Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Of grease catchers and super heroes

     The man in the good suit and great hair came expecting to make a sale: He prefaced it with, "I know you care about children."

     He was talking about education, and since I wrote about it a lot, he figured, well . . .

     It turned out that the man cared a little less than he and his full-color literature implied — literature promoting school vouchers. He talked of "failed" public schools, and of this glossy opportunity for children to escape. But I solicited his reaction to this premise:

     "If we had the policy you prescribe, would public schools not be reduced to the function of grease catchers for those left behind?"

      "Sad to say," he shrugged, "that's already the case."

      I know we're supposed to praise Davis Guggenheim's new film Waiting for Superman. We who care about children, that is. But, wait.

     The film compels audiences to root for students hoping to be delivered from their neighborhood schools to super-heroic charter schools. It depicts teachers unions as agents of decay and statism, and entrenched bad teachers as the root of the problem.

     It depicts uber-dedicated parents. It doesn't depict parents who don't give a damn. Parents are always the component that proponents of "market-driven" education solutions never mention. Involved parents are the real X factor in student success. Also, there's the self-selection factor: the parents putting their children where they want, and exclusive schools turning away whomever they want.

       Face it. For good reasons, vouchers have failed to gain traction, making charter schools the latest flavor of the month.

        As with private schools, some charters are great. But Waiting for Superman acknowledges that only about a fifth of charters produce "amazing results." I'm thinking, even with their problems, even with the challenges they can't slough off onto anyone else, public schools bat that average.

      Whatever the percentage, the dance with charter schools is full of contradictions and rhetorical dishonesty. The New York Times' Gail Collins reminds readers of Texas' irresponsible pedal-to-the-metal creation of charters in the '90s without a hint of accountability to the taxpayers. I observed the land rush with a wince, as bad charters trundled out onto the plains, creaky wagon wheels underneath and canvas flaps overhead.

       It didn't matter that dozens were fly-by-night operations that left educators and children stranded. Never have I seen "throwing money at a problem" so vividly depicted — and by Republicans.

       The travesty about policy makers who see charters as a salvation is that the very element that they advertise — schools' freedom to be innovative when relieved of many state mandates — is a denunciation of requirements the policy makers themselves have passed and treat as sacrosanct. These are people who never saw a standardized test they wouldn't salute.

       The traditional public school in 2010 is imprisoned by a system that won't let teachers breathe to teach. It struggles under top-down demands every moment of every day. Sometimes the system is so oppressive that teachers in low-performing — read, urban — schools must teach from scripts supplied by the "accountability" industry.

        Just wondering: Is that the environment families seek to flee in their search for Superman?

        If so, what does that say about the people who so hype the promise of charter schools?

        It says that if we want to address the challenges of public schools, we need to ease up on the mandates and let real education commence in all of our classrooms.

        Sadly, Americans somehow have been convinced that standardization is education, and that competence is education. And they elect policy makers maniacally bent on enforcing these principles under the guise of "school accountability."

         Meanwhile, they contemplate whatever gimmick they can conjure to render the heavy lifters, the workhorses of public education into grease catchers.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail:             



Tracy said...

Truer words have rarely been written. Thanks for a great column--we miss you back in Texas!

Anonymous said...

tracy must have a frog in her pocket john because she doesn't speak for all of us.