The State of Education: The Children We Leave Behind

BlogHer Original Post

When I read this week about the investigation into possible (probable) cheating on standardized tests in the District of Columbia school system, I can’t say I was surprised.

I was teaching in the D.C. public school system when No Child Left Behind was launched and very shortly after, one of the “best” public school districts in the country--a Maryland one, in a suburb of the District—was found to be cheating on the tests. (Teachers who were supposed to be moderating the tests were giving students the answers.)

In a system that rewards high test results with extra money and takes away funding from low-performing schools, what can you expect? We ought to be able to expect academic integrity, sure, but I’m not shocked that desperate teachers, pressured by desperate administrators, pressured by high-stakes testing help desperate students in a pinch. If your choice was to nudge a kid’s pencil slightly to the left or lose your job, what would you do?

In the recent case in D.C., reports suggest that after Michelle Rhee, the District’s controversial superintendent until 2010, claimed an enormous turnaround in test scores--from 10% passing to 58% passing--at one of the city’s lowest performing school, parents complained that the scores didn’t align with their children’s real world performance in reading and math. But Rhee gave the school principal and teachers their high-score bonuses and took home bragging rights for herself.

Rhee is notoriously anti-union, anti-tenure and pro-privatization of public schools—which you learned if you saw her in Waiting for Superman. She’s been making a name for herself among conservative governors in recent years and travels the country preaching the gospel of charter schools—privately run, publicly funded schools that don’t answer to the same level of government regulation and oversight as regular public schools.

The trouble with this is that studies have shown charter schools to be no better—and often worse—than ordinary public schools. And the ones that do perform better than the neighbor school are often keeping out the kids with disabilities or kicking out the low test scorers to boost their results. In short, they aren’t true public schools, though they are funded by taxpayers.

As a parent who planned and prepared to home school for the first five years of motherhood, then was converted to a wonderful, private Montessori school which both of my kids now attend, I am often told that A) I have turned my back on the problem of public education and am not supporting public schools and/or (in spite of the contradiction) that B) I haven’t got the right to have an opinion about what happens to public education, since my kids aren’t using it.

I beg to differ on both counts. But first, let me clear up one thing: I am not telling you where to send your own children to school. When you have a five-year-old, you don’t have twenty years to wait for education reform to actually make positive changes in the public school system. You have to get that kid into the best kindergarten possible right now. If that school is private, and you can afford it, send your kid there. (I certainly won’t blame you, that’s what I’m doing.) If it’s a magnet or a charter school, and you have whatever cultural capital (and/or luck) it takes to get in, send your kid there. As a parent, I refuse to sacrifice my kids to my long-term political and social ideals about public education. I am sending my kids to school now, not in the future when all my dreams will have come true. Maybe my grandchildren can go to those dream schools.

But.

Even as I drive my kids from one of the most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods in the country into the lily-white, million-dollar home suburb where their school is located, I am fighting for the right thing in public education when I oppose charters and vouchers and other “public” alternatives that are really private—and take resources out of the public system.

As a child, I attended Catholic parochial schools even though my family was not Catholic, because those schools were the cheapest private option in a city with some of the worst schools in the country. My parents lost two small businesses and we ate a lot of generic peanut butter in those years, even at that. Then somebody proposed the idea of tax refunds for people with kids in private schools—an early incarnation of the voucher idea—and our school sent home postcards supporting it for our parents to sign and send to legislators. My parents vocally opposed it.

They explained that if the public schools were better, I’d be in them. They explained that as long as some kids were stuck in bad schools it was in everyone’s interest to support those schools, because good education is important to society—not just individual families with children. And this was before they got to the church-state separation argument, which they also felt strongly about.

I know that lots of you are grateful to be able to move to a neighborhood with decent public schools—even if it means eating generic peanut butter—or to be able to get your kid into a magnet or a well-performing charter school. I feel grateful to have a private option. But however much we struggle each January as we wait to hear about our financial aid package, my job prospects for the year and how we will make the school our children love fit the family budget for one more year, we will continue to oppose vouchers and charters.

It isn’t just an ideological ideal as a friend recently said. It’s personal. My kids are adopted. My older daughter’s first mother is raising three children herself, in a poor, dangerous neighborhood with an average high school graduation rate of 50%. Now, some people call adopted kids lucky. And I suppose you might say that my kid was lucky to be adopted by people willing to make sacrifices to keep her in a great school. But that is only because she was unlucky enough to be born fourth in a family that just couldn’t bear another child, to a mother willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and give her baby to strangers, because she saw it as her best option.

My daughter is whip-smart. She taught herself to read at age three and is reading well beyond that third grade test level right now, in kindergarten. We nurture her, sure, but this is native intelligence. She was born with it. And when we met her mother, and heard stories about her biological siblings, we knew she came by it honestly.

As happy as it makes me to see my daughter loving school, it breaks my heart a little every day to know that her siblings—just as bright, just as beautiful, just as curious and in love with books and music—haven’t got any options in schooling but the very worst one.

Charters and vouchers take a few kids out of the public system and a lot of money from it. They leave the children of the underclass and children with disabilities in schools that are war zones with metal detectors at the entrance, crumbling plaster on the walls, leaking ceilings, old, inadequate books, exhausted, overworked, underpaid teachers and no hope whatsoever.

Charters and vouchers are not the answer because they don’t help all children get a better education. They don’t even help all bright, cooperative, nondisabled children get a better education. They tend to help a few typical middle-class children get a better education, and that’s fine for those children, for now. But if we want there to continue to be a middle class, we need to stop siphoning public education money to private enterprises and demand change for the better in every school—for every child.

Shannon writes about family at Peter's Cross Station and about writing at Muse of Fire.

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