year-old boy, I had no idea that I lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school. I knew there were a lot of black people around because I often saw them from our car windows as we tooled around on errands. I didn't have any particularly negative opinions of them because of the color of their skin. I was a sports fan, so I suppose I had the race pegged as being good athletes since that's how they mostly showed up for me on TV, but otherwise I was more ignorant than prejudiced.

Everything changed the following year when the impact of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown V. Board of Education (1954) finally trickled down to South Carolina where the schools had remained stubbornly segregated, and kids of different races where bused from one neighborhood to another to force desegregation. When I got on the bus for fourth grade it was to attend Atlas Road Elementary in the heart of a much poorer, much darker-skinned neighborhood, while many, if not most, of the kids from my own neighborhood stayed behind to attend private schools where segregation was still legal. I'm proud of my parents, who consider themselves politically conservative: it must have been a hard decision to allow their son to become part of what was a grand social and educational experiment. Speaking only for myself, the experiment worked in that I got to know "blacks" as people for the first time in my life which was one of the seminal aspects of my education. And I'm not dissatisfied with the rest of it either, despite being educated in a school system that historically ranks near the bottom in national comparisons.

The fight to defend segregation didn't end there, of course. One of the ways southern states attempted to thwart the efforts of the federal government was to propose voucher schemes that would allow parents to pull their children out of public schools while taking the public funding with them to pay tuition at private schools.

I was reminded of this by a long, well-researched article by Rachel Tabachnick entitled The DeVos Family: Meet The Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working With The Religious Right To Kill Public Education, that appeared a few days ago on AlterNet. As is obvious from the title, it is a politically charged piece, liable to get your blood boiling, no matter where you stand politically, so don't click through if you're interested in a serene Mother's Day, but I would urge you to book mark it. It's an edifying and somewhat chilling read.

While I am convinced it's true that very wealthy corporate interests are behind the push to privatize our schools via vouchers and charters, I've also found that defending public education from privatization isn't as much of a partisan issue as Ms. Tabachnick's article implies. In fact, as she points out, despite having infinitely deep pockets funding privatization efforts, Americans across the board have repeatedly shown ourselves to be overwhelmingly opposed to using public funds to support private schools, with 24 of the 25 voucher initiatives since 1966 being defeated, often by wide margins. We may see flaws in public education, but most of us, no matter our political leanings, believe in the promise of universal, high quality public education.

Anyone who has read here for long knows that I am opposed to all efforts to privatize public schools, be it via vouchers or charter schools. I am a political liberal, but I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most moderates and conservatives in opposition the Obama administration's advocacy of charter schools. We understand that there are some good charter schools out there and some bad public schools, and those extremes are the anecdotal "evidence" people use to tout the cause of privatization, but the big picture evidence indicates that the "theory" of privatization, the idea that free-market principles might somehow make schools work better, simply doesn't pan out in the real world.

The longest running voucher program in the country is the 20-year-old Milwaukee School Choice Program. Standardized testing shows that the voucher students in private schools perform below the level of Milwaukee's public school students, and even when socioeconomic status is factored in, the voucher students still score at or below the level of the students who remain in Milwaukee's public schools. Cleveland's voucher program has produced similar results. Private schools in the voucher program range from excellent to very poor. In some, less than 20 percent of students reach basic proficiency levels in math and reading.

The same goes for charter schools. The gold standard longitudinal study by Stanford University researchers found that despite all the hype surrounding the success of a few very well-funded examples:

. . . (only) 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

In fact, all the real research done into the privatization of schools, via vouchers or charters, has come to the same conclusions. There is absolutely no evidence that supports the idea of privatizing public schools beyond free-market ideology and a handful of anecdotes.

Let me be clear, I'm not opposed to capitalism when it comes to making consumer goods or providing certain services. As long as the marketplace remains truly competitive, it's clear that the profit motive combined with the forces of supply and demand can result in better and cheaper things. But those same principles simply cannot be applied to everything. When the goal of healthcare, for instance, is profit rather than health, people die. And when the goal of education is profit rather than education, children become a mere means to an end.

