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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Protect the Children

Protect the children from your incremental surrender and ignorance.

Invite them and their families into the schools you love and your children so enjoy as opposed to attacking their schools that are being left undermined and abandoned. Fight to have their neighborhoods safe, their families sheltered, their bellies full and their water clean. Use nonprofit millions- not to fund your agenda but to fund reading programs and become actively involved in a good food, great books and warm beds initiative that will help send more children ready to learn into the schools you are so eager to hold accountable (while you are so unwilling to share your own).

Do more than posture, preen and judge-otherwise you are worse than useless-you are an actual danger and the children need to be protected from you.

The NAACP Report and the Opposition to Better Schools for All

With the release of the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education Hearing Report  came an opportunity to move forward in an honest way to meet our education obligation to all children. This report followed the civil rights organization’s call for a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools last October. The moratorium was not a condemnation of charters, or government action or policy. It was just a “weighing-in” on the issue and an opinion on how we should move forward. Surprisingly, there was backlash to the NAACP’s call for better, and more honest school choice. Where does that come from, and why?

1. The NAACP Calls for Better Schools for All

First off, know that the NAACP has acknowledged the need for better schools to serve the neediest students in the most under-served areas, but felt the expansion of the charter industry should happen under the four conditions outlined in it’s moratorium:

  1. Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  2. Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  3. Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
  4. Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Far from refusal to support charter schools, or an undermining of quality education options for parents and children of color, these conditions advocate for the very things school choice proponents demand: transparency, accountability, commitment to the students being served… And since it’s common for pro-charter school and parent choice advocates to decry unacceptable “school to prison pipelines”, exclusion and/or segregation by zip code,  inability or unwillingness of traditional schools to provide services and resources, …I believed these four conditions would be embraced and there would be a united demand that policymakers step up and do right thing by all communities and all schools.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

2. The Opposition to Better Schools for All

There was no unity cry from the reform crowd. The conditions weren’t well-received by outspoken charter school defenders, but the criticisms they’ve mustered have been weak, circular, and unconvincing. To summarize the opposition to better schools for all:

1) You can say these bad things happen at charters, but you can’t really prove these things happen.

2) Okay yes, bad things happen at charters but those things happen at all schools.

3) Where has the NAACP been while parents and poor children of color are stuck in traditional schools that don’t serve them well?

4) Since the NAACP wants more honestly run charter schools, they must oppose poor parents of color and their children.

A closer look at these opposition points:

The “You can’t prove it” maneuver 

Most often this response refers to a supposed lack of evidence that charters are guilty of “creaming”, or the screening out, of lower performing students in order to bolster charter results by bringing in those more likely to perform well. This is a common allegation, and insinuated in the NAACP’s moratorium, but in his reaction to the NAACP Chris Stewart writes:

The NAACP implies that charters are “creaming”—screening out low-performing students in order to boost their overall test scores. Here again there may be anecdotes, but there is no data supporting this claim, and therefore no ability for the charter sector to “meet” this expectation.

The “no data” link is to one paper, which based it’s results partly on information gathered from one “anonymous major urban school district with a large number of charter schools”, and focused on one issue of why schools might pressure out students: because of grades or test scores.

The concern, though, isn’t about looking at a spreadsheet of test scores and selecting or de-selecting-it’s about an intentional design of a more subtle form of filtering up front, with more intentional exclusion/removal as a backup. According to the same “no data” paper:

If students are being pushed out, it is more likely to occur in subtle ways—for example, through counseling students and their families to seek a better fit for their needs or having more stringent disciplinary consequences or requiring certain commitments that are associated with higher student achievement such as family involvement and student attendance requirements.

The Conclusion section states:

Together, the ongoing debate as well as the previous research suggests that an aggregate examination of charter schools as well a more micro analysis of charter schools is warranted to inform whether the “push-out” argument could be a strong argument against charter schools in general and whether there should be greater scrutiny imposed upon individual charter schools, which could occur at the reauthorization of charter schools.

