Search This Blog

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's time for parents to stand up - before public schools are reformed to death

I never intended this blog to be all about New Jersey education, but lately I can’t seem to help myself. Understandable, I guess, what with having three kids in a Jersey public school.

What really gets me going is the way Governor Chris Christie has decided to stir the education pot. No, not stir it - dump out the contents, stomp on the dregs, and refill it with the swill being peddled by wealthy, powerful, union-hating privatization conspiracists and embraced by big-government-is-out-to-eat-our-souls tea party nut jobs. Along the way, he’s vilified teachers, botched applications for federal funding, scrapped a sensible agreement with the union, fired his education commissioner, politicized the court in an attempt to influence its decisions on education funding, bullied people in public meetings, and, of course, slashed the living hell out of school spending.

I’m not going to waste my time and psychic energy here rehashing the ways in which Christie’s brand of so-called education reform (backed as it is by the philanthropic machinery of Bill Gates and, god help us, the ghost of Milton Friedman) serves the agenda of the political right and the interests of hedge fund managers.  Charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, ending tenure - from the faulty research on which these policies are based to the blatant disregard for the underlying social problems that they can’t fix, the whole thing is a steaming pile of propaganda, wrapped in false hope, sprinkled with alarmist lies, and seasoned heavily with crocodile tears. Or, in plain English, people who stand to gain, both politically and financially, from the dismantling of public education are busily perpetrating the Big Lie.

And they are so good at it. They’ve got it down to a science. They think of everything. For example: What is the one group guaranteed to raise its voice against this all-out attack on public education? The teachers unions, of course. But by the time the unions get their bureaucratic asses in gear, the public has already been served up such an unrelenting diet of anti-union rhetoric that, no matter what the union says, it will never get a fair hearing. "Unions exist to protect bad teachers." "Unions don’t care if they bankrupt the state." "Unions couldn’t give a damn about kids." And sadly, the teachers who belong to those unions are tainted in the public’s mind by what they have been convinced is the nasty, socialist union evil.

The sad truth is, there’s a kernel of truth in that insane lie. The NJEA is not the Jersey Devil, but neither is it an impartial player. Unions DO represent the interests of teachers. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. While that doesn’t mean that everything they say is unreliable, or that they don’t represent the interests of children as well, it does mean that they are not the most effective power in our society to combat the business-driven free-market worshippers who would like nothing better than to chop off government’s head, put it on a stake, plant it in the town square, erect monuments to Ayn Rand, and let the underclasses fend for themselves.

If we allow the future of public education in New Jersey - and the rest of the country - to rest with the teachers unions, we may as well just rename the local secondary school Halliburton High and have done with. (Credit where credit is due: I swiped that line from Jersey Jazzman.)

So who else is there?

Us. Parents. People who have (or at least, should have) the strongest possible interest in the quality of our children’s education, and who cannot be accused of greed beyond the greed of wanting a better future for our children.

But in order to be effective, we have to start being honest. There’s a dirty little secret that many New Jersey parents have to face: our own complacency. We know that the doomsday narrative of failing schools does not describe most schools in our state, and that for the most part, we’ve been perfectly happy to let Christie construct any narrative he likes - just so long as he leaves our comfortable, more affluent school districts alone. People who can afford to live in an excellent school district are roused to anger only when someone mandates that their tax dollars go to fund schools in Newark or Camden - schools so segregated and poverty-blighted that those tax dollars can’t mend the damage, anyway.  More recently, rich folks got up in arms when the governor’s heavy budget-cutting hand fell on the salaries of the administrators who keep so many New Jersey schools in the top five for academic achievement in the nation.

Enough with the selfishness. By settling for an inexcusably inequitable educational system, we’ve opened the door to the propagandists who would use the lowest-performing schools as proof that our entire system is in crisis, and who would like to dismantle it wholesale in the name of efficiency and smaller government. We parents - here in New Jersey and around the country - have settled for a public education system more racially and economically segregated than the one that existed when Martin Luther King decried segregation half a century ago.  If we’re not willing to question the justice of the proposition that good schools are only for (mostly white) people who can afford to live in rich towns, then maybe we’re just getting what we deserve - Halliburton High.

I really hope we’re better than that. I hope that, as we see the effect of budget cuts on all our schools - larger class sizes, fired teachers, loss of art and music programs, pay-for-play extracurriculars - that we also see the big picture. Yes, we’re in the middle of a major budget crunch - but we can’t allow the immediate fiscal crisis to be used as an excuse to dismantle the public education system that has been the backbone of our society; that has made possible the social and financial mobility from which generations have benefited; that is a service provided equally to all and is therefore the appropriate function of a democratically elected government.


For day-to-day updates on New Jersey education news, please check out my Facebook page, NJ Parents Against Gov Christie’s School Budget Cuts.


jayme said...

Interesting post Tamar. Especially when you consider that our kids are the product of a very fine--racially diverse, school system that clearly is working.

I do wonder, however, if you are advocating for the combining of NJ's typical single town school systems into larger school systems? Something I am loathe to see--yeah I want to protect what I have. Otherwise, how (in NJ anyway) will we ever have more diverse school systems given the fact that most "suburban" communities are pretty homogeneous?

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

While I would definitely favor increasing diversity as an effective part of larger reforms, I don't know exactly how I'd go about it. I'm no education policy expert, and I'm unqualified to start making this stuff up. But I sure would love it if there were informed voices out there advocating alternatives to the one-note song we've been getting lately.

Jacob said...

From my life experiences, diversity in enrollment terms does not necessarily breed integration or empowerment of the minority groups. Poor Latinos in Oxnard, California attend the same high school as white suburban students, but the achievement gap at the high school level is such that actual classes are very much divided by class.

When students come here from Mexico or countries in Central and South America at the middle or high school age with limited experience in any type of schooling, it is nonsensical to think that just mixing them in at the high performing "rich" schools for the sake of diversity will make the fundamental disadvantage go away. Poorly educated and low skill parents in unstable homes is more the issue. The USA is a way out of the problems they faced back home. The dismissal of this population by administrators and teachers seems to reflect the hopelessness they feel about the "just push them along" attitude in a system that is incapable of handling their needs.

As for schools where poor blacks mix with rich whites like my high school in Florida, the class divide still split the student body up at the classroom. There was diversity in enrollment only, not in the classes. Poor students were on a different trajectory with different classes and low performance than the suburban students achieving at average or high levels.

So I understand your desire to increase diversity, but unless fundamental changes occur at the lower levels of education for impoverished youth, the increase in class diversity within a school does not seem to shrink the achievement gap.

Tamar Wyschogrod said...

Jacob -

Check out this article about the effects of grouping large numbers of poor kids in the same classes.

"What is really large is the correlation between pooling poor kids in school and early reading failure and a subsequent lack of school success (see: Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1998). If you are one of a few poor kids in a classroom, chances are that you will be all right. If you are one of many, you're in big trouble. Ceasing to pool poor children in poor schools would do as much or more for reading scores than any specific instructional intervention. In fact, high levels of poverty in a school are a better predictor of children who will have reading problems than is a lack of early phonemic awareness, a variable that has been the focus of much early reading research and policy."