Sunday, September 29, 2013

Giving All Children an Excellent Choice

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.  -John Dewey

It's ironic that the new charter school about to be approved by Ball State University to open in our town is doing so in the name of "social justice." Here is their vision statement:
"At Green Meadows Charter School, students, teachers, and parents foster respect, reverence and love for people and the natural world.  At our school, all relationships are grounded in respect and reciprocity.  Our students are infused with a sense of social justice and environmental sustainability.  Every person at Green Meadows is loved and respected and shares his/her gifts, talents, and interests with the larger community.  Everyone at our school experiences freedom and security to safely explore and question.  Igniting and stoking our students', teachers', and parents' passion for learning is imbued in our school's culture."  
It sounds amazing.  Who wouldn't want this for their children? And are we to infer or juxtapose this vision with our neighborhood public schools and assume that our public school doesn't foster respect or love for people?  This is, after all, presumably one of the reasons parents are seeking this choice. They are selecting the community that matches their values and needs.

I know that these are thoughtful and loving parents who choose charter schools.  That is the whole reason why they are seeking the best possible placement for their children.  That is why they are going to the trouble of applying, getting them on a waitlist for the lottery to get in, finding transportation and care for them when their schedules/breaks are different from the public schools, etc.   I am not saying that they are terrible people.   I understand that parents have their reasons for seeking alternatives.  We should not get bogged down in the fighting of my-school-is-better-than-your-school.  It’s unproductive.  

The frustration for me, however, is that many of the reasons that they give for leaving public schools are the direct result of the top-down "reforms” many of us have been actively fighting:.  For example, they want smaller class sizes and more individual attention for their children.  They want less emphasis on test results and, thus, less test prep.  They want freedom within the curriculum for their children to find and follow their passions.  But you know what?  These are the same things that parents in the public schools want for their children.

And here is the problem.   Every kid that leaves our public school system now takes with him or her the per-pupil funding.  This, in turn, leaves our public schools with fewer resources and holes to be patched. Choices have to be made for where to cut and, because the vast majority of the budget goes toward salaries, it will likely be teachers.  In attempts to keep class sizes down, it will probably be a teacher seen as more expendable (defined: teaching something not on the state-mandated tests). And this will likely mean art, music, gym, or librarians. This might mean our extracurricular activities: band, Science Olympiad and other programs will have to go by the wayside. 

Before another charter school is established, siphoning more money and engaged families from our public schools in the name of social justice, let’s ponder that meaning.  Let us pause and think about this before we continue to spread our limited resources on yet another charter school.  

A “socially just” society is usually thought to be based on the principles of equality and solidarity.  What kind of solidarity does taking away more funding and engaged parents from the public schools show the children in poverty, children of single mothers holding down two jobs or even my own privileged, well-cared-for, comfortable children, when their art teachers are taken away so that a few kids can have the opportunity for smaller class sizes and individual music instruction?  

To be sure, this is not a new debate.  There has always been choice in education:  between public schools, private schools and even home schooling.  We have also struggled to bring equity to public education.  The segregation of neighborhoods and districts, the abandonment or "white flight" of our urban areas, have always been a struggle within a system purporting to offer equal opportunity.  Vouchers began with Brown v. Board of Education when parents did not want their children attending school with those kids.  They “chose” something else.  But now, thanks to the system of funding, the debate has shifted in difficult and more troubling ways.  That is because our schooling choices, those effectively opting out of public schools, will directly hurt the choice for the kids remaining in public education.  And that is where our democracy suffers. 

It's a danger to our democracy that we abandon the public school system under the guise of choice. Public charters, regardless of their label "public", play by different rules (like setting limits for class size/enrollment), are not under the authority of the local school board, and take funding and engaged families from the public school system.   If those of us who are engaged as parents and citizens continue to abandon public schools for charters, home school or private schools, what kind of public school system will remain?  Have we strayed so far from democracy as an ideal that we are willing to abandon our "commons" completely?
Liberty (or choice, I would say) within a democracy is usually qualified to be okay as long as you are not infringing on the rights of another.  Do all children have the right to a high quality education?  Liberty in a democracy also involves responsibility.  Is it only individual responsibility (I need only take care of my own) or is there a collective responsibility, too? 

