I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What "Reform" Is Really All About

Let's put it all together, shall we?

Consider these pictures:
Chris Christie at the Robert Treat academy, his favorite charter school. See the uniforms?

The red lines are charter schools - the higher the bar, the greater the number of kids in poverty.

I am fascinated by the fact that so many charter schools instantly gravitate toward school uniforms. It's as if they want to garner the trappings of private schools. And, like, private schools, the population of the school does not reflect that of the overall community.

Now, keep that in mind as we listen, once again, to our buddy Derrell Bradford:

Last night, Bradford explained to the somewhat hostile and, at the very least, riled audience that he grew up in South Baltimore, setting of  HBO’s “The Wire,” and was saved from the ghetto through circumstances beyond his control, namely a scholarship to a successful – and, yes, predominantly white – private school.
He tried to explain to the crowd the pressure that suburban parents can put on public schools to perform better just by the nature of their ability to afford the alternatives, private and parochial schools. Urban parents don’t have the same means, he said, and therefore lack the same leverage for excellence.
“People with money don’t want. They don’t have this conversation,” he said; not in places like Short Hills. They just pull their kids out, and either the schools get better or they lose population and funding; usually it’s the former, since the next line of parents are still stomping one foot with the other one already out the door.
(I don't like getting this personal, but Bradford brought up his own background, so it's fair game. Here we go:)

So, Derrell was "saved" by getting into an affluent white school. And his solution for select black kids is to replicate his experience, but on a broader scale, and on the cheap: recreate the white, private school experience - uniforms and all - and isolate the part of the school population that can have success in this environment. Everyone else is on their own.

Now, that sounds pretty harsh when I put it in those terms, but there it is. And it explains why Chris Christie will not - indeed, can not - release the data that shows that charters serve different populations than neighborhood schools.

But it goes further. Both Christie and Bradford hammer the point over and over that the problems of urban schools are due to "bad" teachers protected by their "bad" unions. But Bradford himself says that it is the overall environment of the community that demands that the schools perform. Take away that environment, and the school fails. Doesn't that suggest that the problem is not in the school - it's in the community?

I hasten to point out that the teachers in the 92% of successful NJ schools are just as unionized as the teachers in "failing" schools. In many ways, the unions in the suburban schools are far more powerful than those in the cities, at least as it concerns looking out for their members' interests.

And the parochial schools provide plenty of opportunities for urban kids to go to private schools if the families have a middle-class income. In many ways, the opportunities to go to private school are better in the cities; it's not like are all that many parents in Bridgewater who can afford to send their kids to Pingry.

So, no, I don't buy into this notion that the limited private school choices in the 'burbs are driving the performance of the schools. Middle class folks scrimp and save to be able to afford to live in Cherry Hill and Berkeley Heights so they can avail themselves of those excellent school systems - they don't have extra cash lying around to use to send their kids to Peddie on a whim.

Instead, the communities demand excellence from the public schools, give them the resources they need (at least they did up until now), and set up family and community structures for their children to succeed. People move away from communities where those things are not available to communities that share their values when they can afford it.

Don't believe me? Go house hunting in the 'burbs some time. The first thing your realtor will show you is school SAT scores, college admissions rates, and district profiles. Says it all, doesn't it?

So we now have a choice: we can take kids from the cities who have the family structure and/or personal characteristics that will allow them to succeed in school, and remove them from those who do not. We'll either pay to isolate them into their own schools where their families can create their own communities (private school vouchers), or we'll move them into communities who have developed those values (OSA district choice), or we'll create new schools for them (charters).

If you can make it there, great. If you can't - well, sorry kid. Good luck. Oh, and if some people make big bucks by turning our schools into the defense contractors of the 21st century - well, that's just the cherry on top, ain't it?


We can rebuild the communities where these children live. We can demand that everyone have the opportunity to do meaningful work at a decent wage. We can do what every other country in the developed world does, and guarantee good health care (considering they all pay about half of what we do, we could also save a ton of money). We can provide human services and public safety and infrastructure and all of the other things communities need to thrive. We can move beyond flaccid condemnations of racism and refuse to tolerate institutional prejudice (the toughest nut to crack, I know).

In other words - we can create communities where good schools can flourish.

And we can transform public school teaching as a career by stopping the intrusion of know-nothing corporatists into our education system. We can make teaching an honored profession by paying people well to do the toughest teaching jobs, and creating job conditions so good that it will be well worth it for the best and the brightest to take on this challenge.

It wouldn't hurt to also start to change our society's broader values so that these same best and brightest don't continually get the message when they are young that their value as human beings will be judged solely by their bank accounts.

I vote for the second choice. And don't tell me "we just don't have the money." That's absolutely untrue. The middle class need not pay a dime more for this transformation if we would just return to the tax rates on the wealthy we had 50 years ago.

That was a time when the promise of America looked like it could really be fulfilled. We were getting ready to shake off our racism and our sexism and our homophobia and start living up to our potential. We were going to go to the moon and feed the world and bring peace and democracy to both our home and abroad. 

We got sidetracked - Ike warned us, and we didn't listen. Time to make amends. Let's start by rejecting this false "reform" of our schools and addressing the real problems of our age.

ADDING: A short back-and-forth with Bruce Baker makes me realize that, given the way I've written this, I may have given the impression that I am giving the 'formers their premise: that charters and privates are automatically better than urban pubic schools. That is, of course, ridiculous: there are plenty of failed charters and privates out there.

So, it's even worse than saving some kids and abandoning others: the 'formers want to move kids out of failing neighborhood schools and put them into failing charters and privates.

1 comment:

thinker said...

Thank you for presenting an alternative to the self-destructive track that America seems to be on these days. It gives me hope that if someone else can see it, maybe all is not lost.