Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wishing I Was a Fly

For the past few years, I’ve been a member of a potentially city-wide public school parent Yahoo group “where parents can discuss important Oakland public school issues.” Unfortunately, in a school district with 46,431 students, it only has 453 members!

The poor showing is undoubtedly because of insufficient marketing and community interest, but is definitely also related to the limitations of Oakland's public school parents re: English literacy, spare time, and computer access and skills. We are a school district where 64% of the students (29,716 kids) are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch and 30% (13,929 kids) are English Language Learners.

I like to post things to the group which are informative and provocative, so I sent out this message the other day:

Check out this article about the DC darling, Michelle Rhee.

At this point, there is a very small group of people controlling a huge number of schools and none of them are the local citizens.


A member of the group privately replied to me:

Hi S.

It makes me nervous to reply directly to you because I can tell that we disagree and I don't enjoy confrontation, but I feel like I have to ask you something related to your post about Michelle Rhee. I'll let you know that I am an OUSD parent and a former Teach For America teacher who went on to get my Master's in Ed. after my two years of teaching and then taught for three more years before having my kids. [She told me her children's elementary school, one of the district's highest performing schools with one of the most educated parent bodies. It is located in the “hills,” Oakland’s woodsy and affluent, primarily white section of town. Eleven percent of the students at her school are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch and 4% are English Language Learners.]

What I don't understand about the hatred leveled toward Michelle Rhee, TFA, Broad, the Gates Foundation, etc. is that I really don't think they would be working this hard to destroy schools. Everyone I know who does this work in low-income public schools works like a dog because they want to help kids achieve. The people I know are light years away from "caring less about" public education. They are simply trying to think hard and work hard to fix the system and improve the lives of children.

I visited
Oakland School for the Arts [one of Jerry Brown’s two pet Oakland charter school projects, the other being the Oakland Military Institute] yesterday and witnessed immense caring and dedication by staff members who are part of a charter school. Their students were studying, dancing, drawing, lighting a theater and playing music. This is one example of a school who is working within the charter school system, doing things differently and offering something many of these children would never have access to without OSA its supporters. I see the same things going on at Lighthouse Community Charter School [the pet project of Brian Rogers, the son of a local millionaire] and at the KIPP Bridge Academy.

These people really, really care about kids and though it may sound trite, want to make the world a better place.

I am always trying to understand the mindset of people like this, so I appreciated her note. Here's how I responded:

Hi K.

Thanks for writing. It looks like we'll just have to "agree to disagree," as the saying goes.

Of course, I am aware that all school sites would be filled with caring people, nice families, and eager kids whether they be public, private or charter schools.

As for my opinions, I have formed them from things I have personally experienced and observed, as well as from a substantial amount of research which I have done. Please know that I am a person who has never been highly political or extreme in the past. [Not too long ago, I’d spend my spare time on personal things, like art or home projects, or exercising. Political action was the farthest thing from my mind.] It's just been in the past several years of watching my city’s, and the nation's, public education trend that I have become so upset about this singular topic: the direction we are heading just doesn't feel safe or correct.

My point of view is not alone by any means. In fact, in my journey to becoming this type of public school activist I have been quite amazed to discover how many people across the nation, in Seattle, Chicago, LA, New York, and DC [and Oklahoma City and Cambridge, too], have developed exactly the same opinions and fears, among them longtime educators who are highly esteemed. We all have evolved quite separately from each other's influence, but we converge with the same sense of alarm.

One of the things that make us terribly nervous is that a handful of powerful and private individuals has obtained the power to steer the direction of public institutions of education, almost always in communities outside their own. Broad, via O'Connell, gained control of OUSD schools and for a time,
Oakland citizens had no say. Mayor Fenty gave full power to Rhee, and DC citizens have no say. Bloomberg, a billionaire, gained mayoral control of NYC public schools, delegated Klein to be the enforcer, and now NYC citizens have no say. The rule of the public schools by Klein and Rhee is absolute and authoritarian.

Each and every one of these people is associating with, and being funded by, the same tiny group of extraordinarily powerful and ultra-wealthy individuals. It greatly concerns me that the voice of the average citizen has been excised. In combination with that [excision] is the power of the propaganda which has been paid for by the billionaires. Think of how the public opinion of the regular public schools could be altered if we had millions to pay for similar propaganda, too.

I wonder what would have happened if O'Connell had assigned someone else to OUSD who didn't have a pre-formed plan for us [as the Broad Academy folks did]. I'm sure it wouldn't have been impossible for him to find an outstanding, sensitive, and experienced educator to be our superintendent for the past several years, and that person could have brought in an extremely competent financial officer to resolve our woes. As it stands now, OUSD was not made one bit more stable -- it was never their main focus, and we're still in a big mess.

So I guess I would rather have a messy and fumbling democracy that tries to do its best, than the autocratic situation we are now watching unfold. If the billionaires want to know what's wrong with public education, they really need to read, and absorb, this:

As for whether people like me are right or wrong, only time will tell.

This morning I received her reply.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think we'll still have to agree to disagree, but your post engaged me and my husband in a thought provoking dialog tonight.

Her response makes me believe I didn't exactly lose the battle. Being so curious about how those other minds work, I would have loved to been a fly on the wall in their home that night.


caroline said...

One thing I have observed -- as a commentator with views very similar to those expressed by the Perimeter Primate -- is that the need to sell their projects to funders and to sell their schools to new districts tends to distort the behavior of formerly well-meaning, committed do-gooders. In the worst cases, it turns them into craven liars. (Edison School is a good example, though I wouldn't confidently claim its founders were ever well-meaning. Certainly some people involved were, though, and they too became craven liars.)

Rhee was a liar before she got hired in D.C., though, at least on her resume. That claim about her success compared to her incompetent colleagues in her short time teaching in an inner-city Baltimore school is just a flagrant, crass falsehood. She gets NO credit from me for any good intentions or ethics at all.

tft said...

All large-scale social changes begin, and end, with funding.

Dollars. Money.

Those of us who don't stand to make or lose money have the luxury of knowing the truth.

We just can't exercise it!

Teachers! Take back the schools!