Public schools anchor communities

It used to be that the reason for having charter schools was to bring innovation to school districts serving children whose communities are out of the mainstream. The first charters were devised by progressive educators in the spirit of allowing flexibility to address specific community level concerns and students' cultural interests.

The rhetoric and argument has shifted completely. Gov. Larry Hogan, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Maryland State School Board Member Chester Finn and President Donald Trump, to name a few of the players calling for the expansion of charter autonomy and funding, have a completely new set of arguments. Their reasoning has nothing to do with improving our existing school districts serving low income black and brown children.

They start first with the premise that school districts serving high concentrations of children in poverty have failed dismally to improve their test scores. They call this a civil rights travesty. Then they make a huge leap of reasoning and arrive directly at the conclusion that the only solutions to this problem lie within the private sector: either autonomous charters or a voucher program to allow parents to send children to private schools. They conclude, contrary to much of the evidence, that the only way to improve what they identify as a travesty is to bypass all government constraints and all government oversight and give free reign to private groups — and even to religious groups — to use public funds as they see fit to educate children who have been failed or may be failed by public education.

It is easy to sympathize with the first premise: that children have been failed by their schools for decades. Most people facing the prospect of sending their child to Kindergarten in Baltimore City have enormous trepidation about letting go of their innocent one. They want the smoothest transition into the world that can be provided. All parents want school to be a safe haven, but perhaps even more so if they are a single parent who works two or three jobs and struggles to see to all their children's needs. Parents whose own experiences with schooling were negative worry that their child will be singled out for punitive discipline or ridicule. Parents whose own experiences with schooling were positive worry that the environment of school will make their child grow up too fast and face realities from which they have strived to protect them.

Either way, decrying the failures of public education is a posture that hits fertile ground and feeds into parent concerns.

But the privatization answer, the leap that these neo-liberal politicians all make, goes way too far. For one, you cannot blame the school district for failures that are the result of systematic underfunding, arguably since Baltimore first became a majority black city in the 1950s.

Second, you cannot expect children to make up the ground they have already lost by the time they arrive in school. The relative absence of quality preschool opportunities for city youngsters has been fundamental to any "failures."

Third, the constant cycle of financial disruption that occurs within Baltimore City Public Schools (largely outside of its control) is a primary cause of staff turnover and lack of consistent leadership.

Fourth, while appealing as an idea, charters and voucher programs, across the country have mostly succeeded only to the degree that they have picked off the most easy to teach children.

Fifth and finally, disruption is the last thing that people who struggle to keep house, home or school community together need. The idea that further disruption (e.g. massive layoffs, school closings, taking teachers out of their union, creating a whole new district just for charters) will actually improve the situation, for any but the lucky few, is outrageous. What we need above all is stability. City families are no different from middle class families in the suburbs: predictability, safety, stability and long term relationships that allow trust to be built are the foundations of opportunity.

For all their faults, public schools can be the anchors of their communities. They have the potential to hold all the hopes and aspirations of parents and non parents alike. Rather than trash them, cause massive disruption, cut into foundational relationships between teachers and children, artificially create competition between schools, pit families against families (and all for very little or no overall return as shown by numerous studies), we need to build onto and improve our current institutions. We need full funding that truly meets the needs of all our students under firmly established principles of equity.

Helen Atkinson is executive director of the Teachers' Democracy Project. Her email is helen@tdpbaltimore.org.

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