Louis Black’s education rant on the Daily Show last night included this: “Some cities are trying charter schools, which offer a better education, but only accept a few kids, a process highlighted in the new documentary, Waiting for Superman. And I'm all for it - so long as we make the selection process as public and cruel as humanly possible."
Leaving aside his assertion that charter schools “offer a better education” (he obviously didn’t do his homework on that topic), Black points out a glaring question raised by the film: Why the hell would you design a selection process to be “as public and cruel as humanly possible?” (The film follows several children who must sit through an excruciating public lottery that determines whether they’ll be admitted to a charter school. The emotional impact of the film, or so I’ve read, because I haven’t seen it, derives from the anguish of these kids and their families as they pin all their future hopes on this process, which, they are led to believe, will rescue them from the fate of a lousy public school education.)
Couldn’t they do the number-picking in a private setting and then just send people letters with the results? You know, the way they do it when you enter a contest or get chosen for an audit by the IRS?
One possible explanation comes to mind: In such a high-stakes situation, perhaps they want to make the process as public as possible in order to reassure people that it is being done fairly; that the people in charge - public officials and school administrators - aren’t rigging the results in some way, like, say, admitting students based on race, socioeconomic class, political affiliation, or even personal connections.
You know, the same kind of unfair practices that teachers’ unions were created to protect teachers from. The reason why tenure, with its due-process guarantees, was instituted - so that teachers couldn’t be fired arbitrarily or unfairly. And the reason why unions negotiate contracts that establish standards for evaluation, pay scale, benefits, work conditions, grievance procedures, hiring, and firing, rather than just leaving it all up to management to decide based on their good will.
Yeah, maybe the charter school lottery needs some rethinking, as do union contracts. But there’s a fundamental truth underlying the need for both: Power, when it is all on one side and it is wielded without transparency, is not to be trusted. Things like transparent, public processes and collective bargaining are designed to level the playing field and serve as checks against the kind of power wielded by administrators and officials. Sometimes those checks create unintended consequences and need to be re-examined, as when families are subjected to undue stress by an admission lottery, or when collective-bargaining agreements create fiscal difficulties because of an unexpected economic downturn.
Maybe, instead of making kids run a gauntlet for school admission, the charter schools could hold a lottery with a small, representative group of parents in attendance to ensure a fair process; maybe teachers need to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with the tighter budgets necessitated by a bad economy. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, as the anti-union charter movement aims to do when it touts the benefits of a non-union teaching staff. Will our schools be better learning environments when, without the benefits of collective bargaining, underpaid teachers with no job security walk into the classrooms? When teachers with more experience and higher pay are fired because it’s cheaper to bring in a younger person willing to work for less? When teachers feel pressured to present to their students only material deemed acceptable to their bosses? Will our kids get a better education when the tenor of the school is determined entirely by the personality of the administrator running it, because he or she has absolute, unchecked authority? And in the case of charter schools, which are not subject to the same oversight as public schools to begin with, what will happen when administrators are responsible not only to produce high test scores, but also a profitable bottom line?
Think I'm exaggerating what might happen if we were to allow an institution so central to the well-being of our society to be run autocratically, with no external checks? Imagine if you will what would happen if, say, regulators told the investment banks, which control most of the nation’s wealth, that they could go ahead and regulate themselves instead of being subject to the checks of a transparent, robust regulatory system in which the interests of all parties were protected.
Oh, wait. We tried that. Never mind.
(NB - I am not a teacher. I am not in a union. I’ve never been in a union. But my parents were both in the AFT, and my grandma was in the ILGWU, and my family certainly owes a lot to the union movement. Oh, and I’m not planning to see Waiting for Superman.)
(For an interesting read about the ups and downs of organized labor in American public education, check out “The Consequences of NCLB: The Demise of Labor-Management Partnerships for Reform and Hopes for Renewal,” published in the journal Perspectives on Work.)