Committee of the Unthinking: Your editor hasn’t had much praise for House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, his fervent effort to eviscerate the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, his longstanding support for increasing federal special education subsidies that do little more than perpetuate education ghettos that condemn millions of young men and women to poverty and prison, or even his past failure (and that of Early Childhood subcommittee chairman, California Republican Duncan Hunter) to bring Parent Power activists to any of the committee’s hearings. But Kline (and Hunter) deserve thanks for this week’s Early Childhood subcommittee hearing featuring Parent Power activists such as Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel (a Dropout Nation contributing editor) and school choice activists such as former D.C. City Councilman and Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Kevin Chavous. Because the hearing once again revealed how both so many Democrat and Republican politicians (other than Kline and Hunter) still don’t get the importance of families being the lead decision-makers in schools and education as a whole.
You can easily surmise this from the questions and the grandiloquent statements made by education traditionalists fellow-travelers on the committee, all of which you can download or watch. There was the wrong and hostile declarations of New York Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, wagging a pencil as if it were a cigar, that charter schools “have the ability of not taking children with disabilities”, and similar words from her California counterpart, Lynn Woolsey; National Alliance for Public Charter Schools honcho Todd Zeibarth had to refute those statements and inform them that there are charters specially designed to work with kids with autism. Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott went on a five-minute round of speechifying, proclaiming that vouchers are terrible because they divert dollars from district schools that think those dollars belong solely to them (instead of remembering that they are payment for providing services to kids, and they shouldn’t get the dollar). Instead of asking why states don’t revamp their school funding systems so that the dollars are voucherized and thus, kids can use them at any school that fits them, Scott simply argued that “those who don’t get vouchers are worse off”.
Then there was Pennsylvania Republican Todd Russell Platts, who used his soapbox to declare that school choice and Parent Power makes things “worse off” because it allows families to “abandon” failure mills and takes families who can be advocates for public education out of traditional district schools (without ever considering that the public education is not about a district or a bureaucracy, but about providing high-quality opportunities for all kids). Platts went on to proclaim that “our duty is to every child, not to the very few” even as he defended traditionalist policies and practices that have denied high-quality education to poor and minority children.
Platt’s speechifying weren’t necessarily shocking nor were McCarthy’s; both are the darlings of the old-school “parent involvement” crowd who, as Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III illustrated in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education, have long ago been co-opted by traditional district leaders and National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates; Platts, in particular, has long opposed school voucher programs (including the DC Opportunity Scholarship now facing another shutdown attempt by the Obama administration). Woolsey has long benefited from NEA and AFT donations, with $130,800 in campaign donations over her career, according to OpenSecrets.org. Scott has also benefited from teachers’ union largess, picking up $97,000 in donations from teachers unions over time; like fellow Virginian Henry Marsh (who was Scott’s colleague in the Dominion State’s legislature before winning his congressional seat 16 years ago), Scott is the kind of old-school black politician who has not realized the fact that education is the civil rights issue of this time.
But the fact that it isn’t surprising still doesn’t make it any less outrageous. What Platts, McCarthy, Scott, Woolsey and their fellow-travelers, both in Congress and in state legislatures, fail to realize is that families cannot “fix” or be engaged in education when they must tangle with bureaucracies and systems that treat them as afterthoughts and nuisances (when they aren’t being blamed by teachers’ union bosses and failed school leaders for their own performance problems). This is the reality in American public education today.
As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” Certainly some of this has to do with the negative experiences these parents have had with schools — especially those failure mills that they once attended and to which their children now go. But it is also about the fact that there are many teachers who look at parents — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — with condescension and disdain. The reality is that we have far too many teachers who look down on poor urban parents who may not be capable of helping their kids because of their own learning issues; who are hostile to those families who want to take an active role in shaping the education their kids receive in school; and would rather keep those families servile. And this disdain trickles down to how children, especially from the poorest households are treated. Contrary to what the GetSchooled Foundation and other groups attempted to declare yesterday in their report on chronic absenteeism, truancy is a natural consequence of kids realizing that they are illiterate, innumerate, and stuck with teachers and principals who treat their parents poorly and can’t help them as students make up ground.
This nauseating approach to families is just as strong in suburban districts such as the ones in Platts’ district– particularly for first-generation black and Latino middle-class households — as it is in big-city districts. As University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the area surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs, and finding themselves not informed about their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life, including opportunities to take Advanced Placement courses or participate in the growing number of dual-credit programs. From inconveniently-schedule parent-teacher conferences to refusals by suburban schools to allow families to tour the classrooms their kids will have to attend, suburban districts are no epitomes of cultures of strong family empowerment and engagement.
The beauty of vouchers, charter schools and Parent Trigger laws is that these tools not only allows families to actually help their kids succeed in school and in life, they also spur parents to be fully engaged in education and learn more about how their kids can get a high-quality education. As James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out, the only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. They also become the kind of unabashed school reformers and impromptu leaders we need to overhaul American public education. More importantly, choice and power also allow for the very democratic action that education traditionalists tout as a defense for preserving the status quo; when families can choose how their kids are educated, they can be real players in the rest of American society.
Kline and Hunter should use this hearing as an opportunity to challenge their colleagues (especially Platts) and push for making choice and Parent Power key components of federal education policy; this includes encouraging states to embrace vouchers and Parent Trigger laws. On the latter, they can already count on ranking Democrat (and former education committee chairman) George Miller, who once again proclaimed his support this past March for the passage of Parent Trigger laws.
As for school reformers? The challenge is to now remind congressional leaders such as Platts, McCarthy, Woolsey, and Scott that they need to embrace systemic reform and support the kinds of policies that allow for families to be real players in education. And when they still don’t get it, recruit challengers who will toss these politicians out of Congress for good.