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Blaming Your Own Team

Editor's note: Deborah Meier is traveling in Belgium this week. She filed this essay before leaving.

Dear Pedro and friends,

It's hardly something new in American political life. The foxes have been guarding the hen house for many years. But what we're seeing in education of late involves more chutzpa than I've ever seen in education circles.

The foxes? Our city mayors and their appointed superintendents. The hens are the schools for which they are presumably accountable.

We're in a "competition" between charters et al and "regular" urban public schools. Competition is good for all, we're told. But not if one side is fighting with both hands tied. The folks who promised us they'd be accountable for our public schools are, it turns out, rooting for the other side. They're doing their best to see that "their" schools lose, by shortchanging those who pay their salaries.

They give away building spaces to charters even when we're short of space for the kids left behind. They decrease spending, raise class sizes, produce onerous regulations involving tests and curriculum, and improve employee morale by threatening to take away their benefits, close schools and fire their teaches, and eliminate seniority protections. Especially those who worked in the most abandoned schools.

The Big Boys praise the entrepreneurial charters for their spirit of independence and flexibility. But why haven't public schools been offered these advantages, as they are with Pilot Schools in Boston and as they once were in District 4 in Manhattan?

New York's former schools chief, Joel Klein, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg take no responsibility for New York City's failures, nor does Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and all the mayors and school superintendents going back decades) for Chicago's perennial "crisis." (Beware of that term "crisis"; it's often used when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.) How often have you heard Klein et al brag about the schools they run? Rarely.

I repeat, just to get it straight in my head. After a decade or more of being "in charge" of our public schools, these "guys" (and a few gals) accept no blame. They measure themselves by a different metric since they have already shifted their allegiance to the success of charters. (We can argue private vs. public another time, but in any case Klein et al are not responsible for charter outcomes.)
I keep repeating this to myself because it seems so astounding. It's as if Joe Girardi was managing the Yankees while also making cutting remarks about them, cheering for the Tigers, and busy making trades that favored the Tigers over his own team. All the while being paid to be the titular leader of the Yankees! At least the local sports writers and announcers would be complaining.

But there's a lot that puzzles me these days. We're still not out from under a financial collapse that was brought about by the freedom of the marketplace, in collusion with its guardians. And who gets blamed? American teachers and schools.

Of course, in one sense America's schools have always failed—in my terms. We have never, ever given all American children the education we have given white, well-to-do, prestigious families' children. A democracy presumes everyone is part of the ruling class—but most Americans have neither the education nor the leisure to take on the tasks of ruling. And when they join together, so they can at least exercise power that way, their organizations are demonized, and—where possible—destroyed.

We'd have had better 19th and 20th centuries if we had created schools for the least powerful similar to the ones we funded for the most powerful. And then some. We'd have a different America if schools had always treated all families, teachers, and communities with respect. Respect includes having a voice in decisions.

I've had a lucky life—because I have been able to prove, at least to myself, that if all the children were given what I was from kindergarten through high school, they'd face better futures. They'd be in the same ballgame. Statistically, probably most would not match the graduates of my high school, an expensive independent school whose students spent their holidays at expensive camps, took regular "educational" trips, had the best of medical care, weren't stressed over what next week would bring, and came into the school knowing they were "entitled." They were (and are) living under another form of affirmative action, but this time premised on their being the nation's "leaders of the future." Not to mention the favors that flowed to such children from their family's friends and colleagues. Their success, we and they were told, was good for all of us so we should begrudge them nothing.

Pedro, I don't blame President Obama and the other leaders of our nation in D.C. (nor friends of mine who have done the same) for choosing schools like those my parent chose. Probably my family would have selected the Friends school, too. I have, however, a special affection for President Carter—for sending his daughter to a D.C. public school. It was so unexpected that I cried when I heard it on the news as I drove to school.

Deb

P.S. As you read this, friends, I'll be in Brussels, for both business and pleasure. I'll report on it next week, as well as responding to two weeks of Pedro's letters.


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