1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Diverting money from public schools"?

Diane Ravitch repeats the above mantra in the September/October 2011 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Looking beyond the implied (and utterly false) doctrine that all of God's American children somehow belong to the public schools (a doctrine that was declared unconstitutional in the USSC's decision, Pierce et al. v. Society of Sisters in 1925: parents have the right to raise and educate their children in ways that they see fit and children are not "mere creatures of the State), it is evident that Professor Ravitch is a "glass half empty" kind of person.

One could view the departure of students from public schools as a good thing (in certain cases). We hear about school overcrowding -- what better way to decongest schools than to have some students go elsewhere? Yes, the public school loses some money, but it also has fewer students to teach.

Is Ms. Ravitch of the view that bigger is always better? Is the solution to education problems to maximize the number of students in a district or school in order to have large piles of cash or is the solution to be good stewards of the resources at hand?

The minute we begin looking at children as sources of revenue instead of as human beings, we know we've made a fundamental error.


Having criticized Ms. Ravitch, I must here add a point of agreement: the dangers of privatizing education. There is something perhaps ominous about education corporations emerging (well, they already exist) who shoot for instant (albeit short-term) results and big profits at the expense of students and parents. I'm not one who has complete faith in the invisible hand of the free-market.

I taught for three years at a charter high school in the Denver metro area (The New America School, co-founded by the businessman/politician, Jared Polis) and that experience illustrated to me the short-sightedness of the franchise model in education. In particular, the focus on growth and student enrollment.

LinkI recall attending a retreat in which the future of the school was being discussed. I mentioned that I thought the focus should be in establishing a sound pedagogy before pushing for more schools to open. I was in the minority on that one. A minority of one or two.

The corollary to growth is student enrollment (or "the numbers for October count"). This was a particularly shameful spectacle. Two examples:

1. Admitting the wrong kind of students. During my last year at the school we had a new principal who was literally obsessed with maximizing the number of students at the school. I can't recall even one student he advised to elsewhere. When a student comes to enroll with his probation officer, well, one would think one might hesitate about enrolling the student. No, no hesitation. Warm body = $. Violence, expulsion, sexual predator? No problem.

2. Gift cards. That same year the school was giving students $50 gift cards for students who referred friends to the school. They would get the card if the new student stayed through October count. Shameless.

Yes, the privateers can more easily succumb to the temptation to put dollars and cents ahead of pedagogical sense, but it is naive to think public schools are immune from the fixation on the bottom line.

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