Monday, July 17, 2006

Vouchers, "Failing Schools," and the People Who Call Them That

There was an article in Education Week last week about a national group that is pushing for vouchers in New Jersey. Saying that I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement.

Eschewing the traditional solution of adding money to public schools, the Alliance for School Choice and three New Jersey-based groups filed a class action on July 13 in state superior court in Newark demanding that students in the schools receive vouchers to attend a public or private school of their choice, including religious schools. The lawsuit also would seek to revoke mandatory attendance boundaries in the state.

The choice measures would provide "immediate and meaningful relief" from the
inadequate education provided to the 60,000 students attending the 97 schools
cited in the lawsuit as failing, said Clint Bolick, the president and general
counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based legal advocacy group.

First of all, it irks me that the charge for vouchers in New Jersey is being led by some guy from Phoenix. If people in New Jersey think vouchers are necessary there, and apparently some do, they should be listened to. I'm sure the guy from Phoenix sees himself as performing some kind of public service, but my guess is that he's one of the public education haters that we constantly hear popping off these days.

This is New Jersey's fight, but on the face of it, I can't argue against having vouchers there if parents who care about their kids' education think they need them. Apparently they've got pretty good reasons for doing so.

The 97 schools cited in the lawsuit either have at least half of their
students failing to meet the state's standards in language arts and mathematics
or 75 percent of their students falling short of the standards in one of those

As much as I hate the idea of vouchers, I have to ask myself if I wouldn't want to find a different school for my kids if I was living in that area. I think it should be a priority for our society to provide a reasonably good learning environment for any young person who has the desire to get a good education, especially when those kids are coming from low-income families. Certainly there are kids in these schools who do want to get a good education, but when so many in these schools are doing so poorly, I doubt that the environment is very good.

Nevertheless, the term "failing schools" grates on me, and the Phoenix Flash can't wait to use it when he tells what the lawsuit would do:

"It immediately allows students to leave failing schools for good ones and at
the same time creates pressure for accountability for public schools," Mr.
Bolick said in an interview before filing the lawsuit.

That's not the only time Bolick is quoted using that term in the article, and despite my agreement that there must be big problems in the schools involved, I think the term is unfair. I have no doubt that when people like Bolick say "failing schools," it is meant to conjure up images of incompetent and lazy teachers and administrators. I remember having the TV on a few years ago and hearing Tony Snow, who is now President Bush's press secretary, saying that he would like to go into those inner-city schools and fire the teachers. I have no doubt that when the term "failing schools" is used, that is the way the people who use the term want us to feel.

Because I have worked in public schools and have experienced both good and bad classes, when I hear about schools with so many students scoring so poorly, I don't picture a bunch of teachers and administrators who aren't trying; I picture classrooms with unmanageable numbers of kids who see school as having little meaning in their lives--kids who won't behave and won't try. I picture teachers trying to accomplish something in an atmosphere like that and experiencing nothing but frustration and humiliation. I know that if I had to face that situation day after day, year after year, I'd never be able to handle it.

People like Mr. Bolick are also very big on "accountability." Accountability is fine if you've actually got a chance to be successful, but it's not so fine when you're placed in an impossible situation like the people running these schools are. I enjoy a good reputation as a teacher in my community, but there have been a couple of times when I've had classes that were absolutely awful. I wish Mr. Bolick could have that experience. There were some students in those classes who wanted to learn, and most of the problems were caused by just a handful of kids, but I felt like we were accomplishing almost nothing. I would get headaches just thinking about those classes, and I would have been irate if someone was constantly throwing the term "accountability" in my face while I had them.

Even though I think we have to do something for the students in places like Newark who do want an education, I have great sympathy for the teachers and principals there, who take so much crap from the likes of Clint Bolick. If I ever start to look down on them because the scores of their students aren't very good, I hope someone will give me a good swift kick in my backside. When anyone like me thinks about the people who work in those schools, the first thing that comes to mind should be, "There, but for the grace of God, goes me."


Anonymous Doug Noon said...

You are so right about how the language conjures up impersonal images. The word schools is used to describe something generic. Its a word for a concept that we all take for granted. There are, in fact, no such things as generic schools. Every school is part of a community with a history and with people who are trying to find their way in the world. Some do better than others and it isn't because the school itself is doing a better job, but (usually) because the community is economically healthier.

I work in a Title 1 school and, like you, I always imagine dedicated people who struggle in the face of insurmountable problems. Some are more successful, more resilient than others. Maintaining optimism in the face of long odds is either the mark of a hero or a fool. I don't want to be either one.

Why is it that the word 'accountability' is only used in discussions about teachers and not, say, politicians or parents? Why is it that we can talk about 'failing schools' and not a failing society or a failing family ? The school is an indicator of the health of the community which in turn is an indicator of the health of the society that it is a part of. I don't argue for less responsibility, but that more people share it.

Teachers can't do their jobs alone.

7/17/2006 11:03 PM  
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