Last week I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter with the head of the Tennessee Achievement District. In case you don’t know, the ASD is Tennessee’s version of the Louisiana RSD. The state has created a “district” that is committed to taking the bottom 5% of schools and moving them to the top 25%. A noble endeavor as long as you ignore the fact that there will always be a bottom 5%, but we won’t talk about that.
Lately the ASD has committed to a path of taking these failing schools and “partnering” with a Charter operator to facilitate this improvement. Whether this partnering works or not is debatable, but in the eye’s of the ASD it must work because they are planning on allowing 41 new Charters to open by 2020. Aspire CEO James Wilcox and Rocketship CEO John Danner both think “Tennessee is an exciting place to be.”
Let me also give you a little back ground on Chris Barbic. Mr Barbic, an amiable fellow comes to us from Houston after previously doing a 6 year stint with Teach For America and co-founding YES Prep. YES was so successful in its mission that Oprah gave them a million bucks. The TFA stint puts him in good company with his boss, Kevin Huffman and half the Tennesse Department of Education. Someday we need to talk about how infected the Tennessee Department of Education is with TFA alumni, but that’s another day.
Back to our exchange. Chris was tweeting out some pro-charter tweets and so I felt compelled to point out that “It scares me when a person is hired as a guardian of a public trust and they so strongly support private entities”. His response was “what about the broken public trust that results from poor performing schools?”. That’s a fair question. My answer of course was, “that’s easy…fix them. That’s why you were given public trust. To improve public institutions not privatize them.” That’s when he brought the hammer down, “There is no fix. Current system is broken. Have to create new public ed system.” In that fell swoop, the agenda is revealed.
Take that statement and couple it with Netflix Reed Hastings recent statement:
And so the fundamental problem with school districts is not their fault, the fundamental problem is that they don’t get to control their boards and the importance of the charter school movement is to evolve America from a system where governance is constantly changing and you can’t do long term planning to a system of large non-profits…The most important thing is that they constantly get better every year they’re getting better because they have stable governance — they don’t have an elected school board. And that’s a real tough issue. Now if we go to the general public and we say, “Here’s an argument why you should get rid of school boards” of course no one’s going to go for that. School boards have been an iconic part of America for 200 years. So what we have to do is to work with school districts to grow steadily, and the work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8% of students in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90%, so we have a lot of catchup to do…So what we have to do is continue to grow and grow… It’s going to take 20-30 years to get to 90% of charter kids….And if we succeed over the next 20 or 30 years, that will be one of the fastest rates of change ever seen around the world for a large system, it’s hard. [applause]
If these two statements together don’t scare you then you’re not taking democracy serious. Neither Barbic nor Hastings are elected officials, yet they feel they have the right to fundamentally change a public institution. One that is a corner stone of our democracy. Imagine if you will, if Rosie Rios and Fredrick Smith got together and stated that our banking system was beyond repair and that we needed to create a new banking system while they were openly opening privately regulated S & L’s. There would be howling.
Even scarier is the public education system that Barbic and Hasting feel we need. One that pays less attention to the arts and humanity and more attention to the skills that make better future worker bee’s. The tests that are going to propel the ASD schools into the top 25% aren’t going to measure artistic creation or the ability to reason. They are not going to measure the ability to navigate an increasing multicultural society because the population of the ASD schools is predominately African American.
Which is interesting because there is no shortage of empirical proof that Charter Schools increase the likelihood of greater segregation. So not only are we by-passing the democratic process in creating this new system but we are creating one that will widen the achievement gap and create a more unequal system. Best part of this is that its being done with unapproved tax money. I most certainly believe that given that information, most voters would reject that vision of a new system and ask that their money be better spent. Perhaps though, proponents don’t even believe its their money.
Barbic and Hasting’s vision also directly threatens democracy because it removes local control. The ASD schools are answerable to Barbic ultimately who is answerable to the TN Department of Education and elected State Officials. In other words if I have an issue with the way my children are being taught I have no recourse but to go through Barbic or my elected state official who has a lot of other concerns. Ask the folks in New Orleans how that is working for them.
Under the current system I have an elected official who every four years must reassure me that they are putting my child’s interest first. My school board officials are extremely assessable and I talk to them often. We don’t always agree on every issue but I know my child’s education is their sole purpose. They are not focused on writing traffic laws or devising new taxes or any other of a multitude of interests that take up state officials time. My child’s education is the sole purpose of their elected existence. That’s democracy in action.
I know democracy is messy. It means you must convince the masses of things you probably don’t think they are smart enough to understand. The process of making change can be slow and unresponsive, not to mention that those darn pesky locally elected officials have a tendency to follow the will of the people vs your vision. The flip side is that it seems to be working.
It may seem like I’m being a little hard on Mr Barbic, an individual who I genuinely enjoy talking with, but the hubris just galls me beyond no end. Where do you get the belief that a system that has served this country well since the 1840’s needs you to create a new one without ever running for elected office on that platform? Let’s be clear too, thats whats transpiring. Look back at Hasting’s comment, 90% of students go to a Charter school that is unaccountable to a locally elected board and he received a round of applause when he made that statement.
If the so called reformers believe so strongly in the need for a new system they should bring it to the democracy. I challenge anyone of them, be it Rhee, Huffman, King, White, or even Bush to run for public office. Make creating a new system your central plank. Lets have that discussion out in the open where people can then vote on it and decide for themselves if that’s what they want for their children and this country.
I suspect they know as well as I do that such a plank wouldn’t get you far. That’s why they manipulate language as they do. Paint themselves as reformers while the rest of us are merely defenders of the status quo. Problem is, I can’t think of a single elected official that has stated our current system needs to be dismantled. Instead reformers work in the shadows, twisting words and implementing 20-30 year plans that have not been vetted by the general population.
I come from a family that values democracy enough that several members have risked their life to guard it against outside invaders. It pains me to say it but inside invaders are just as dangerous. All of us need to pay attention to these threats and take them very seriously. Don’t allow yourself to be painted as a conspiracy nut who just wants to protect the interests of adults.We need to remember that all children become adults. Therefore the system needs to serve the needs of children and adults. Its the bedrock of our democratic society.
Once our public education system is dismantled, there will be no putting it back together. The achievement gap will continue to grow. We will create two separate societies. There will be the privileged and the worker bees. As parents we will have less and less say in the manner of how our children are educated. The measurable will become the primary focus and everything else will fall by the wayside. That may be desirable for some but thats not the world I plan to leave for my children.