The “School Choice” Conundrum

“It is best not to straddle ideals,” said FDR in his 1940 letter to the Democratic Convention. The letter was penned hastily as Roosevelt listened to convention proceedings from the Oval Office, understanding that his former vice president, John Garner, along with  a less liberal faction of the party looked to block: 1) his nomination for an unprecedented third term, 2) his pick for a new vice president (the more liberal Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace) and 3) his New Deal for pulling a nation out of The Great Depression. Knowing that the nation was desperate for a government to believe in, FDR was adamant: if you undermine my agenda and my VP nominee- I will not run again.  The letter never needed to be read at the convention because Eleanor, his amazing wife (which wives most often are) saved the day (as wives quite often do) with a direct, on point and hastily constructed message of her own, compelling the party to unite for their cause. You probably know that Roosevelt was nominated (along with his new Vice President), and was in fact nominated for and elected to a fourth term in 1944- the first and last time it ever happened in the United States.

One of my favorite comedians and thinkers on the current political climate is Jimmy Dore. Other than some occasional filthy language my kids might be exposed to, what he has to say bears great value. And in terms of the filthy language: I have trained my kids on how to hear it as well as how, when and why to use it. It doesn’t thrill my wife much, but it does lead to some great George Carlin-esque conversations with my oldest about the versatility of words like motherfucker, and with my daughters in general about “can use”, “try not to use” and “never use” words. Anyways, Jimmy Dore has said this about FDR:

“He brought us Social Security, The New Deal, put money in the pockets of workers, saved capitalism… ‘pie in the sky’. And they elected him president ’til he died. That’s what happens when you legislate with the people in mind, instead of the donor class in mind.” (Jimmy Dore on FDR, “Best of the Left”, 3/31/2017)

The “straddle” FDR feared was between what the party should stand for as a champion of the people and liberal and progressive values, stretched between what it can end up standing for when it sacrifices its values for the priorities of the donor class, some perceived practicality, and/or political gain, or just the weight of moral truths it is simply unwilling to confront. In his letter, FDR wrote:

The party has failed consistently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values.

“School choice” is faced with a similar straddle-dilemma. While the reform roosters crow and the “choice” hens cackle about the evils of unions, teachers, the middle class, the NAACP… anyone they can possibly think of to frame as enemies of the poor and explain why their movement falters-they fail to look down to where their feet are. For all of the bold talk about parent choice and parent rights that education reformers like to engage in, when it comes time for them to really plant their feet and stand for these families in ways that will make deep, systemic change possible and put truly better outcomes within  reach-where are they? They are straddled. One foot on their soaring narratives and the other on the limiting truths.

To explain:

You straddle when you first use “poverty is not an excuse” to shame schools and career educators while at the same time citing the lack of resources and the conditions our poorest are forced to live in as the impetus to “choicing” out to a “better” school to avoid some of the consequences of poverty. One is rhetorical, the other reflects some understanding of truth.

You straddle when you relentlessly beat the gong of high-stakes test accountability and also point the “prison pipeline” finger at schools and teachers, while at the same time defending or avoiding the practice of “choice” schools that manufacture enrollment and test/graduation results and sometimes push students out onto that so-called pipeline. In regards to this particular straddle: the former is specious scapegoating, the latter is convenient avoidance.

You straddle if you insistently defend the right of parents to have choice, and turn around and defend the right of “choice” schools to un-choose parents and children that don’t suit their agenda. I have actually had someone who adamantly claims an intent to protect the rights of parents and protect children respond to me, when I shared an account of a Florida parent being disrespected (and the needs of her child neglected) as the school tried to pressure her out with:

“Did you contact the school or take the parent’s word on faith?”

I had never before seen the priorities of a parent questioned by this person. Other than when parents decide not to surrender their children to the standardized testing and data collection industry, that is.

In the end, there really is no other choice, if the greatest good, true choice, accountability and best outcomes are the goals, than to provide resources and opportunities based on need. Abandoning the need-concept to serve the inequitable status quo (reliance on market principles and the “choice” attached) promotes artificial choice and personal profit. But the market and it’s protectors are entrenched in so-called education reform, and they continually attempt to subvert the greatest good of public education and replace it with individual allotments of “opportunity”.

Because of this, we can no longer completely separate politics from education. Our communities our children and our schools are owed so much more than the non-interventionist, sterile, four-walls and purely academic instruction of days long gone by. That approach simply prepared our youth to fill some awaiting slot in society and eliminated many from slots they might have claimed had a different educational approach been used. We need to think beyond the high-stakes testing blame and shame game that allows our leaders and their reform partners to avoid the true endeavor of public education.

Real reform needs to open the minds and eyes of our communities, empower them to be involved in education and in policy, and we owe it to learners to not be compliant with the status quo that has shown no loyalty to our communities. We owe the public more if we are going to do public education right.

And it isn’t even really about what anyone is owed- it’s what we need. Education is not just a preparation to serve the world that is, it’s casting critical light on the world that was, has been, and considering the world that might be- the world that we want it to be.

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