Since Wednesday, when Dropout Nation reported on the charging of Bridgeport, Conn., mother Tanya McDowell for sending her kid to a school in nearby Norwalk (and committing what can be laughably called tuition fraud), folks have stood up and helped the mother and her child get some economic relief. Thanks to everyone who has signed the petition and offered their assistance. But McDowell will still need help — especially as her case goes to court on May 5 for an initial hearing (and faces other charges in other unrelated cases). She could use a savvy lawyer who can assist the public defender in this case. (You can feel free to reach Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel to help out.)
At the same time, McDowell’s case has also brought up an argument that this is another “predictable” outcry among school choice supporters — who can rally around another case of a poor mother looking to improve education for their kids — who gloss over the more-complex problem of providing education for children of the homeless. The fact that the federal McKinney-Vento Act section of the No Child Left Behind Act — which requires schools to educate homeless kids — proves to be ineffective because it is difficult to pin down a place of residence for someone like McDowell’s son, matters that are ignored at times by school choice activists.
Certainly, this publication has devoted plenty of time to discussing the complicated issues that entangle the reform of American public education. This site has explained to reformers why they should focus on overhauling the juvenile justice system (into which American public education feeds kids it doesn’t want to educate) and the child welfare system. In fact, these ghettos that feed into (and are sustained by) American public education are as much a part of the discussion that occurs on these pages as collective bargaining agreements and vouchers. School reformers of all stripes should deal with these complexities (which often aren’t discussed on the pages of some Beltway-based blogs) as part of their work. Right now, this doesn’t happen much at all.
But ultimately, the reality is that the response from school choice and parent power activists is predictable because the problems remain unfixed. Our kids are stuck with a crisis in which the zip code in which they reside (and even the lack of one, in the case of McDowell’s child) determines the quality of education they receive. From an economic perspective, this lack of choice results in perverse incentives and actions — both by families who are the customers and other players — that lead to situations such as that of McDowell and Bolar-Williams. From a civil rights perspective, it means that millions of young men and women are denied equality of opportunity to choose their own social and economic destinies. And from a moral perspective, it leads to millions being put on the path to prison and poverty, and that is just objectionable.
It is also predictable because there are actual human lives affected by this state of affairs. For many kids like McDowell’s son, school may be the only stable and nurturing environment they know. Schools cannot be parents and shouldn’t be. But through caring and highly-qualified teachers, strong, entrepreneurial and caring principals, and cultures of genius that nurture the potential in all kids, they can be shelters in the storms of life. More importantly, by improving student achievement among the poorest students, schools can help reduce the very economic poverty that contributes to the kind of problems the McDowell case has brought to fore.
But this is more than just a problem of American public education. Parents working hard to improve education for their children deserve our praise. But they must also provide their kids with stable, healthy, nurturing and functional homes. In McDowell’s case, she has struggled on this front with three pending criminal cases for alleged charges no one can just ignore or condone. McDowell is doing some things right in order to get her life together; this includes getting job training and making sure her son stays in school. But we can’t simply gloss over McDowell’s shortcomings no more than we would forget those of poor-performing teachers and incompetent principals. They are all responsible for the lives of children — and none of them can afford to fail them.
We must hold our parents to the same high expectations that we demand from American public education. This means mothers and fathers should seek out the social service programs — including those run by churches — that can help them get their families back on solid economic footing. It also means embracing the kind of values that can keep families out of even worse economic deprivation and help kids survive and thrive. And for communities, it means actually playing a role in the lives of kids in order to shelter them from the worst public education and their parents can offer. Hillary Clinton was right when she declared that it takes a village to raise our children.
It also means that we cannot simply ignore the problems of American public education because some parents are also dysfunctional and imperfect. And you cannot ignore the dysfunctions of some parents because public schools are failing our kids. No child should have to have to deal with both dropout factories and dysfunctional families.