We’re having some strange-bedfellows moments where I live, as the governor and a supportive legislature enact various planks of his education-reform package. In large part, they’re cut and pasted from the white-paper library of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which probably exists, in some form and under a different name, in your state, too — (Name of state) + (policy) + (institute/review/consortium). The Mackinac Center is “non-partisan,” the Indiana Policy Review (for which I once did some work) seeks to “marshall the best thought on governmental, economic and educational issues,” but down the line they’re pretty much doctrinaire Republican, and take their cues from the big boys higher up the food chain, the Hudsons and Hoovers and the like.
(I shouldn’t say they’re doctrinaire Republican, as the relationship is the other way around — the Republicans are doctrinaire free-minds-free-markets think-tank policy photocopiers. Beats workin’.)
Anyway, the governor is pushing his education agenda through a compliant legislature, and it’s ruffling feathers big-time here in this very Republican area. At its heart is the strongly held belief that public education is a shambles, that a big part of the problem is fat, overpaid teachers, and “market solutions” like charter schools are the answer to all our problems.
An early proposal was to make all Michigan schools open to all Michigan students, which sounds very egalitarian and progressive and a whole lot of no-big-deal, as 80 percent of Michigan schools have already voted to make themselves so-called schools of choice. As funding is determined on a per-pupil basis, kids simply arrive with a backpack full of cash and take their seat. This was a lead-balloon idea in Grosse Pointe, however, for a number of reasons. We’re not a schools-of-choice district, and never have been. We already pay higher taxes here, in order to keep our per-pupil spending at a higher level than the state allows, and no one accounted for that in the bill — how would these new arrivals make up the difference? Perhaps by magic. There’s also a strong sense of community and parental involvement in the schools, a shared belief that money alone doesn’t make a school excellent, but rather buy-in by all. And finally, unlike lots of high-quality suburban districts, we are not in exurbia, but hard by, literally across the street from, the worst-performing district in the state. The fear was that open enrollment would mean an influx of badly prepared Detroit students who would need disproportionate teacher attention, etc. And because race is the bass note to every single issue here, some of this fear was based in racism, and I’d never deny that for even a second. But that’s not the whole part of it. I don’t favor schools of choice, either, at least not without a lot of carefully considered conditions that would ameliorate the obvious problems. (Those who think we’re walled in by stacks of money are invited to peruse real-estate listings here, which are extremely affordable — ahem — of late. We also offer a range of rental housing. You can get into our district for well under $1,000 a month in housing costs.)
But I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of Michigan education policy for you folks, most of whom don’t live here. Rather, I want to think a little about public education, including the foundation of this reform movement — that it’s a bloody mess.
Obviously, it’s not a mess in Grosse Pointe, and it’s not a mess in Carmel, Ind., and it’s not a mess in any number of well-to-do suburban districts. It’s also not a mess in urban schools where an engaged parent base demands excellence, and gets it. (Shoutout to LAMary here.) It’s not even a mess in a place like Fort Wayne, which has a student body across the economic spectrum, and generally does a good job with them. It can be admittedly difficult to navigate in many cities — you have to know which schools are the ones you want, and know the teachers down to a dossier level — but when we talk about failing public education, we’re mainly talking about a handful of dysfunctional, chaotic big-city districts like Detroit, Chicago and the like. And I’m not even sure it’s failing there. Rather, I think the schools are simply where we’re seeing the manifestations of a decimated middle and working class.
I think a lot about what I’m paying for here in Grosse Pointe. What does my education dollar buy? A huge chunk, at least half, buys an engaged public, period — parents who value education and support it with their behavior and lifestyles. They read books, feed nutritious meals, use correct grammar and tell their children from an early age that college isn’t an option. Another big chunk is for excellent teachers. We just had back-to-school night, and I was impressed by nearly all of Kate’s teachers this term, from geometry to gym. Since enrolling her in second grade, I can count the clinkers on one hand, no, three fingers. And even they were only clinkers in the sense that they were merely competent, falling short of talented. I don’t begrudge any of them a dime of their salaries; teaching is an exhausting job. I think the next-largest chunk is for the physical plant — pleasant schools, current textbooks, contemporary technology, bathrooms with toilet paper. (And may I just say? Anyone who says throwing money at the problem doesn’t improve education hasn’t been in an affluent public school lately, where so much money is thrown around great wads of cash blow down the halls like tumbleweeds. SMART boards, new computers — and you haven’t even stuck your head in the auditorium yet.)
The rest is spent in dribs and drabs, but by and large, I feel like I’m getting full value for my education tax dollar. Detroit, on the other hand, is feeling the effects of all the social chaos that plagues the city — poverty, single parenthood, substance abuse. I volunteered for a year in an after-school program a while back, and saw with my own eyes the kids who struggled with simple arithmetic, with the difference between a noun and a pronoun, with finding a clean shirt and stick of deodorant in the morning. One night I was asked to drop off a trio of siblings at home, as yet another crisis in their crisis-ridden lives had derailed transportation that day. The eldest directed me down a typical Detroit street — streetlights out, half the houses gone and half of the remaining ones abandoned — until I got to a bungalow so dark I hesitated to let them out of the car. “It’s fine,” the kid said, and walked onto the porch, where he pulled open the door and let out the light inside. They were living behind plywood. Of course.
And the answer to this, the various public-policy think tanks tell us, is? Charter schools! Market solutions! Choice!
By the way, Detroit is already riddled with charter schools; the idea parents have no choice in alternatives to the building on the corner — or several corners away, depending on what’s closed lately — is a joke.
Here’s another: The governor, a wealthy man, sends his children to private schools. I am done listening to his ideas for public education. The charter-school movement is yet another flavor of the month designed to neuter teachers’ unions and transfer public resources into private hands. That the people pushing it think we’re too stupid to see this makes me wonder where they went to school.
OK, enough rant. I have to go meet with my own students, and I have work to do. Bloggage:
Like all Michiganders, I look forward to my new sense of safety and freedom, now that I will be allowed to carry a concealed Taser.
Detroitblogger John — I wish he’d just use his regular name, now that he’s been outed as John Carlisle — on the people who beg in Detroit. What works, what doesn’t.
For me, it’s breakfast time. Happy Wednesday, all.