The Planned Destruction of Public Schools

So, I’ve been meaning for a long time to write something about the “No Child Left Behind”(NCLB) program. I’ve been musing a lot about why the most pro-business administration ever would create a new program for our socialized school system. It somewhat clarified when I was reading reviews of Thomas Frank’s “The Wrecking Crew”. He basically argues that contrary to what everyone believes George Bush is just playing stupid, and the Republicans are simply playing at inept. What they’re actually doing is breaking the national government so that it is irreparably broken. If you pass legislation to change things your way, then when the next guys get into power they can reverse everything you’ve done. If you break it completely, there’s nothing they can do about it.

I started thinking about this when the latest test results came back for the elementary schools in my neighborhood. Travis Heights Elementary came back as academically unacceptable. Travis Heights has a reputation for being a great school that does an excellent job teaching students of varying economic backgrounds. But now it is academically unacceptable.

REALTORs must love NCLB. It gives them a great way to point out where the most desirable homes are. Your customers don’t have to take the REALTOR’s word on which neighborhood schools are good and bad. They can just look at statistics from the federal government. Which of course means bad schools are going to stay bad. Concerned, involved parents aren’t going to move into a bad school area, or they’re going to move in and send their kids to private schools.

But that’s not a huge difference from the way things always have been. REALTOR’s opinions have always red-lined neighborhoods. That’s a good part of what you pay for. The expertise of someone who knows all the different parts of town. So while we might see a few more schools fail, we shouldn’t expect the whole sale destruction of the public school system.

Until we get to the issue of failed schools. Failed schools are the linchpin to the system of destroying the public school system. Johnston just failed. As part of that failure 50% of those students must be transfered out. And that’s where the dominoes will start falling. We’re transferring out kids who are known to fail on standardized tests. So they move into another school. That school has a sudden influx of failures that drag down their scores. Concerned parents pull their kids out of that school and put them in private schools. The test scores move lower. The schools failed. Eventually these kids get transferred to the rich predominately white schools where all the best teachers are. This is where proponents of the system say the system will stop failing the kids. But I fail to believe that Bowie’s teachers are currently composed of Morgan Freeman, Sydney Portie, and Michelle Pfeifer. Sure some small percentage of kids who get transferred will thrive under better teachers and the resources that these schools have. But that won’t matter. Because the law of averages will take out that school with all the kids who don’t.

So why are private schools better? It certainly can’t be the instruction. The average private school teacher is not licensed, has less education, and is paid less. The key is exclusivity. Picking and choosing students means, you can pick and choose how good your school is. So existing private schools are a cash cow. Then when you look at private companies taking over public schools you can see why with NCLB they’re drooling. You could siphon off money from the students, and every time it fails you get new students, and new teachers. If they put performance requirements on schools then you would just find schools (like Starbucks) are yet another thing you don’t find in the poor side of town.

I listen to parents a lot and they agree with what I’m saying, but they feel that they have to do what’s best for their kids. Which is very different from the way our grandparents viewed education. In the 1950s and 60s most companies were local. You needed kids who could do arithmetic to man your cash registers. You needed the college students to love their community and want to settle back in it once they completed their degrees for higher level positions in your companies. You needed local engineers and craftspeople. So schools became a priority for the community. You couldn’t just plan on staffing your department store with kids from the next town, or in China, where schools were good.

With globalization we’ve uprooted. We pick towns based upon how they fit our lifestyle, rather than where our roots are. And in much the same way we’re not loyal to our jobs, we’re not loyal to our communities or our schools. We might have to change them, and frequently, so why bother getting involved. It seems quaint to think that there was once a social stigma attached to skipping the neighborhood schools and going private.

So what do we do? I honestly don’t know. I haven’t found a parent yet who was willing to commit with me to sending their kid to public schools. Most are planning to try them out, or are going to use them because they can’t afford a private school, but they’re all clear that if push comes to shove they’re pulling them out.

I can only hope that this is yet another pendulum, and the coming destruction of the public school system will refocus our energy on having top notch schools. That the increases in cost of energy will cause people to think more about nurturing their local communities rather than moving their kids to exclusive enclaves or transporting them to private schools. But our attitudes have changed so much that I don’t know if we can count on it.