Thursday, April 14, 2011

Charter Schools: They're Not Your Father's Country Club

It has taken a while, but I recently viewed Waiting for Superman. I viewed it after posting a guest blog by Miss C, a first grade teacher who discusses her experience at a corporate run charter school in the South Bronx. I invite you to read what she had to say here
The opening to Waiting for Superman is extremely important.  You might remember the scene where Davis Guggenheim describes the guilt he feels as he takes his own children pass public schools en route to their private (not charter) school.
Cue melancholy music.
Voice over: Every morning it's the same. Juice. Shoes. Backpack. The morning ritual and with it comes the uneasy feeling no matter who we are, or what neighborhood we live in. Each morning wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith. In 1999 I made a documentary about public school teachers. And I spent an entire school year watching them dedicate their lives to children. These teachers embodied a hope and carried with them a promise that the idea of public schools could work. Ten years later it was time to chose a school for my own children and then reality set in. My feelings about public education didn't mater as much as my fear of sending them to a failing school. And so every morning betraying the ideals I thought I lived by I drive by three public schools as I take my kids to a private school. But I'm lucky, I have a choice.
Is it really reality that set in or is it nothing more than another person of great wealth making a choice and not wanting to be morally responsible for that choice? 

I understand that Mr. Guggenheim may want to situate his decision to send his three children to private school as a societal dilemma, but it is clearly not that.  Society did not make Mr. Guggenheim chose private school.  He and perhaps his wife, actress Elisabeth Shue, made that decision--not you or me. If deciding to send his children to private school resulted in shame at choosing to betray ideals he thought he lived by, then that's something he needs to resolve.

What is unacceptable, however, is telegraphing his shame as ours and providing through his art a means for other wealthy people who hold a disproportionate amount of power in this country to eliminate public education and feel justified in doing so.  Mr. Guggenheim gives them this out in his docudrama by suggesting that "the worst possible example of public schooling in the United States" (Jay Mathews) is a suitable placeholder for ALL public schools. 

Further, he situates the complexity of learning with the simplicity of an input-output model and says that the issue of failure is caused by public schools being part of a bureaucracy. Guggenheim says:
It really should be simple. A teacher in a school house filling her students with knowledge and sending them on their way.
This gross misconception of learning, along with the image of the heroic superintendent (purple heart winner) who cannot reform D.C. public schools lay the foundation for the logic that allows the wealthy to say: We need something else, something new! Mr. Guggenheim serves up charter schools as that answer and in doing so allows for those with power and means to equate charter schools with their private school experiences.

Now perhaps Mr. Guggenheim thinks charter schools resemble Sidwell Friends School in D.C. where he went to school. Please note that to send your child there it would cost you between $33,000 and $38,000 per year, per child.  Sidwell is a long distance away from the schools highlighted in the film, as well as Miss C's charter school in the South Bronx. However, for the economically privileged like Mr. Guggenheim, private schooling may be the only recalled-child-memory available.

Zip Code
Like me, I imagined that you too shuddered when the mom in the film described her hopelessness and her desire to do better for her kids. She tells Guggenheim that "we're stuck."  He, a man with great means, replies, "That doesn't seem fair."  She answers, "It's not fair, but this is where we live."

You betcha.

Zip code in the United States means a lot and in places with significant wealth or poverty, zip code means everything as it influences EVERY aspect of living, not only schooling.  The differences between private schools that serve the elite and everything else is significant.  Consider what Miss C tells us about the charter she worked at in the South Bronx.  A school where she was reprimanded during a evaluation because a student breathed too loudly.  A school where new faculty are given a map that tells them how they will feel during a school year: struggling, keeping their heads above water and disillusionment. Does Sidwell offer such prophetic insight to their new staff? A school where children are overtly managed and controlled and given a steady and malnourished curriculum built upon behavior modification and test preparation.  A school where teachers are not permitted to talk with children, but only read from a script, less they face reduction in pay and dismissal.

No doubt, education in the United States needs attention and support that is steady, reliable, inspiring, and insightful.  We have too many examples of people with no or limited relevant experience being given control of large city school systems and failing miserably and publicly. Their failures (as well as the failures of those who appoint them) get spun into another example of why public schools need to be dismantled. The issues related to school redesign are complex and are always socially situated. We would do well to stop waiting for the heroic to arrive and engage local communities in the design of their public schools. Progress can be made, if we have a will to do so.

For profit schooling carries with it market values. We are fools to believe that for profit schools will privilege democratic ideals of caring and educating all above market rate returns.  The children who do not have advocates, the children who are poor, the children who are of color, the children who require special assistance, the children who don't appear to be catching on quickly, the children who misbehave, the children who speak out against the corporate entity that owns the school, and so on...These children will be left behind or used as fodder.

A democracy is only as strong as its public schools.

Starry, a painting by Samantha Caponera.


  1. You are knocking these posts out of the park. Am a bit swamped to comment properly, but wanted to let you know I was here. I read and left with goosebumps.

  2. Thanks Jabiz. I was motivated after reading Miss C's post about her experience at a charter school.