I know, I know, not all charter schools are for-profit, but I'm here to assure you that once we've opened those doors to market forces, it won't be long before the little guys will get squashed in the way the advent of Wal-Mart in small communities destroys family-owned businesses. These are the wrong kind of forces to unleash upon our children.

All of us want better education for our children and most don't want to dismantle our public schools. The most recent Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation's schools. The same poll finds that 77 percent of public school parents award their own child's school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.

We're satisfied with our own schools, but dissatisfied overall. Huh? Our personal experience as parents tells us one thing while what we learn from the media via our political and business leaders is another. This is the influence of big budget propaganda efforts like the ones described in Ms. Tabachnick's article, the kind that produce so-called documentaries like Waiting For Superman and relentless publicity about the failings of teachers and schools.

Well-heeled corporate interests are trying to get us to act against what we see with our own eyes in the mercenary interest of getting their hands on the billions of dollars we spend each year on education. Please don't be fooled. Trust your own experience. The promise of public education is being met in school after school across our nation from Columbia, SC to Seattle, WA. I may quibble here with the way we traditionally go about providing that education, I may want us to be doing it in a more progressive way, but I'll be the last one to say that we are failing. We are not failing. Teachers are teaching and children are learning.

Don't be afraid to put your kids on that bus. There are great teachers waiting for them at great schools. Trust yourself. Please don't be fooled.

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Anonymous said...

this was an excellent read

Anna G said...

thanks Tom!

Kierna C said...

You need to write a book! I find it interesting that almost 50 years on here in N. Ireland we are still segregating our education system on religious grounds. I, fortunately now teach in an integrated school, but grew up only knowing catholics. It is actually still possible to go straight through the system & go back to being a teacher having never met anyone from the other religion!

Jess said...

Damn straight, Teacher Tom.
I am sck of all the bashing and negative hype. People are being tricked and don't even realize it. I could cry.

Kimberly said...

Too bad Indiana recently passed a bill that would allow public funds to be used for private schools. Watch out for Indiana's governor Daniels who is seriously considering a run at the White House. Other than his crummy politics, I doubt he'd win his party's nomination solely based on his weasle-y looks alone...

Heather of WA State said...

I, too, experienced bussing for the first time as a 4th grader, going from Wedgwood Elementary down to Leschi in 1978. The school I left was already a rainbow of races and religions, and I never thought anything of it. The school I was bussed to was predominantly black, and the kids and families who went there were proud of their school and didn't want any white "honkies" messing things up, so we did not get a warm welcome, to say the least. It was "reverse racism" and tensions were high, and it was downright scary at times, for both sides. Most frightening for me was witnessing the parents (adults!) hurling insults and yelling at us little kids.

By middle school things had settled down race-wise, but the school district was in trouble financially and things were going downhill fast. Class sizes were exploding, teacher morale was low from RIFs and strikes, facilities weren't being maintained, and curriculum was out of date. I recall there being one text book for each 3 or 4 kids, having to negotiate who'd take it home on which day to get the homework done for the week.

After 9th grade at Garfield (which was not the magnet school it is today), I left home in search of a different school, one where money was being spent on teachers and materials instead of busses and lawsuits. I left a school with manual typewriters and arrived at a school with computers! Instead of just standard English, I could take Journalism, Creative Writing, or Literature!

For 3 years I worked multiple afterschool and weekend jobs to offset the cost of out-of-district tuition (it was a public school in another city) and a commute of 5 Metro buses daily.

So yes, I fled desegregation, but I did it not because of race or class, but because I wasn't getting the engaging education I needed. Had I not left the district, I likely would have simply dropped out.

I'm not big on vouchers, but I don't think "one size fits all" in education, especially as kids get older. I think there should be more options for all students, from foreign language immersion, to vocational trades. I'd like to see public schools diversify even more, especially at the middle and high school level. Kids need exposure to a broad spectrum of opportunities if they are to be inspired, feel challenged, and find their calling in life.

V. H. said...

Great post Teacher Tom! I just finished reading Diane Ravitch's book on the reforms to education and it was an eye-opener.