Friday, October 6, 2017

Bowling: Critics and Choice

I've followed Nate Bowling for a while. I admire his willingness to stay true to principles and avoid simply throwing his lot in with one faction or another.

On his website, the Washington state educator neatly sums up one of the central challenges of the current ed reform landscape:

Teachers of color face a dilemma: we know--more than anyone, the urgent need for change--we get that the status-quo screws our kids. But at the same time we also see a reform movement that "has all the answers" and doesn't want or value our experience and insights from working with marginalized communities.

Bowling is a founding member of Teachers United (recipient of many Gates $$), flies the #educolor flag (a mark of one of the most valuable networks of educators of color, including many strong public ed advocates), and won the Milken Educator Award (from the foundation set up by former junk bond king, convicted felon, and current reformster Michael Milken ). Yes, he's in a video accepting a big check from Milken while Sen. Patty Murray looks on proudly (well, as evangelist D. L. Moody supposedly said upon being challenged about accepting the "devil's money" from a reprobate, "The devil's had it long enough. It's time to give it to God.") And while he may talk about charters, he has turned down lots of charter job offers to stay teaching in a public school.

He's talked to Bill Gates, and he and I once had a bloggy back-and-forth (here's the end, with all the links).

Last week he posted Stop Berating Black and Brown Parents Over Charters (and Give Your Twitter Fingers a Rest)  and while it feels a little like a sub-tweet aimed at particular individuals, it has what I consider some useful advice that we haven't visited in a while.

Bowling starts with this point:

If there's one lesson that I have learned over the last few years, it’s that you're never going to convince a black or brown mother to change her mind about where to send her child by demonizing her choices, calling her a “neo-liberal,” or labeling her a “tool of privatizers.” 

 My first impulse is to say that folks in the pro-public school camp don't say things like that, but then I think about and, well, yes, some do. But some of us have developed a more complicated stance. Both Mark "Jersey Jazzman" Weber and I have said on numerous occasions that we can imagine charters as valuable additions to education-- but not the way folks are trying to do them currently.

And there is a tension that Bowling nails exactly. I think charters are a huge policy problem, and the current rules under which they operate are somewhere between hugely misguided and underhandedly destructive. I will gladly stand in front of legislators all day and argue that at a minimum, the rules governing charters must be radically changed. At the same time, I wouldn't stand in front of a parent for even sixty seconds and tell them that they must send their child to public school in order to support the "good guys." Parents know their kids and the situation on the ground, and so there is a real tension about what we should collectively pursue as matters of policy and what parents should pursue as matters of care for their children.

Charter-choice advocates are, of course, well aware of this tension and they are very careful to frame the issue so that we are only talking about parents and not about policy. Let's talk about letting parents have a choice, they say, and let's not talk about a charter system that stacks the deck heavily against parents and the community in favor of the operators. Current charter-choice advocates are too often in the role of spokespeople for the 1920s meat packing industry. "Let's not talk about all that ugly stuff in Upton Sinclair's novel, about the rotten meat and the inhumane conditions and the unsafe products. Let's just focus on making sure that the customers get to go to the supermarket and choose."

This is one reason Betsy DeVos keeps her focus on parent choice, to the point of arguing that the institutions of education don't even exist-- because as long as she  makes the issue parental choice, she can ignore all the systemic issues of bad standards and screwed up testing and systemic inequity and all the rest.

But Bowling is absolutely correct that we do not resolve this tension by demonizing black and brown parents. And he provides a list of suggestions that we might want to consider instead.

You must address their motivations and concerns. 

Why are folks choosing charters? Yes, in some cases they are choosing charters because the charters are using marketing to push attractive lies-- but that doesn't change the question we should be asking, which is why, exactly, are those lies effective. And can we take a look at the log in our own eye and address that as well. If we want to make public education more effective, we have to move past "Wow, No Excuses schools are pretty racist" to "So why do some parents fine them less racist than the local public school?"

Work to improve the experience of students of color in traditional public schools.

Bowling correctly observes that a good way to combat charters is to make public schools too attractive to leave.

In some respects, this is easier said than done. Choices are being made-- financial choices, curriculum and standards choices-- at high levels that tie our public school hands and force us to serve less-than-stellar educational material to our students.

But let's face it-- it doesn't cost a penny to put a less racist staff in place. Nor is it costly to do the self-examination and self-policing needed to create a more nurturing environment for students of color.

You can be right on the issue and still be wrong.

Here’s the deal, friends. You’re right about neo-liberalism and the decaying of public goods, but ain’t nobody trying to hear that from you when it comes to their child’s well-being. We all know there are awful schools and school systems out there in desperate need of transformation.

Bowling is talking again about the tension between larger policy issues, the business of operating and improving the institution of public education, and the needs of parents to make sure their child is getting the best shake possible. Yes, it's true that, as currently structured, when a child leaves a public school for a charter school, she makes things worse for the students who are left behind-- but would we really counsel someone to stay in a burning building because there are other people trapped in their, too.

Obviously the macro-issues and the personal issues are linked, but it's a mistake to believe that only the macro issues matter. Charter and choice folks create plenty of opposition for themselves by the way they conduct their business; public school supporters should not make that same mistake.We cannot denigrate parents for making the best choice they think they see; we must go after the system and the charters who make bad choices look good.

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