Posts tagged ‘President Obama’

January 16, 2012

My Kids Are Too Good for Public School, and Other Messages I Wish Wealthy Parents Wouldn’t Telegraph

My K-6 alma mater

This post was inspired by two pieces – one local, one not – published January 13. Tell me if you don’t see a connection:

1) “Sending Kids to City Schools Still a Concern,” a feature story by Adam Bednar for North Baltimore Patch, and

2) “America’s Dangerously Removed Elite,” an opinion by David Sirota for Salon.com

Read the Baltimore story and you’ll notice a heavy focus on efforts to ameliorate concerns among parents in Mount Washington and Charles Village about the neighborhood public schools. But the narrative begins and ends with the story of one family, the Balchunas, who were priced out of Howard County and bought a home zoned for Roland Park Elementary/Middle School instead.

Like most parents who shop for homes after they have kids, the quality of the neighborhood was a big factor in their purchase.* Despite being zoned for one of the most coveted grade schools in Baltimore, however, the Balchunas are still “wrestling” with their options, to use Bednar’s word. They have submitted an application to the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, and they could extend their child’s stay at New Century, where their eldest daughter is in pre-kindergarten. Bednar quotes the mom:

“I want to use Roland Park Elementary, but I’m worried it won’t be able to accommodate where my daughter is intellectually,” Balchunas said.

Oof.

Before I go Talmudic in my interpretation of this one quote, I want readers to keep this caveat in mind: The way Bednar couches it, this mom’s statement doesn’t do much to win her any friends. The word “accommodate” in an education context usually rides alongside the words “special needs.” But that’s not what is meant here. The ring of superiority in the second clause rubbed at least one RPEMS mom-acquaintance of mine way wrong. (At least on Facebook.)

To give the message a little more context, New Century is a Montessori-inspired preschool which, according to the school website, offers “complete language immersion in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese for the toddler classes.” If that’s a parent’s ideal, it’s a safe assumption that the academic program at RPEMS would be a step down. And, to be fair, worrying that a public school is below our children’s intellectual par is something all parents of a certain class do. We’ve been trained to think private equals better. More to the point, we believe our children are really, really bright. You can’t fault Balchunas for believing that. It’s a great thing to believe about one’s own child, which is why almost every other parent I know believes the same thing.

So I hesitate to dismiss Balchunas. I would love to meet her. (In fact, I’m trying to.) She was brave to talk to the press. She’s obviously a good mom. She’s putting her kids first in every decision her family makes.

What jumped out at me about the quote, as Bednar reported it, was the use of the word “use.” “I want to use Roland Park Elementary,” Balchunas says.

Use?

Now the Talmud Torah opens its doors. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I went to school. (The school I attended through sixth grade was a yeshiva, actually.) I will send my child to school. I want to find him a school he can go to, a school he can walk to. A school is a place, not a thing. It contextualizes a certain kind of activity – namely, learning. That a parent would talk about wanting to “use” her public school – well, that’s how we talk about the public bus, or the city pool. What does it say when parents who can afford a private institution start talking about public ones the way we talk about what is, in Baltimore, the lousiest mode of transportation? The cheapest way to cool off? There goes the neighborhood (by car). And the country with it.

Which leads me to story number 2.

David Sirota’s wrath at the nation’s “dangerously removed elite” – which he trains mainly on Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey governor Chris Christie – comes in reaction to an outcry over the school and home purchase choices of Tom Boasberg, the public school superintendent of Denver, Colo., where, I am led to infer, Sirota lives. Like the president himself, none of these political uber-men sends his children to an urban public school. Denver’s superintendent sends his children to school in Boulder, “one of America’s wealthiest enclaves.” Emanuel and Christie don’t send their children to public school at all.

Before he gets to Emanuel and Christie, Sirota rails against Boasberg thusly:

“From the confines of his distant castle in Boulder, he issues edicts to his low-income fiefdom — decrees demonizing teachers, shutting down neighborhood schools over community objections and promoting privately administered charter schools. Meanwhile, he makes sure his own royal family is insulated in a wealthy district that doesn’t experience his destructive policies.”

This story fits neatly into the narrative that Occupy Wall Street (thankfully) shot into the national consciousness. We are a society that is not just divided but split in two. Sirota writes,

“there really are ‘Two Americas,’ as the saying goes — and that’s no accident. It’s the result of a permanent elite that is removing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education — a realm in which this elite physically separates itself from us mere serfs.”

