Friday, May 1, 2015

Choice: Real Problems, Fake Answers

By following link to link, I ended up at this piece by Derrell Bradford, executive director of NYCAN and experienced in the reform game (if not the school biz), part of the 50CAN network of choice-pushing charter fans. But his essay "I am your black friend who grew up in Sandtown-Winchester" is as raw and powerful an argument as I've ever heard from the Friends of Choice. And it crystallizes once again where the big, fat hole in the choice argument lies.

Bradford, it turns out, grew up in the same area as Freddie Gray. It was an earlier time, but it was still ugly. Bradford's personal story, which has fueled his reformster career, is the story of escaping that neighborhood.

I never thought things were rough in my neighborhood when I was a kid. I thought they just “were.” But the older I got the more my life became a focused square of activity because of those rough streets. School, sports, home at night, dinner, then the blue chair in my grandma’s Baker Street living room where I fought to stay awake and master the quadratic formula. In retrospect, a lifetime of dinner conversations and events make the haze of memories crystal clear. My grandma talked about redlining, a lot. My friend Stuart, a big redhead black kid a few years older than me that lived on Calhoun Street, was shot and killed. Grandma got mugged while walking home from church one morning. I'd been beat up and had my bike taken from me. All the streets around us-- Stricker, Presstman, Gilmore, Gold-- loomed with their own sort of eerie malevolence. In a city of neighborhoods, mine was exactly one square block.

Say what you like about Bradford-- the man can write.

He creates a compelling pictures-- as compelling as any of the many word pictures being crafted in the face of the Baltimore riots-- of a school and neighborhood that is a toxic, terrible trap for the young men and women who live there.

His point is simple. He escaped. He wants others to be able to do the same. And this is where I lose the thread of his argument.

Bradford had the fortune to land at a tony top-notch prep school. The kind of school that gets way more in money and resources than the school to which zip code would have consigned him. That's what got him out of the old neighborhood.

This is what I don't get about reformsters like Bradford. Why are they not saying, "We demand a school for our neighborhood that is every bit as good as that big, shiny prep school."

The problem of underfunded, under-supported, under-resourced schools is real. The choice solution is not real at all. It proposes to rescue some students and make things worse for the rest. It proposes to further cripple the neighborhood school that should be an anchor of the community (look at a twenty-year study of social capital and education done in Baltimore).

You find a group of children trapped on a sinking ship, so you rescue some by tearing boards out of the hull of the sinking ship to reinforce your lifeboat. And then you leave most of the children on the now-sinking-more-rapidly ship.

You find a group of children starving in a home, so you take some of them with you to feed, but on your way out you take all the pots and pans so you can cook for the kids you're taking, leaving the remaining children to starve even faster.

I absolutely get the dire nature of the problem that Bradford and others are describing. But please tell me how school choice helps? It rips resources away from the already-struggling school, making it that much harder to "fix" it. It "rescues" only a small percentage of the students.

Why why why WHY is this a better solution than moving heaven and earth to get that "failing" school the resources it needs? Why is it a better solution to move a handful of students to a bright, shiny school instead of doing everything in your power to turn the community school into a bright, shiny school for every student and family in the community? If you know how to create a magically awesome alternative to the failing public school, why can't the awesome alternative model be applied directly to the public school itself.

Don't tell me the bullshit about how money doesn't matter. Bradford has made the argument that failing public schools spend too much money on bells and whistles, but until you show me a highly respected private school that markets itself by saying, "We promise to spend next to nothing on your kid," or "Never mind the full voucher. Just send us the student with $500 and that's all we need to educate her," I'm not buying the money-doesn't-matter argument. And truly, neither is anybody else. Nobody believes that. Nobody.

This is what I have always found baffling about voucher proponents. It's not that I don't believe in the problems they cite. It's that their solutions strike me just like somebody who says, "I've had a terrible cold lately, so I'm going to jab myself in the gut with a steak knife and soak my head in kerosene." The voucher solution is non-sequitor, a solution that seems to hold no reasonable promise of help (and at this late date, no empirical or anecdotal support, either).

So I'm saying to Derrell Bradford-- I find your writing moving, your story moving, your picture of the problem compelling (and I am not using my trademark irony here-- I mean it). But I can not for the life of me see how school choice brings us the slightest step closer to a solution, nor in all the reading about choice that I've ever done, have I seen a clear and sensible explanation of how this non-solution solution can hope to solve a thing. I'm still listening.


  1. My hypothesis is Bradford's cavalier attitude is tied to that most American of myths - we are a meritocracy. Like Barack Obama and Deval Patrick (until recently Governor of Massachusetts), Derrell Bradford attended private schools, not public, and hasn't any first hand experience of those schools. But he's been told that they're bad, and that Strivers like himself are exceptional, who deserve something better. So he's all aboard to provide the other exceptional Strivers his own experience,too.

    The mistake the rest of us make is we want to provide schools for everybody -"the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free", but they are just not all deserving enough.

    BTW, I noted that he's a Dartmouth grad - another of Karen Lewis' classmates on the wrong side of this fight.

  2. Why does no one ever point out that it is the culture of the neighborhood that makes the local school bad. Even when it is funded decently, which is rare but does happen occasionally, the prevailing culture limits education. Vouchers just offer those those families that are not part of prevailing culture a way to escape the failing culture.
    I teach in a large urban/suburban district. If the parents are willing to transport, their children can leave the local school. Every year I have a few students that drive 30 - 40 miles to come to my suburban middle class school to escape the conditions at their local school.In the same county, same funding, except the "bad" school has more technology and equipment because it receives additional Title 1 funds that my school doesn't. But, because of the prevailing culture, we have less violence, high scores, and real student achievement.

  3. Don't forget that their "solution" usually includes touting the "no excuses" brand of charters that are utterly unscalable for all the students they claim to want to save. Moskowitz, Uncommon, KIPP -- they ALL rely upon having fully public district schools to which they can send their detritus -- the kids who cannot "cut it" in their hyper-regimented test prep uber alles environment. If they advocated simultaneously launching a Marshall Plan for urban education while admitting their approach has a strict upper bound on how children it can accommodate, they'd at least be honest.