“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?

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.

Teachers Save Children

Imagine a war zone.

The medics put themselves into the battle, willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause and trying to protect the innocents who are in harm’s way; treating the ones harmed. Of course there are casualties, and there are wounded.

Poverty is like war.

What it does to people, families, and children especially, is like they have been wounded and are being wounded. The deeper the poverty, the deeper the wounds and the more desperate the people trapped in that war zone. What happens to people, and what desperate people trapped in poverty find themselves needing to do to survive are things educators are made well aware of if they are serving that population. In the poorest of communities, the wounds tend to be deeper, more pervasive, fall on children the heaviest, and get more concentrated in classrooms filled with these young bodies and minds coming into school from those homes and those hoods. Traditional public schools, and public school teachers have open doors and open classrooms to take in those “wounded” from the community, regardless of the condition they arrive in. Without a doubt, bad outcomes are more concentrated in areas more impacted by poverty.

In the poorest of communities, the wounds tend to be deeper, more pervasive, fall on children the heaviest…

It’s seems as if everyone actually in the battle, serving students, is aware, while the armchair education “experts” preaching reform from the outside have no clue-or worse, pretend to have no clue. What definitely doesn’t help is when these experts deny the impact of the poverty while wasting their clout and energy trying to undermine the public servants actually in the battle.

Now I’m not trying to shame anyone at all, just instigate a better conversation. Airlifting some selected and non-critically wounded to a safe zone removed from the front lines, administering first-aid and distributing water bottles in the cool shade of evacuation tents is also a part of caring for the wounded. And a hearty slap on the back, a big jerky Trump handshake and a merit badge for supporting positive outcomes for those who got to ride your helicopters and get some R&R because you are due. But it would lean into arrogance to scoff at the survival statistics of the medics on that front line who are treating critically wounded as bullets fly and shells explode nearby-the same way it is arrogance to smugly use “poverty is not an excuse” as a bullshit accusation/catchphrase and use graduation rates and test scores when promoting schools that draw out a selective sampling from poverty; shameful to puff your chest and strut, comparing those stats removed from the front line and under the shady tent-the same way it is shameful to stroke one school’s reputation with stats generated from a manufactured enrollment compared to an open-doors, traditional school.

…it would lean into arrogance to scoff at the survival statistics of the medics on that front line who are treating critically wounded as bullets fly and shells explode nearby…

Maybe replacing draft-dodging from the real war(s) with brave, honest and transparent choices is where the NAACP was coming from with their moratorium on charters.

No fear: the helicopters and tents are needed and there are edupreneurs willing to invest. Serving in that capacity is a choice for those seeking the merit badge-just remember that choice doesn’t exist for the front-line medics.

Those real soldiers will battle on.