While we focus intently (and rightfully) on the needs of marginalized children, we assume things are all good for students from middle-class white families. That assumption masks challenges that some of these families have getting the educational opportunities that are right for their students. So says long school reform activist Dmitri Mehlhorn in this guest post.
Of course, they contacted the principal right away.
Their son – call him John – loves math. John had always earned top grades in math, so he applied to join the elementary school’s specialized math program. Shortly thereafter, the principal sent John’s parents a generic email rejecting his application. John’s parents replied with a friendly note asking how the decision had been made. They wanted to give John some feedback in case he wanted to try again.
The principal’s email response began by flatly stating that the decision would not be reconsidered. The next few sentences generically described a process based on tests and faculty judgment. The final line of the email reiterated that the decision was final.
My friends, John’s parents, were shocked. Public school alumni themselves, they had been committed to sending their kids to public school. They had considered the reputation of local schools when picking where to live. As successful professionals, they felt sure they’d be able to engage with the local school bureaucracy as needed. They were totally unprepared when that bureaucracy refused to admit the possibility of error; refused to give them voice in John’s education; and refused to even give concrete suggestions for how John could succeed. Next year, John will be attending private school.
Sadly, my friends’ experience is not unusual. Parents look out for their kids. In a wealthy area, you’d think that white, upper-middle class parents who share a language, culture, and race with their kids’ admins and teachers would find ways to make the bureaucracy work. Yet I live in Fairfax County, by reputation one of the best public school systems in the United States, and I hear stories like this all the time. Parents see kids assigned to the wrong teachers for them, or the wrong pedagogy or curriculum, and try to fix it. They ask for more rigor, different approaches, and sometimes even more tests – but get stonewalled. Customization and choice create too much administrative headache. So many parents leave the system, choosing to double-pay (once in taxes, and again in private tuition) to get programs tailored to their kids.
I say this as a K-12 veteran. My parents are public school alumni, loyal to public schools. My mom was a public school teacher, with friends and relatives throughout the public school system. Unfortunately, Washington Elementary School in 1970’s Richmond, California, used a lecture-based format that suited me poorly. At the end of my kindergarten year, my teacher informed my family that I would need to repeat kindergarten because I failed “chair-sitting.” My parents, with difficulty, scraped together the money to send me to a Montessori school in a neighboring city. The Montessori approach suited me so well that when I returned to public school after three years, rather than being a grade behind, I was a full grade ahead of my former classmates. After two more years of elementary school, my parents moved to a better neighborhood so I could attend Adams Junior High. Two years later, my mom’s knowledge of our district’s limited choice system allowed me to pick electives that allowed me to attend El Cerrito High School (rather than the default high school into which I was zoned).
Someone looking to defend the neighborhood school model might point to me as a case study. I spent 9 years in K-12 public schools, got good scores, and went to college. But my parents had to use every tool at their disposal. Along the way, they read to me, did math with me, built models with me, and enrolled me in afterschool and summer school enrichment programs. They moved homes. They worked the bureaucracy. When all else failed, they made sacrifices to send me to a private school for three critical years.
My parents’ story is frustrating. So is John’s parents’ story. So are the stories of many others in similar situations. But none of those stories make me really mad. After all, the middle class white parents ultimately found ways to make things work.
What makes me really mad is when I think about a girl – call her Sally – that I know from the local intramural soccer team. Sally is a fantastic kid. She’s hardworking, smart, athletic, and polite. But her parents don’t have many tools with which to advocate for Sally. They do not speak English. They live in a small apartment. They do not have a car. They do not have email. They work multiple jobs to stay afloat. During the 13 years spanning Sally’s kindergarten through twelfth grade, the question is not whether the neighborhood schools will fail Sally; unfortunately, the question is when, how often, and how badly. Will she make it? Or, like many of the kids with whom I went to school, will she fail to graduate – or perhaps scrape through graduation but fail to live long enough to attend her 10th high school reunion?
The monopoly K-12 school system – the neighborhood school system – is an unyielding bureaucracy. We try to pretend it’s not so bad. Heck, we trust our kids and our taxes to the system – acknowledging the problems would create cognitive dissonance. So we take comfort that the vast majority of individual teachers and administrators who want students to succeed. But the proof of the failure of the system comes in the behavior of middle class white parents, including public school teachers themselves. In addition to paying more in K-12 taxes than any society in human history, American parents with resources go to enormous lengths to overcome the system’s casual but brutal oppression. For students whose parents who don’t have those extra tools, the system is as deadly as the police and prison bureaucracies that it feeds.
Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud
My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.
My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.
I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.
Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?
Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.
I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.
Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.
Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.
In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.
a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.
And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.
“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.
Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.
The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.
And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.
But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.
And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.
Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!
Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!
Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.
So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?
According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”
His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.
“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.
See his powerful speech below.
It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education
The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.
I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.
In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.
Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.
Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.
“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.
Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:
People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.
If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?
Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”
Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.
During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.
Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”
Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:
…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.
Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically, the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?
Again, only she can say.
In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.
In supporting Pataki’s push she said:
It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.
Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?
Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.
Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:
Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.
If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.
But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.
Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.
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