Charter Schools VS Our National Interest
She was one of those parents who were never happy. She was in my office at least once a week to complain about one thing or another. I worked hard to be courteous, polite, even, on a good day, patient. Then one day, enough was enough. When she threatened for the umpteenth time to go directly to the school board to complain about me, I only had one response: “Bring it on.”
Well, that’s where I am with would-be reformers with their blanket condemnations of all of our schools and their foolish ideas for improvement.
What set me off is Mitt Romney, who in an address to the Latino Coalition’s annual economic summit in Washington, D.C. last week labeled our U.S. educational system a failure. Really, Governor Romney? Really?
Are we talking about the same school system that educated millions of immigrants when they arrived on our shores in the early 20th century, unable to even speak the language? Are we talking about the GI bill that allowed millions of veterans to return to school and make a decent living? Are we talking about our sweeping land grant colleges that provide an education for millions of kids with no means to paying private college tuitions? Or are we talking about the thousands of schools across the country that are providing our kids with not only the basics, but also enrichment, character education, technology, sports, guidance, and remediation? A place to go after school and before school. Breakfast and lunch that meet nutritional standards and may be offered for free or reduced prices. Community colleges that are affordable.
Are there problems? Yes. Let’s take special education for example. IDEA has never been fully funded, yet the incidence of kids with special needs has steadily increased.
The candidate has a plan. “I will expand school choice in an unprecedented way, “ he says, so that students will be able to carry with them IDEA allotments to other schools supposedly eager to accept them. It seems doubtful to me that charter schools will be excited about accepting kids with who come with nurses, aides, special behavior plans, and time-out rooms, even when they bring an IDEA check with them. My guess is that those children will remain in their public schools while charters do what they already do: deftly pick and choose whom they admit.
How about the problems we see in big city schools: Immigrant populations, low income households, reduction of state and federal aid, crime, increases in special needs. What’s the ready solution for those schools?
The presumed presidential candidate, who never spent a minute in anything like those schools, says that “too many of our kids are trapped in schools that are failing or that simply don’t meet their needs.” “Too many” suggests there might be an acceptable number of kids to trap, but “doesn’t meet their needs” is a little more amorphous. Only soccer is offered and not football? Not enough AP exams? Textbooks and technology need to be current? Or bathrooms and halls are unsafe?
Columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. in a thoughtful opinion piece in last Sunday’s Washington Post, observes, “Romney is simply following the lead of Republicans in Congress who have abandoned American conservatism’s most attractive features: prudence, caution, and a sense that change should be gradual. But most important, conservatism used to care passionately about fostering community, and it no longer does.”
Early conservatives like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, Dionne writes, believed that the federal government was responsible for the common good, which included support of public schooling. Dionne cites other conservative support for public programs throughout our history like Robert Taft’s federal support for housing, Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” that involved a community working together, and even George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation that focused on the role of public schools for the general good, rather than dismantling them and disbursing funds to privateers.
Dionne believes that this current iteration of conservatism perverts and diminishes what the philosophy once was by abandoning a concern for the general welfare and embracing individual success at the expense of the whole. So I say, bring it on. The strength of our country lies in a robust and ever improving national education system. There is certainly room for all kinds of private educational endeavors, but our national energy must focus on improving the opportunities our public schools provide. When the pandering is over, we can focus once more on continuous growth of our schools as a national treasure.