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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Perfect together: Right-wing scare mongering and education reforminess


This morning I read something that made me realize it’s time to stop beating around the bush in the discussion of education reform.

The reason right-wing Republican politicians love the education reformies - Michelle Rhee and her lot - is that they don’t place uncomfortable demands on society to confront not just the existence of poverty, but even more importantly, the segregation of poverty. Charter schools in poor urban areas, vouchers, school turnaround, tenure reform - they are reforms that keep the poor people right where they are - just shuffle ‘em around a bit and shake up their schools, safely within the confines of their own poor, urban neighborhoods.

And that suits right-wing politicians very well, because they’re busy pandering to suburban voters who are terrified of the prospect that their insular, white enclaves might be invaded by the dreaded other. I’m talking about the kinds of suburbanites (by no means all) who see the Mt. Laurel affordable-housing decision as some kind of socialist plot to redistribute the wealth perpetrated by a liberal elite by means of activist judges who  are really puppets of the International Workers Party. Sadly, there are still far too many people in New Jersey who don’t want THOSE people anywhere near MY house, MY school, MY family.

Most politicians are too savvy to come right out and say so, of course. Except for this guy from (aptly enough) Nutley, as reported in Blue Jersey:

Steve Rogers, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Essex County Board of Freeholders on a "too much government" platform, is one of the candidates for commissioner in Nutley...
A mailer received by most residents of Nutley in Essex County states several of Rogers positions using a combination of scare tactics while emphasizing his long career as a police officer. (Translation : the boogie man is going to get you and I'm the white knight to save you.) Made to look like a newspaper under the title "The Nutley Review" a banner headline proclaims "Controlling Property Taxes is Priority #1 For Rogers". ...
Alongside a stock photo of a foreclosed home, "Rogers Vows To Fight New State Low Income Housing Law." And it's here that we see Rogers toss handfuls of misinformation to cast a troublesome light on "the other" in an attempt at a power grab.  The low income housing law being considered will make use of some otherwise vacant houses and make them available for low income families. ...
Five paragraphs in, and dead center in the article, Rogers makes the point that low income families "include ex-criminals, the homeless, persons with AIDS-HIV, and those over 18 no longer eligible for foster care."...
The blow up quote at the bottom of the Rogers mailer reads "Hard working residents, who have spent their lives working to win and maintain a home will see the value of their house drop through the  floor when convicted drug dealers, thieves, and violent offenders move in next door." 

Get the idea? The scary urban poor are coming to get you!

Of course, the truth is that building affordable housing is a great solution to a host of problems and, when done correctly, does not have an adverse impact on the existing neighborhood, as demonstrated in a recent study of Mt. Laurel itself:

But the assumptions and fears fueling critics’ resistance is groundless, according to Douglas Massey, a Princeton professor who led a study of Mount Laurel Township and Ethel Lawrence Homes. Twelve years after Ethel Lawrence opened, Mount Laurel Township has experienced no increase in crime or decline in property values. The study did find that many of the hopes new residents carried with them into Ethel Lawrence — for better schools, a sense of safety and community — have been fulfilled.

There is ample evidence to suggest that socioeconomic integration is a more successful method of education reform than anything the reformies are pushing. It’s just that, politically, it’s a much harder sell. Sadly, on the right, where pandering to tea-party paranoia has become standard procedure, the defend-in-place doctrine of education reforminess is the perfect solution. It lets right-wing politicians make noises like they care about kids, education, poverty, etc - without doing anything that might piss off their hardcore voter base. Everything they want to do -- charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, tenure reform -- can be seen as part of a policy of containment, measures that do nothing to shift populations or change the underlying demographics. In other words, these measures keep poor black and Latino kids right where they are - Newark, Camden, Paterson - and way the hell away from the Republican voter base.

Christie likes to defend his reformy education policy by saying that “destiny should not be determined by zip code.” He and his buddies accuse opponents of reforminess of using poverty as an excuse for educational failure. But the Christie-Rhee brand of reform, which addresses only in-school factors and not the problems of the isolated, impoverished communities those schools serve, is like building a skyscraper on a foundation of sand. When the building falls, who in their right mind would hesitate to blame the sand?

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