This is a post by my friend and colleague Zachary Wright, a national finalist for the United States Department of Education’s School Ambassador Fellowship. Zach is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education serving Philadelphia and Camden. Prior to that, he was the 12th-grade world literature and AP literature teacher at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus, teaching the school’s first eight graduating classes.
I am punching above my weight.
I am no education policy wonk, nor am I a mover or shaker in America’s larger educational conversation. But a recent blog post by the well-known edu-legends Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch on The Washington Post’s website made me so confused, angry, and frustrated that I had to respond.
I am a former high school English teacher who spent more than 10 years in Philadelphia’s schools, including private, traditional public and public charter. Now I have a job teaching future teachers.
I am also the father of two young boys, one of whom attends the traditional public school in our suburban neighborhood.
I presume Ravitch and Burris want what’s best for kids. But well-meaning as they may be, they are out of touch, biased and at times flat-out wrong in their vitriolic hatred of charter schools, which they argue are the ever-creeping cancerous cells seeking to privatize our nation’s education system.
Harping on a well-worn anti-charter trope, Ravitch and Burris argue that charter schools “drain finances” from the traditional public school system for which they were intended.
There’s a problem with this theory, however.
The money doesn’t belong to the school system. It belongs to the public. Those are not the same thing.
In fact, many states allocate funding the way we do here in Pennsylvania, based on per-pupil expenditures, not per-school expenditures. In other words, the money is meant to meet the needs of each child, not the needs of a system or institution.
This point was recently made by Professor James V. Shuls who (brilliantly, I might add) put the scenario this way:
How would you respond if you stumbled across a headline that asked, “How much do farmers markets cost Walmart?” It’s a ridiculous question. It presupposes that the customer belongs to Walmart; that any time the individual chooses to buy cucumbers from a local grower or salsa from an aspiring entrepreneur, he or she is “robbing” the dominant grocer. That’s just absurd. Yet this is the standard frame we use when talking about education.
Public charter schools do not rob traditional public schools of funding, because the money does not belong to the traditional public schools in the first place. It belongs to the public, and it is meant to educate each child in the environment where they can most thrive. That money ought to follow them regardless of whatever form of public education they choose. (For the record, this does not include vouchers, which are ineffectual at best).
Ravitch and Burris go further by maligning all the so-called sordid bad actors supporting charter schools. They strategically use the oft-demonized figures of the Walton family, Betsy DeVos and, somewhat oddly, Michael Bloomberg (I doubt they find him equally nefarious in his generous support of gun reform).
The assertion is that these mega-donors are on a “quest to elect school board members and policymakers who will undermine the public’s right to govern its schools.”
Let’s be honest, though. Burris and Ravitch play readers dumb by selectively pointing out the financial backing of their adversaries while remaining quiet about the treasure chests wielded by those more closely aligned to their own interests.
In the 2018 midterms alone, the nation’s two largest teachers unions are on track to invest nearly $27 million in campaign activity. But that’s hardly surprising—here in Philadelphia, the local teachers union has long been known to use its significant power to support city council members.
But apart from being perhaps a bit disingenuous, Burris and Ravitch also seem blind to their own privileged isolation when they decry the out-of-touch elites whose philanthropies support school reform.
Not only is this somewhat amusing given what these so-called advocates of public education earn themselves (leader of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten earns just under $558,000 a year, more than 10 times what the average teacher in America makes), but Burris and Ravitch demonstrate their own ignorance when they assert that it is only those who support charter schools who “believe that the role of the average woman or man is to be a consumer, not a decider.”
First of all, this is a false dichotomy between “consumers” and “deciders.”
Charter schools do have public oversight (although some states could do better at it) and are judged by the same test scores and criteria as traditional public schools. They are all free schools open to all children, and we are all still “deciders” in that we can use our vote to elect officials who will support educational equity and access for all public schools, including charters.
And furthermore, families are deciders precisely because they are consumers. Like it or not, education in America is a commodity and we the people are the “consumers.” Anyone who disagrees with this need only go to Zillow.com and peruse the real estate listings. Right there, alongside the square footage, is the school to which that property is zoned.
When we purchase our homes, families all across this country include the neighborhood schooling option as a key factor in where we spend our money. This is obviously not lost on realtors and sellers who attach higher costs to schools in “good” school districts.
I, personally, have made this choice for my family. We bought a home in a middle- to upper- middle-class suburb because of its school system. We were consumers and bought access to a high-quality school system.
Families of privilege use their wealth to access high-quality education while those without are stuck. The sooner we admit that, the sooner we can work to make such access equitable regardless of socio-economic standing.
I have great respect for what Ravitch and Burris have contributed to the education conversation in their (very) long careers. As I said in the beginning, I am punching far above my weight here.
But, I think they’re willfully burying their heads in the sand. They deride charter schools—they even go out of their way to condemn the ones I work in here in Philadelphia.
I go into these schools every day. You know what I see?
I see access.
I see access for families who have been forgotten and told to wait, yet again, for another generation or two. Oftentimes by the very people who claim to be their advocates.