Sunday, May 8, 2016

Fixing Our Education System: It's All About the "C" Word


The White House announced recently that President Obama's first born, Malia, would be entering Harvard in the fall of 2017.  She'll apparently be taking a year off after graduating from the prestigious Sidwell and Friends school in the suburbs of DC.  That the young Ms. Obama was and will be afforded the opportunity to attend such highly regarded educational institutions is a wonderful thing for her.  The education and training she has received and will receive will, no doubt, serve her well over the course of her life.  Such being the case, we should all, regardless of our race or class, be happy for her.  Sure, her family's financial means and considerable influence gave her an advantage that many of us will never know, but only the dishonest among us would openly argue that if we were in a similar situation we wouldn't use our resources to provide the best possible education for our children. 

That said, I have two groups to address en route to making my point.

To the so called privileged among us I say, if you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth, use it when it's time to eat.  Don't be ashamed of it.  Don't hide it.  And please don't resent either those that made the spoon available to you or those who openly resent you for your accident of birth.  The former only had your best interests in mind and the latter are misguided at best and guilty of covetousness at worst. In either case, the latter aren't worth the expenditure of even a single calorie of your energy.

To the not-so-privileged and their caretakers, I would say I understand your point if you feel slighted.  After all, you don't have the $39,360 needed for tuition (for 1 year) at Sidwell.  Still, shouldn't you have the opportunity to get a similar education?  Shouldn't you at least have adequate choices?  You obviously don't in most cases.  But why is that?  Well, because, as Mike Tyson's unexpectedly sage observation points out, "Everybody you fight is not your enemy and everybody that helps you is not your friend."

Let me try to explain that with a fresh example.  A recent headline from a prominent newspaper read, "The Union War on Charter School Philanthropists".  The article details how the efforts of some wealthy individuals are being thwarted and demonized by the education establishment.  Specifically, by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who went on the attack over money raised by Success Academy in New York.  Here are just a few facts about Success Academy and charter schools in general:

  • 75% of the students at Success Academy qualify for free or reduced price lunch
  • Almost 100% of the students at Success Adademy are minorities
  • In 2015, 68% of Success Academy’s students scored proficient and 93% scored proficient in math
  • In contrast, 35% of New York City students overall scored proficient in math and their reading scores were even worse
  • Nationally, Asian kids' average score on the SAT is 80 points higher than White kids and 200 points higher than black kids
  • Nationally, two thirds of parents favor charter schools
  • Nationally, the current charter school waiting list is 1 million kids long

Despite all that, Ms. Weingarten characterized Success Academy's (successful) effort at raising $35 million from private donors as, "...part of a coordinated effort to decimate public schooling,"  she also said, "Wealthy donors and their political allies are pushing unaccountable charter growth in urban centers while stripping communities of a voice in their children's education."

The indestructible truth about charter schools, which are run independently of school districts and city/county bureaucracies, is that they actually give parents a huge voice in their children's education. We all know money talks.  Imagine being able to take the public money that is spent on your child and using it at the school of your choosing rather than having the system place your child in a school based solely on your zip code - without regard to how well or poorly the school is performing.  

That's not to say that all charter schools have performed well because they haven't.  But those that don't perform close their doors because their funding dries up.  So imagine the impact that your ability to choose would have. Schools would either thrive and grow while fulfilling their educational missions or founder and go out of business.  And that is as it should be.  

What about the teachers in those schools that don't make it, you ask?  Well, the good ones, which I assume there are lots of, would be just fine since there would still be plenty of demand, and therefore plenty of opportunity, for good teachers in either the newly created charter schools or the surviving regular public schools.  The bad ones would have to find a new line of work.  And that is also as it should be.

Now here are a few questions.  Should we or shouldn't we be fighting wealthy donors who are trying to promote the growth of charter schools? Should we or shouldn't we be lining up behind people like Randi Weingarten who stand ready to help us maintain the status quo?  I know how I would answer.  And I know that somewhere around two thirds of the population agrees with me.  What I don't know is how the other third of the population reconciles being "for the kids" while either openly fighting against their interests or standing silent while the system continues to fail them en masse, and, in the process, condemns them to lives spent fighting uphill. Knowledge is the key to leveling the playing field.  If we want to close the inequality gap, we must address it where it first takes hold - in the classrooms of many of our public schools.  

By the way, the "C" word is Choice, not Charter.  Charter schools are just one option. Barack and Michele rightly exercised choice in sending Malia to a private school.  Then Malia chose to attend one the most elite post secondary schools on the planet. So again, Malia Obama's life will be just fine based on the early indications.  But what about Malia Jones?  She might not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth and might not have the kind of network capable of opening heavy doors for her, but that shouldn't mean the system and its interested parties get to make choices for her that she would not make for herself about where to attend school.  

I'd say Mike Tyson the philosopher hit this one on the head the way Mike Tyson the ex-champion used to hit boxers on the same body part.


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