Education advocacy–and I’m talking mainly about the debate on charter schools, vouchers, and tracking school progress (aka accountability)–deserves your attention. It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard or what you think you know, sit back and take a look at what’s happening nationally and in your own backyard. Too many people get their information from one side of the debate or the other. I am not without bias, but will try to lay out the facts.
Education reform (known as ed reform) is a movement led by a small group of people focused on creating non-traditional educational options in high needs school districts. Too often, the people who are affected the most aren’t even in the room as decisions are being made.
Charter schools are non-traditional public schools. Non-traditional in the sense that these schools have their own board and oftentimes have programs that are available in traditional schools.
Vouchers are actual checks that follow students to a private school of choice. This concept is virtually new to Tennessee and is currently offered to students with special needs.
And we track school progress by looking at things like student test scores, graduation rates, and how much students are growing academically. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on charters and vouchers as these offsprings of choice create a lot of noise in Nashville and throughout the country.
The Fight Around Us
There is a ferocious education battle in every major city in America and I have expended a lot of space to the Battle at School Choice between the anti-charter crowd and ed reformers in Nashville. As best I can tell, the core of the fight (as seen on Twitter) is money. Those against charters are opposed to money leaving traditional public schools to go to schools that are both publicly and privately funded.
Meanwhile, ed reformers seek out opportunities to launch a school, generally in urban districts with failing schools. As in Nashville’s case, these reformers mostly come from other places and set up shop, using resources (time, people, money) to deploy marketing tactics (digital and door-to-door campaigns) to recruit families.
What’s most interesting about the debate is the demographics of the debaters in comparison to the demographics of the intended targets. Most of the anti-charter traffic (again, on Twitter) come from white, middle/upper class, and well-educated women and men with children in public schools. Nashville ed reformers are generally white, well-educated out-of-towners. The group for which they are fighting are children and families of color and in poverty.
Dr. Chris Emdin, associate professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood and The Rest of Y’all, Too, recently gave a SXSW (South by Southwest) talk. In it, Dr. Emdin imparts 50 minutes of superfood for the soul using A Tribe Called Quest’s latest project as his framework. Sharing their take on the politics of the day in the track The Space Program, Tribe says “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.” Truth.
The whole education battle is paternalistic, indeed. I’m sure most are well-meaning, but too often the debate blurs into a toxic combination of ideology and self-interest. Other times it’s a simple battle of wit – who can bitch the best in 140 characters or less. Meanwhile, there are children waiting in the margins whose outcome is dependent upon a great education.
The paternalism and borderline hypocrisy smacked me in the face just last week while sitting in a hearing room at the Tennessee legislature waiting to hear the fate of a voucher bill in the House Education Committee. Sitting amongst a group of Shelby County parents, teachers, and students adorned in blue shirts and anti-voucher stickers, I had a chance to speak with a couple of the protestors before the session.
The first person I spoke with was a white mother from Germantown, TN, a swank suburb of Memphis, who has a child enrolled at the performing arts school there. The second person I spoke with was a black mom, who is a teacher and union board member. Both women were seriously opposed to vouchers forcing me to assess the situation from a different lens.
Here were two educated middle class women (three including me), with the wherewithal to navigate the system to benefit their own children, yet speaking fervently against an option that could possibly help our most vulnerable population. Yeah, “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.”
Paternalism and the Belief Gap
I think about my own family members raising grandchildren amongst the most dire of circumstances and I see the challenges. Witnessing mothers and grandmothers masterfully juggling work and family with few resources. So I get that adding just one more thing that isn’t food, clothing, or shelter is too much. Still, we must believe that parents in difficult situations want the best for their child and it’s the duty of those with resources to get the information to them so they may make their own decisions.
We must believe in them to combat influential naysayers like Tennessee lawmaker Rep. John DeBerry, a black legislator representing Memphis who believes “We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed.”
The representative’s clumsy attempt at respectability politics perpetuates paternalism and the idea that parents living in a certain income bracket and parents of color are unconcerned about their children’s educations. Additionally, and tragically, this harmful thinking by state leaders trickles down to district and school levels widening the belief gap: the space between what students can achieve and what others believe they can achieve. (h/t Education Post)
There’s enough blame to go around, but that doesn’t help children in need of high quality education answers today. What is helpful is to actually take a trip into the lives of those for whom we are fighting. Go to the parents and grandparents whose education decisions have been made for them by where they live and through the advocacy and opposition of decisions made on their behalf.
As Charlie Friedman, Nashville Classical charter school leader recently stated, “you actually have to go ask the parents what they think.” Yeah, that’s something even A Tribe Called Quest could appreciate.