I should say right now that I was raised to take my place among the elite. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was schooled through sixth grade at Ramaz – a Jewish house of learning that is by its very nature exclusive – where half the day was spent on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the other half on social studies, math, sciences and language arts, with art class, chorus, gym and recess to boot. By Grade 4, I enjoyed an 8-hour school day. It was rigorous. The English Language Learners spoke Hebrew, so they mopped the floor with the rest of us for half the day. I didn’t have to think about poor people, or black people – unless you count the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. (Though my outstanding fifth- and sixth-grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Sandomir, a Queens College graduate who is still teaching, once handed me a fat, worn copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom. That’s a moment I often remember, not only on Martin Luther King Day.)

From there, I went to what is arguably the finest independent school in the country, Horace Mann School. Nearly every one of my teachers had a master’s from Teachers College. I learned with African-American and Hispanic and Latino kids for the first time. I also met super rich kids. One named Jordan lived in the Pierre when his parents’ home was being renovated. Another named James played banjo, wore torn jeans and Birkenstocks, and managed my soccer team sophomore year – something students did to get out of gym. He drove me home once (he didn’t take the bus) in a used red Jeep Wrangler with a Steal Your Face sticker on the back window. His last name was Murdoch. I went to bar mitzvahs at the Helmsley Palace and Tavern on the Green. Central Park was my front yard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – where I think you can still get in for a penny donation – was where I’d hang out on rainy weekends.

Of course someone like me is going to think public schools aren’t good enough, especially when confronted daily with stories of our failing school system. But when you’re part of shaping education policy, you should have to answer for it. That’s one of Sirota’s big gripes:

“In many cases, these aristocrats aren’t even required to publicly explain themselves. (Boasberg, for example, is never hounded by local media about why he refuses to live in Denver.) Worse, on the rare occasions that questions are posed, privacy is the oft-used excuse to not answer, whether it’s Obama defenders dismissing queries about their Sidwell decision, Christie telling a voter his school choices are ‘none of your business’ or Emanuel storming out of a television interview and then citing his ‘private life’ when asked about the issue.

This might be a convincing argument about ordinary citizens’ personal education choices, but it’s an insult coming from public officials. …Pretending this is acceptable or just a ‘private’ decision, then, is to tolerate ancient, ruling-class notions that are no longer sustainable in the 21st century. …”

I would go a step further than Sirota. First off, political leaders are ordinary citizens. Second, ordinary citizens’ personal education choices are public choices, even when those citizens aren’t brave enough to talk about those choices to the local press.

Our decisions as “parents of choice” – as we are labeled by North Avenue – about what neighborhoods to live in and whom to let our children learn with have public effects. If my husband and I choose to send our son to an expensive private school, or to send him to a boutique charter school, or to make the local public school a top choice – those choices get in everybody’s business. That may be especially true in a small town like Baltimore. But it’s no less true in Chicago or New York City or Washington, D.C. We – all of us ordinary citizens with children – can’t say we want our children to grow up in a more just world, one that is more equal, more tolerant, more sustainable, if we keep making choices that reproduce the status quo.

The places Americans create for learning reflect who we are as a people. They shape who our children will become and the context in which they will live. No place more accurately embodies the world we are making for our children than the neighborhood public school. So maybe it’s time for parents who can afford better to stop asking whether they can use the public schools, and start asking how our public schools can use them.

***

For more on the topic of wealthy public figures excluding themselves from the school communities most affected by their policies, see “The Best Posts About Public Officials (& Non-Elected ‘Reformers’) Sending Their Children To Private Schools” on Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day. For more video showing how Emanuel and Christie have fielded kids’ schooling questions, watch this. As always, comments are welcome.

September 8, 2011

Flashback: Candidate Barack Obama on Segregated Schools

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (March 18, 2008)

*

Related Post

Who Says Education Reform Is the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’? 

July 7, 2011

The Mis-Elevation of Otis Rolley

At the Otis Rolley forum at Huber Memorial Church in Govans last Wednesday, with about 45 people attending, there’s one topic up for discussion: education. And Otis Rolley, the youngest contender in the mayor’s race, seems to understand that he’s playing with fire. To ease into what promises to be a passionate conversation, the evening begins with an innocuous, looped video reel of the candidate against a calming blue backdrop explaining the basics of his education platform.

As the interview plays, we meet the candidate himself, in shirt, tie, and pleated pants. He shakes hands. Soon the video stops and Rolley begins to offer what he calls his four-point education plan:

  • Mayoral control of Baltimore City schools
  • Vouchers for students in the five worst performing middle schools
  • Fifty new or renovated schools in ten years through public/private partnerships
  • Improvements to the Maryland charter school laws

There isn’t much new here, and certainly nothing innovative. But there is a word that Rolley expects the audience will think is “dirty.” The word is “vouchers.”