So on “creaming” and “pushing out”: to say that there is “no data” is misleading, and to follow up with “therefore no ability for the charter sector to ‘meet’ this expectation” is not a Perry Mason closing moment deserving the word “therefore” between the premise and conclusion . If we agree that “creaming” is wrong (Do we?), agreeing to not do it isn’t impossible. Imagine me saying “You can’t really prove I’ve ever stabbed a kitten before, so I have no ability to promise to not to do it in the future.” It’s not as if I have “no ability” to meet the no kitten stabbing expectation.

2) The Bad things happen at all schools gambit

“It’s wrong, but you do it so we can do it too,” just sounds bad to begin with. But it is a dishonest argument as well. Traditional schools do suffer from some unintended consequences of self-imposed (to an extent) and externally imposed burdens (both of which I am more than willing to admit and discuss) that limit the ability to serve all students in a way that meets their needs. I have watched as access to needed resources, personnel, and services gets further beyond reach and classroom teachers are expected to be more than just the teacher to students coming to school needing way more than to simply be taught. The economic, social and political forces are beyond the truly public school’s purview, without a loosening of the reins on the mission of public schooling. As is, schools are left to respond to the damage and hope students survive and maybe thrive.

But charters can under-serve or avoid serving some by internal and intentional design. Their model is to enroll students that simply need to be taught, do good work with them, and then wear the (hopefully) better stats as a comparative prize ribbon. Maybe some “See, we told you those schools are failing and we are better!” theater.

In terms of the “intentional design”, on the front “creaming” end where students are taken into a charter school: parents need to sign off/sign up to get their child into a charter school. The traditional, open-enrollment public school is the default compulsory public education option and if there is a child that doesn’t show up to the school he or she is linked to: a parent/guardian risks getting charged with educational neglect for truancy. So to actually remove a student from that option and enroll him/her in another school “choice” really does take some active parent choosing. Hopefully there is some research into the options, maybe there’s a lottery, a waiting list, a qualifying test score or principal recommendation, interviews and/or references… It takes some intent and the will to execute an enrollment plan; it takes awareness and motivation; and it takes parent involvement. It may take prerequisite student success/dedication and it most likely takes ongoing involvement.

Now while one weak-ass study that misses the mark to begin with is definitely no proof that “choice” schools don’t cream or do the choosing themselves to allow only the most likely to succeed, the one thing we definitely do know: Involved parents are likely to have more successful students.  Charter schools know it too, and must know that their selective schools benefit from this type of “creaming” because research  shows that, among many other positive impacts, when parents are involved:

  • Children tend to achieve more, regardless of ethnic or racial background, socioeconomic status, or parents’ education level.
  • Children generally achieve better grades, test scores, and attendance.
  • Children consistently complete their homework.
  • Children have better self-esteem, are more self-disciplined, and show higher aspirations and motivation toward school.
  • Children’s positive attitude about school often results in improved behavior in school and less suspension for disciplinary reasons.

For the pushing out or counseling out of students, it’s the “two wrongs make it right for us” defense. Students get suspended from traditional schools too, sure. But what, really, might get a student suspended or pushed/pressured out of a traditional school versus a charter school?

Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school…

As a career teacher in traditional schools I could tell you about kindergartners who come to school and to a general education classroom still pooping and peeing in their pants. They stay in school and for as much as possible in the general education setting because it’s the least restrictive environment. I could share stories about second graders who rage to the point of throwing chairs around and emptying the classroom for everyone’s safety, or about third graders threatening to stab another student, her family- and her cat (just for good measure, I suppose). They stay in the school and in classroom for as long as possible. I could tell you stories about parents who come to conference reeking of dope and asking if they could volunteer to come in to help sometimes because “they could use a little learnin’ too”, or custodial grandmothers who show up in the newspaper’s “police beat” for cooking meth and possession of heroin…I could tell you so much more. If you have never taught, or taught temporarily so you could pretend to understand teaching, you might not get this. If you don’t know what “mandated reporter” means, you might not get it either.

