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Poaching Students the Publishers Clearing House Way

When our daughter was ready to start kindergarten, we were not convinced that the K-12 public school in the district where we lived, a tiny farming community in mid-Michigan, was a good choice for her. I knew quite a bit about the district, because I subbed there for a year--and while I greatly respected the teachers and the work they were doing, there were things missing. While the school had two full-time agriculture teachers, there were no four-year foreign languages offered, no AP classes, and only a handful of basic arts and humanities courses.

In addition, our daughter and her younger brother were in day care in the district where I worked, and if she were in half-day kindergarten 30 miles away, in the district where we lived, I didn't have an after-school care option for her. My district was willing to enroll her as a tuition student--but we had to get a release from our home district. We visited the superintendent, taking pains to express our support for the district as voters and citizens. They would still be getting our tax dollars, after all. But he was unfriendly, and adamant: the district did not give releases for "parent convenience." Either we enrolled Christine in kindergarten there, or--irony--find a private school.

What we ended up doing is moving. Suddenly. As emotionally hard as it was to leave our beloved 100-year old restored farmhouse, the financial hit was greater. We moved to a district with top-notch, comprehensive schools (mine)--because kids' needs are more important than original crown moldings and an apple orchard. Believe me--I know how fortunate we were to be able to scrape together the resources to get what we wanted.

A few years after this, I was having dinner with the education advisor for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which was promoting a statewide cross-district choice initiative. I told him my story. He wanted me to share it widely--maybe a radio spot--but I declined. It's coming, he asserted--the day of the public school boundary is on its last legs. Then he grinned and said "Free the people!"

After this conversation, I tried to imagine what it would be like if students could choose any public school. What would happen if hundreds of students in Detroit drove over the border into the Grosse Pointes for high school, taking advantage of programs that had been built and nurtured with years of generous tax funding and careful hiring? Would blue-collar districts that were losing students (and the funding that came with them) be compelled to offer special programs and incentives to win back their own residents? What would this do to the idea of school as community center, a place where folks gather to raise their families, attend concerts or cheer the basketball team?

In my wildest imaginings, however, I did not conceive of what "free the people" looks like, 25 years later: tax-funded advertising budgets for slick media campaigns to promote districts, PR specialists in the front offices of small-town schools, free technology and other perks luring families who enroll, celebrity charters, road signs and the now-widespread practice of poaching students across district lines.

After all, these were public dollars. They weren't always spent wisely as citizens may have liked (but there were school board meetings where you could complain). Administrators have always been subject to wooing by textbook publishers (in the 1990s, through the offer of free CDs--which teachers either chose not to use, or couldn't use because the building's 10 computers were down the hall), but still. You could assume that the general flow of public money and teaching energy was toward a better education for kids who lived in that district.

Goodbye to all that. Enter the Invisible Hand School of education policy and administration.

Remember when Chelsea Clinton, co-host on NBC's Education Nation 2012, said that if she had a child, she'd be happy to send him/her to an Education Achievement Authority (EAA) school in Michigan? The EAA was created by MI Governor Rick Snyder as a mandated "turnaround" district for the state's lowest-performing public schools, which--no surprise--were all in the deepest pockets of poverty in Detroit. The EAA was launched with great fanfare--iPads! Technology-delivered curriculum! A fresh start!--and immediately ran into trouble.

Most people took Clinton's statement as evidence of her political and media naiveté, but you could already see the outlines of the mainstream media propaganda campaign claiming the EAA was just the ticket to stimulate the rebirth of "failed" schools. Of course, we know that No Such Thing happened-- the EAA has done nothing to improve the educational fortunes of the kids with zero options, and has, in many cases made things much worse.

In a startling new development, the EAA (which lost a quarter of its students in the first year of operation) is now trying to entice students using outright deceit. They sent letters to families in surrounding, non-EAA public school districts titled "Confirmation of 2014-15 School Assignment." The letter begins: We are very happy to inform you that your child has been selected to enroll in the following EAA school for the 2014-15 school year...

This goes way past glittering generalities and overblown rhetoric. This is the Publishers Clearing House method of school recruitment: You may have already won a million dollars--and an iPad!!! When parents and districts began screaming, the EAA backpedaled and called the letters a "mix-up." All I can say is if this is what the EAA is calling a mix-up, I'm wondering how they interpret things like "instruction" and "curriculum" and "integrity."

There oughta be laws against stuff like this. Or maybe we shouldn't have turned the entire system over to the marketplace in the first place, and focused on making every school fit the needs of all students who live in the community.

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