Notably, the information packet on each seat whitewashes it with the term “opportunity scholarships.” As mayor, Rolley would set aside $25 million from the city school budget of over $1 billion to fund $10,000 scholarships (vouchers) toward tuition and other costs at private and parochial schools for students in Baltimore’s worst performing middle schools.

While “vouchers” may be a dirty word in some circles, it is a magic word for tapping into the fundraising potential of education reformers like Whitney Tilson, a self-described hedge-fund manager by day and education reformer by night. Tilson made a bundle ahead of the housing bubble by shorting real estate, according to CNBC’s Fast Money. Tilson, who earned a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard, attributes his interest in education reform to a personal connection to Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, who befriended Wilson’s brother while in college at Princeton. Tilson is on the board of KIPP NYC, a charter school in a chain founded by Teach for America alumni. Otis Rolley was on the board of KIPP in Baltimore. Hence the connection. Whitney Tilson lives in Manhattan with his wife and three daughters. He is not a citizen of Baltimore. But since Rolley announced his education platform, Tilson has been urging his readers to “join” him in supporting Otis Rolley to the tune of up to $4,000, the maximum contribution.

Rolley, clearly, isn’t interested in turning either his voucher proposal or his education program into a subject of debate. With our failing public schools valiantly continuing to fail, Rolley is more interested in winning over those parents who are desperate for alternatives. His answers to the questions audience members submitted reflect that. Here are a few extracts from the Q & A.

Question one: As mayor, will you ensure that every public school offers recess?

“I will commit as mayor to push that agenda with my superintendent and school board,” says Rolley, who was surprised to learn that not every public school offers recess.

Question two: How is your education platform different from the current mayor’s?

“I have one,” says Rolley. He then offers a few other points of contrast, painting the incumbent as the candidate who wants to “stick with what works.”

Question three: How will you continue Dr. Alonso’s success?

Rolley reiterates the importance of mayoral control of the school system, accountability, and having a staff of people who are “committed, qualified, and courageous.”

Question four: Please explain public-private partnerships.

Rolley attempts to explain. He says something about the reciprocal benefit to corporations of investing in school buildings. The idea is that good schools will generate employees for the private entities that help finance them. He uses the word “pipeline” to describe the way a working school system will prepare graduates to join the workforce. (There is a case to be made that better learning environments make for better educational outcomes. But that’s not the case Rolley makes.)

Question five: Will you use the money generated from slots for schools?

“Yes,” Rolley says.

Question six: What three things would you like to see change in the life of city students?

  1. A mayor who cares.
  2. A commitment across the board to success.
  3. A belief that every student is worthy of greatness.

Rolley asks and answers many other questions. There are a few from BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). There is a compelling suggestion from a man in the back about how Baltimore might build relationships with other jurisdictions in Maryland that are also underfunded because of their meager tax base.

In answer to another point Rolley says he is not for an elected school board, because elected officials might use their seats as stepping stones to higher office. He insists that accountability should be with the mayor – who would presumably be held accountable at the polls every four years. He says we need to make the charter school law more amenable to outside operators who have been deterred by the current law.

There are some other Tweetables:

“I want them [meaning students] to be in buildings that say they are worthwhile.”

“We need air conditioners. Amen.”

“We are more broken than we are broke.”

“There are 249 neighborhoods, not just Downtown.”

There are mentions of the three three “A”s, to describe the building blocks of a great education that are just as important as the three “R”s:

  • Academics
  • Arts
  • Athletics

And the three “C”s, to describe the people he’d be sure to have around him:

  • Courageous
  • Competent
  • Committed

There is a great question about how you convince the two-thirds of Baltimore residents who don’t think schools are a priority that they are. Otis Rolley doesn’t think that will be too hard, for a number of reasons. But after a point I stop taking notes. That point comes a few minutes after Rolley says,

“Much of what I’m recommending is an uphill battle.”

Judging from this meeting, getting Rolley to speak frankly about public education is going to be an uphill battle. Rolley has mastered the handshake, and he’s learned how to buzz-up his language with phrases like “agenda,” “accountability,” and “pipeline.” He’s even got a punny tagline for a man named Otis: “Elevate Baltimore.”

But as a pro-neighborhood school mom in a pro-charter school world, I want a hearing. And I’m hopeful I can get it from a young politician who – as the author of Baltimore City’s master plan – is probably better equipped than anyone to see the crucial role that a great zoned public school can play in building a neighborhood.

So why is he promoting an education platform that seems to ignore the specific needs of those 248 other neighborhoods he promises to elevate? I submit a similar question on a 2-by-3 inch notecard and toward the end he gets to it:

Given that the city-wide model of charter school enrollment undermines the potential for neighborhood schools to strengthen the surrounding community, why are you – a city planner and a parent of a student in a traditional public school – pushing to promote charter schools (which are proliferating at a rapid clip as it is)?

