Monday, July 20, 2015

The Terrible Choice

For much of our history, Americans have operated under a simple premise-- we will educate other people's children.

Educating your own offspring is an old idea; human beings have done it for most of history. This has had many implications. You can't teach your own children things you don't know. If you're not wealthy (or even wealthy-ish), you can't hire people smarter than yourself to teach your offspring; if you are well-to-do, you can hire those smarter people-- and since they're your personal employees, you can tell them what sorts of things you want your children to be taught.

But from the beginning, some American communities provided schools for all their children. The system was not remotely perfect from Day One (for one thing, it was only for children with white penises  correction-- white girls were also included in early common schools). But the idea was established-- as members of the community, we join to educate all children. We join to educate other people's children.

This commitment was part of a long, slow-motion argument. Only educated folks should be full citizens. No, every person should be a full citizen. Therefor all folks should be educated. It's a simple progression, but it took us a couple of centuries to work our way through it.

It is a point of American pride that we have set that task for ourselves. It is a point of American shame that we have tried to weasel out of it.

Our commitment to educating other people's children has collided with the class divide and the racial divide, like an Evel Education Knievel who can't quite clear the row of school buses, stacked too high and wrapped in a big sign that says, "I've got mine, Jack."

If I've got to spend money educating other people's children, can't I just buy them the absolute minimum? I don't really want to spend the money to educate Those Peoples' Children. What-- you want to take my tax dollars to educate Black Peoples' Children?!

Over the past several decades, our unwillingness to educate other peoples' children has stretched and trained the system. Well, parts of the system. Just as the rich have made sure they have good security and fine infrastructure in their isolated communities, they have also made sure that their own children are well-educated. But as the public system  (you know-- the one for educating other peoples' children) has cracked and strained under the weight that fewer and fewer people help carry, and solutions have been proposed and mandated, we're still trying to weasel out of the deal.

"Well, if I have to educate Other Peoples' Children," say corporate reformsters, "can we at least guarantee that I'll get something back for my costs, like a compliant and job-trained workforce? If I'm going to pay to educate Other Peoples' Children, I should be paying into a system that is organized around my needs, not theirs."

"Well, if I have to educate Other Peoples' Children," say the standards architects, "can we at least establish a clear definition of what's the absolute least I have to pay for. I'm not going to buy Those People a Cadillac when all they really need is a used Yugo."

"Look, only some of Those Peoples' Children are worth educating," say the privatizers. "I'd pay to educate the worthy ones, but not Those Other Children."

"I don't want to pay to educate black kids or brown kids or poor kids," say some folks, quietly, in private. "They're takers, not makers. They don't have the grit, the ambition, the skill, the background to really pay us back. Oh, sure, a few do. I'd help one or two of those. But the rest don't really matter. I don't want to pay to educate Those Peoples' Children."

Viewed from this angle, the last fifteen years of education reform look like a big fat attempt by the wealthier folks to get out of paying to educate other peoples' children, or, at a minimum, to do so with minimum cost but maximum service to their self-interest.

All this is why I find parental embrace of modern charter schools troubling.

I do get the parental impulse to pull a child out of a public school that has been starved of resources and pushed to its breaking point. As a parent, you do whatever you can to get your child the best possible shot.

But the conversation here looks a lot like the Powers That Be saying, "We will only pay to educate your child if you put your child in a charter. If you are worthy." And parents say, "Yeah, I'll take that deal."

Again, I understand the impulse to save one's own child. But this puts charter parents in the camp of those saying, "I am not going to pay to educate Other Peoples' Children."

Every argument built around the idea that the money should follow the child, that the tax dollars belong to the family and not the school (or the taxpayers who paid them)-- these are all ways of dressing up, "I should not have to pay to educate Other Peoples' Children."

Parents are given Sophie's choice. "We're going to burn down this building with all these children inside," say reformsters. "We're willing to save yours, but you have to take this can of gasoline and box of matches and help us start the blaze."

I can't blame the parents facing that choice. My children are grown, and our schools were good while they were there, so I didn't face any such hard choices. I know that the choice is a complex difficult territory, that some parents make it for the best reasons (My child is going to get the best education I can find), and some make it for the worst (If my kid's in cyber-school, I won't have to deal with truancy court any more). I understand that, for instance, the parents who chose cyber-charters in my district did not do so with the intent to close a district elementary school-- but that was the effect, and so the choice of forty families also made a choice for hundreds of other families and taxpayers.

I can-- and will, and do-- blame the people who manufactured the situation, all because they simply don't want to pay to educate other peoples' children.

We talk about this like it's difficult. It isn't. When the nation's leaders decided that we would go into Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how long and expensive it would be, we just did it. We ran up enormous debt, stood up to enormous political backlash, and spent a mountain of money that scraped the sky.

We could have said-- and could still say at any time-- that this country has a long-standing commitment to educating every child, all children, other peoples' children, and we will spend every cent needed to do it.

Instead, we keep trying to tweak the system so that we don't really have to pay to educate Other Peoples' Children. Just the children that matter. But that leaves us with a terrible choice, a terrible judgment about which children matter. Instead of choosing to provide a great school for every student, we provide "access" or "choice," like a sinking ocean liner that only has only enough lifeboats for a few but, hey, everyone on board has "access" to them.

Not only is it not difficult, it's not complicated.

1) Stop pretending that some schools are failing when they aren't.

2) Stop trying to force schools into failure by starving and stripping them.

3) Provide resources and support for all schools that need them.

You can say this is hard or expensive, but it's only expensive if you've decided that we shouldn't have to pay to educate other people's children. That's the choice-- to educate other peoples' children, or to dismiss them as a problem that is costly and not-mine. That's the choice-- and we can choose better.


  1. Succinct truth.

    Also, stop pretending kids in poverty can learn as well as kids who aren't; take steps to alleviate poverty; create community schools.

  2. Excellent!! I share so many of your posts. This one I am definitely saving for future reference.

  3. I think Peter's opening line would better reflect our history if he would change it to read "we will pay to educate other people's children in the way that we think best". The interesting part of the charter school movement is that "we will pay to educate other people's children in the way that those other people think best".