I am with John Dewey on this one:  every child should have free, excellent schools.  We owe it to all children to support public education and to see to it that all kids have the "freedom and security to safely explore and question" and to find and share their gifts with the community as Green Meadows Charter School promises to do. The choice of another charter school, however, takes away the choice from a child in public school. It is how this competition works. Someone loses.  In this case, children will lose.  The community loses.  And we as democratic citizens will definitely lose.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Does Democracy Not Count When Your Candidate Loses?

The last time we posted on this blog, it was to report back about the state board meeting in August.  The time before that, it was to report on the July board meeting and what we called "a coup d'etat" naming Dan Elsener the ghost superintendent or education czar.  Today we have an excellent post on yesterday's board meeting and the theme of power grabs, with Dan Elsener at the center, continues.

Indiana Coalition for Public Education- Monroe County's very own Jenny Robinson made the trip up to Indianapolis to testify.  ( Note: ICPE member Bonnie Fisher also testified! Yea for civic engagement!)

Here is her summary of that event:

Mike Pence doesn't get it.

The arrogance and contempt that the appointed members of the State Board of Education are showing toward the elected state superintendent are well on their way to becoming a political liability.  In the meeting on September 4, board of education member Dan Elsener sprang a proposal on Ritz in the board comment period--a proposal to give a committee headed by himself the power to do strategic planning for the Department of Education.  He presented it in an aristocratic mumble, without making eye contact, as if he couldn't be bother to enunciate clearly.  He nested it inside generic accolades for Indiana's academic achievements and couched it in terms of giving the state superintendent the support she deserves.  Right.  That's support like a dagger in the back.  Should we give Elsener some credit for not pretending too hard, or was the thinly veiled insolence part of his strategy? He brushed away Ritz's objection that the rushed motion violated protocol.  Board members promptly passed it.

Dan Elsener was appointed to the state board of education by Mitch Daniels to support the Daniels/Bennett reform agenda, and reappointed by Pence.  He used to be executive director of the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation (yes, that's the Christel of Christel House that Tony Bennett altered the state grading system in order to protect).  He's now the president of Marian University, and his biography on that college's web site states that he "has dedicated his professional life to the mission of Catholic education." His position of influence on the state board is serving that purpose well as Catholic schools constitute an overwhelming majority of voucher recipients.  How did he get the authority to set the agenda for public K-12 education in the state of Indiana, instead of the superintendent of public instruction elected by 1.3 million Hoosiers? He's committed to all the reforms that Ritz ran against--the A-F system, IREAD3, the sanctity of ISTEP and testing regimens in general.  Republicans need to think about how to explain this to their constituents, because it doesn't look good.  What it looks like, frankly, is spitting in voter's faces.

New board member Andrea Neal provided some much-needed comic relief when she discussed problems she sees with revised social studies standards.  She said she detected bias creeping in, and gave as examples standards that suggested students should understand 1) that entrepreneurs seek profit, and 2) the problematic nature of manifest destiny.  Her suggested correction for this "bias" was to submit the standards to the Fordham Institute, a right-wing think tank, to review line-by-line.  I guess that would be a good way to get an A+ from Fordham--a goal Neal stated that Indiana should pursue.  Ritz replied that Indiana's standards are developed by Hoosiers for Hoosiers, not outsourced, and that the DOE follows a careful protocol for standards development.  She stated this strongly yet respectfully.

As board members power-grabbed, Ritz consistently showed thorough understanding of the DOE's work and processes; she also showed grace under fire.  As an Indiana voter and public school parent, I felt proud of our selection for state-level education leadership.  In sidelining Ritz, the Republican leadership seems to be wishfully thinking away the results of the last election.  Does democracy not count when your guy goes down? Pence needs to explain how this works to Ritz voters.  There are lots of us--100,000 more than voted for him."

It's not enough for us to sit in anger and let it turn inward to depression. We must act.  Please talk to your neighbors and friends. Write to Pence and the state board members to express your outrage and articulate your concerns. Write to newspapers to help the general public understand this power grab.  But know this: someone said once that you can't change politicians' minds; therefore, you must change politicians. We need to vet real pro-public education candidates for 2014 and rally around those who have already thrown their hats in the ring.  This is political and this is personal.  Join Indiana Coalition for Public Education (in Monroe County, download this form to be a local and state member).  Advocate and speak up. Despite what Mike Pence and the board may think, this is still a democracy.  Your strongest voice will be your vote.