Rolley disagrees with the premise that charter schools are undermining neighborhood public schools. He gives the education reformers’ line on choice. He believes we should have strong charter schools and strong neighborhood schools – a line I’ve heard from people who represent Alonso’s BCPSS. And like those representatives, Otis Rolley seems to be blind to the fact that those two goals are irreconcilable.

But before I can speak, an African American woman stands up. She explains that Govans and Guilford, two neighborhood public schools nearby, are underenrolled and losing money because of the recent founding of a number of charter schools in the area. She explains that when a school loses a student, it loses funds, because the funds go with that child. If a school is underenrolled, it can’t operate the way it should. She explains that a two-tiered system is forming, and that students left behind in neighborhood schools are worse off as a result of the choice presented by charter schools.

Her point isn’t that charter schools are the “bogie man,” as Rolley keeps insisting they aren’t. Her point is that Rolley can’t claim that charters are having no effect on the viability of neighborhood schools. It’s an uncomfortable fact that politicians from Rolley to Obama tend to shy away from: charters tap students and sap resources from neighborhood schools that have roots in living, breathing communities.

The woman says there needs to be a cap on the number of charter schools that can be founded in Baltimore City. Rolley responds that he doesn’t believe there needs to be a cap. Not that it matters. There isn’t a cap. What’s most interesting about this exchange is that the woman who rose to speak sends her child to a charter school. Rolley says, see, you are benefitting from choice. But she isn’t buying it.

The free-marketeers who are pushing for choice will say that consumers get what consumers want. Bad schools go under, and people flock to good schools. That market-based outlook ignores the basic foundation of public education: It’s free. It takes all comers. No lottery. No staying up late to be first in line. No hedging bets against real estate bubbles. There is no front of the line and no back of the bus. American public education is the great equalizer. Or that’s how it ought to be.

After two hours of platitudes and baseless beliefs about what works, I get the sense that Rolley’s grasp on the issues is more tenuous than mine. I also don’t know where he stands. Is he a free-marketeer who feels that the market should determine which neighborhoods wind up keeping zoned public schools and which don’t? Or does he believe that zoned schools are worth lifting up in a city that is ultimately a mosaic of 249 neighborhoods?

Right now, he seems to think we can elevate Baltimore by mimicking failed policies from other U.S. cities. That’s a shame. Here’s a candidate who has the potential to turn Baltimore into an example that other cities can follow. If he gets his head on straight, he can change the tune on education reform in this country. But all we’re getting is so much elevator music.

Related Posts:

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

Roll(ey) Call: Why the Frontrunner for Mayor Needs to Revise His Education Plan ASAP

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

April 17, 2011

Lessons from the Bronx

If you’re interested in improving your neighborhood public school, Jonathan Mahler’s cover story in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a provocative read. It’s about a principal named Ramón González and his relative success at the helm of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. And it’s about how the “forces of reform” that you’d think would be supporting him are working against him.

Principal González has a visionary goal: to make his school a place where he’d want to send his own kids.

Here are his circumstances: His school is in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Many of the young teachers who come to him through Teach for America are useless the first year and great in the third, but they often leave after the second – at the end of their commitment. The U.F.T. contract allows teachers to miss 10 days of every school year and requires a majority vote each year to start the school day 10 minutes early. Parents are indifferent at best. Like all other public schools, M.S. 223 is responsible for educating the students that no other school – neither charter, nor parochial, nor private – wants to touch. What’s more, an estimated 20 percent of his students need glasses.

Then there’s this:

…The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

The folks running the reform movement from the top – from President Obama to Arne Duncan to school-system chancellors nationwide – want principals to think like CEOs. Which makes it all the more inspiring that González sees himself as a community activist.

Here is a man so committed to his neighborhood that he returned to it after a great escape – to a boarding school in Boston and then to college at Cornell. He’s committed to turning his school into a neighborhood school. And it makes sense. If the American education system is meant to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic republic, don’t we need to commit to strengthening the communities in which the value of citizenship takes root?

You’d think. But the movement for reform sees neighborhood ties as a throwback. “His vision for 223 is in some respects anachronistic in the era of school reform,” writes Mahler. And I’ve had the same thought about my flickering fire for making my neighborhood school a top pick for every zoned family.

Like González, I want to make my neighborhood school a place where I’d want to send my own child. But the forces of reform – charters, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, “better” tests, budget cuts – are stifling. Am I trying to hold on to a past that everyone else has let go of? Or am I actually doing the progressive thing?

I have to believe the latter. What do you think?

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