“School choice” where pragmatism and propaganda collide.

Recently, the word “pragmatic” came to me in a reply to a brief twitter conversation. It was used by the author (I consider tweeting to be authorship) as a qualifier for good education policy/solutions. Essentially, that is a “What should we realistically expect  to get for our poorest and most under-served children, I mean really” (pragmatic) presentation of a “What efforts can I promote to stroke an image or agenda?” (propaganda) position.

But I don’t think a pragmatic settling for less should be the “go to” when it comes to improving outcomes for children. That’s like surrendering and accepting the attacks on children’s minds, bodies, hearts and souls coming from all directions, shrugging off the losses incurred, all while patting yourself on the back for any opportunistic half-effort made within that paradigm.

In education, that half-effort is called “school choice”.

Often, the framing of the school choice issue is that privileged families have all the choice they want, so why shouldn’t others who need it get choice as well? In that narrative, the lucky ones wander the vast school-scape looking for whatever school they want for their children and are just given access to the most fabulous schools and teachers they manage to find. The least privileged, on the other hand, are trapped where they are, in the sinking ship of failing schools manned by bad teachers, denied the freedom to wander that school-scape to choose the schools they want.

I am not so certain that privileged people wander around choosing schools. I am more inclined to believe that their schools end up having better outcomes because of the resources and stability within the communities they are in. When communities are oppressed, abandoned by the world around them, economically deprived and lacking in cohesive personal and social supports, the negative impacts compound in ways that carry over into the schools trying to serve the children living there.

So it’s no surprise that parents seek escape for themselves and seek schools less impacted by these forces for their children. Because that demand is there, it also isn’t a surprise that a market of educational lifeboats (i.e. charter schools) would arise to rescue them. Something has to be done, and as a wise man once wrote:

“ending poverty and integration are politically difficult and financially expensive goals at a time when political courage is in short supply and many elected officials – especially on the right – seem intent on starving government”

We can see this reality play out now in the current Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Leaders of the party that were once the party of the working class, the party that preserved the social safety net, now demonstrate a disdain for the working class and the poor and look to undermine and block candidates trying to pull the party of the pretend left back to the actual left. Education policy has been victimized by that rightward lean for some time, and that has led to an approach that favors free-market style solutions rather than a call to the moral and social obligations of public education.

It boils down to social and political thought that not only holds the reins of power, but has become captured by and enraptured with the wealth equals value mindset-the notion that the more money someone has or the more money something can make, the more valuable to us all it is. This fuels a bottom lines (dollars) and test scores (data) approach to school reform and school choice that deflects attention from the human condition and holds educators responsible for numbers on paper, not the actual little human beings in classrooms, in schools, in communities ignored by policymakers unwilling to address the human condition because of their lack of political courage.

Billionaires who like being looked to as authorities on how we can all be better (like them) like trapping people in that mindset. Politicians like helping to impose that mindset on the electorate because it keeps millions of people who deserve to be represented chasing the visions, policies and mandates advised by the fewest people with the most money, which is now equated with speech, and political math is simple on this matter: more money buys you more speech.

And that’s how we end up with propaganda. It’s “failing schools”. It’s “bad teachers” protected by unions and just riding it out for their cushy pensions. Funny, it never seems to be lead in the drinking water, over-policing in struggling communities, lack of health care, jobs that pay so little that it keeps parents out working instead of home hugging…

Pragmatically speaking, the response might be, how can you honestly represent and fight for the needs of the many in the current paradigm, we might as well just let them make their own schools. I am one hundred percent in favor of choices but when you start to qualify/quantify by applying words like realistic, scalable, pragmatic… Then the underlying message seems to be We can’t really do what we should for all, so let’s just do what we can for who we can. What kind of choice is that?

Is there a merit badge for surrender?

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