But then again, I am white, and have lived my whole life and taught in a  rural area. It might be that violence, crime and drugs are only a country-white problem that mostly impacts rural families, children and schools and isn’t really a problem for families with children in the cities and their schools. Help me out with this because I don’t know. What I do know is that highly promoted and praised charters have a very low tolerance for behaviors that are hardly even “on the radar” for public schools and  the seasoned teachers in them. As an example, note Alan Singer’s description of what a “violation” is at this “choice” school:

“Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school, to more serious Level 3 infractions like play fighting or repeated littering. The most serious Level 4 infractions include continued violation of the lesser misbehaviors, bullying, and “blatant and repeated disrespect for school code.” In-house and home suspension from school starts with Level 2 infractions. Penalties for “scholars” accused of Level 3 or Level 4 infractions include immediate expulsion from school.”

So parent involvement on the way in, strict student compliance- or you’re out. Should our “failing schools” adopt the more successful policies of this charter to be more successful? When choice advocates eagerly attach words like “results” and “high achieving”, why do they sometimes relish critical comparison to traditional schools while avoiding full disclosure of charter mechanisms?

 3) Where has the NAACP been?

I can’t answer this, and wonder why anyone asks. The economic and social crisis of class division and diminishing opportunities and returns has been been ongoing and the those with the least continue to suffer the most. Not coincidentally, it is the wealthiest who benefit the most and try to leverage their political voice and control to define “reform”. Do you think their goal is philanthropic and willing to give up any of their control or share; to empower either economically or politically a massive population waking up to how they have been and are being divided and exploited? To allow the middle class and lower classes to unite and demand real substantive reforms?

While even “school choice” advocates are starting a soft-sell of their own version of segregation (or separation), and while filtering away students with involved parents and the ability to adhere to draconian conduct policies can create some stats that investors like and politicians can ride during campaign season, we have to ask what the overall benefit of separating students based on their personal resources is, and if we shouldn’t be demanding more economic and social support for integration. Not necessarily based on race, because it seems a hard sell and I see little belief that that is an achievable goal in the nearest possible future- but integration based on poverty and economic status. In this Frontline interview, Richard D. Kahlenber explains:

It was always that low-income students of all races do better in an economically mixed environment. … Their classmates had parents with higher education levels, which was related to higher aspirations. In middle-class schools, parents usually have more flexible jobs so they can volunteer in the classrooms. They have cars to get to PTA meetings. … [Meanwhile],  when you integrated low income and working class African-Americans and whites, there were no achievement gains.

We all benefit from having a higher education level among all students, and we want to tap into the talents of low-income students, African-American, Latino, Asian and white students. And we all, as a society, benefit when those investments are made.

 4) Who really opposes the empowerment of poor people of color, The NAACP or the millionaires and billionaires controlling policy and defining the parameters of “reform”?

You have to know that this kind of childish attack gets us nowhere if doing right by children is the goal. So if you want to talk about opposing poor parents of color and their children, there are far deeper, more endemic and systemic harms being done and/or being ignored. As rich white guys make millions and billions steering public policy and weighing in on how exactly how and what the poorest people need to learn and do to be “ready”, they also benefit enormously from:

  1. Taking and sending jobs and resources out and away from our poorest communities and families,
  2. Using their political leverage to segregate populations, isolate resources, gentrify neighborhoods and further limit opportunities,
  3. Numbing the collective mind of our nation with perpetual soul rotting media, junk food, and disposable, consumable technology and goods that keep us perpetually spending, wasting, replacing…
  4. Polluting our air, water, food and souls while ensuring that their corporations are seen as people, their money as speech and our interests and votes mean little in the end.

“God is watching,”  a wise man once said, noting how we have tainted children’s water with lead.

So, with God watching (if you believe he is):

If we are going to do education reform, school choice, accountability, and do them right, there is much more important work to do than helping the wealthy tear down what is left of the middle class, public institutions, a profession, unions… There is a better path than letting millionaires, billionaires point away from their greed and deciding for us what the poor will be allowed. Instead of letting a charter industry protect it’s interests, let’s provide parents with honesty and simple information about charter schools, and create charter schools that serve any child who might attend them.