As I exited my polling location for the Georgia primary a teacher who works at the school recognized me. I am a fan of this teacher as she is one that goes above and beyond. As I greeted her she delivered back a wry smile and asked; “Only Republicans voting today?” I’ve never shared any political affiliation with her, but the assumption suggested that anyone so vocal about seeing schools improve must be a Republican. I’ve made it no secret that we need to reform the way we approach education. Or that I see such reform as a civil rights issues. Certainly, if it were pre-1960, reformation for the benefit of the disadvantaged and marginalized might more likely have been something championed mostly by the Republican Party. Things are not that simple now. We are at a time of greatly blurred lines. There is opportunity now, to get to the bare bones of what our major parties stand for. Historically, both parties have had ebbs and flows of “for the people” focus.
The most frequent question I get after having met with other education advocates in D.C. is: What do you think is the President’s plan for education?
My answer is that the President’s plan isn’t explicitly articulated. All you can do to examine his plan is to look at what is happening legislatively, financially, and what historical perspectives and experience his staff brings to the table. On that note let’s consider Arne Duncan, our U.S. Secretary of Education.
The Bottom Line
- The President and conservatives alike share a convergence of interests in the issue of school choice. The President, because he has witnessed that community based schools offer more potential to serve the poor and disadvantaged. Conservatives, because of the fundamental belief in less federal control, free market ideology, self determination, and “one nation under God.” The strategy of both therefore is to “create the legal and regulatory environments to increase access to high quality education. School choice legislation is not the end, it is the most available means Georgians have at the present time offer parents freedom in education.
HR 1162 - A Democrat or Republican Issue?
What is important to note about our Secretary of Education leader Arne Duncan is that he himself is credited with improving educational opportunities by creating a charter school. The President’s relationship starts with them both being Harvard alumni. They worked together again when Duncan joined Chicago Public Schools as CEO. In the mid to late '90s Duncan headed the Ariel Education Initiative, which helped fund college education for a class of inner-city children under the I Have A Dream program. (When I was at Hartwick College in New York, we received one of that program’s students.) The Ariel Community Academy, a school in Chicago was started by Duncan and Ariel Fund manager John Rodgers. This school wasn’t titled a “charter” but “magnet” suggesting an attempt to not appear in opposition to traditional public schools. However, the school is largely privately funded, was developed with parent contracts, has a school advisory committee, and developed with a unique curriculum around financial literacy. Interestingly, when I went to NIke headquarters with my AAU basketball teams, I met The First Lady’s Brother Craig Robinson who coaches at Oregon State. He told me of the President’s basketball jones. Duncan also talks basketball a lot. Seems Arne Duncan, and Rogers were on an adult team together. That side story may suggest that the way to their hearts is a good school basketball program. Or, does it suggest something related to the Georgia Legislature’s Constitutional Amendment to Allow State Approved Public Charter Schools (HR1162)?
[Continuing in the vein of alternatives to traditional public education Duncan later served on the Board of Directors for the Renaissance School Fund. That pro school choice system supports the start of charters. The City of Philadelphia is currently transitioning many traditional publics into this growing movement.]
I once wrote that the President has no education plan. Upon further inspection, I was wrong. They don’t speak to it directly or politically, but the Race to the Top initiative to fund public charters speaks volumes. Even as loud as it is coming from a Democratic presidency, Georgia’s school improvement struggles has some national leaders puzzled. Coupled with a vote for a Constitutional Amendment to allow the State of Georgia to approve and fund charter proposals not approved by local school boards, many Georgia democrats hedged against the Race to the Top tide. Who would have imagined that Georgia Republicans, who vastly supported HR1162, and President Obama would fundamentally agree on something. The rule of partisanship is so generally expected that a recent satirical (I think) newsletter called the Political Vine pondered if Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell), had switched to the Republican Party. Representative Morgan, a Spelman graduate and superwoman, is a major supporter of school choice and co-sponsored HR1162 with republicans.
School reform is not a partisan issue. The tide pushing for school innovation and systemic change is born from many parts that call for freedom, dignity, and preserving America’s distinctiveness. Our national culture, our government, and our economy are dependent upon education.
Remember Workforce 2000? As early as 1989 workshops were being held across the country to educate us on the changing demographics of the workforce. But before the new face of the American workforce became ready for work, they were first ready for school. However, the schools were the least ready for the implications of this forecast. As I conducted “diversity” workshops for companies in the early '90s, schools in large part were not part of the “readiness” discussion. And now, the changed dynamics of education, and the imperative of innovation must be digested even by those who have no appetite for politics. The secondary consequences of a monopolized educational system are coming home to roost.
Business Sector vs. Public Sector Tension
The tensions surrounding education we see are citizen vs. school board, parent vs. teacher, teacher vs. administrator, business sector vs. public sector, city vs. county. I could go on. In the case of the business community, that discussion, and the general performance based culture of business, has created the greatest tension. In Georgia, businesses are more ready for a functioning diverse society than are public school systems. They are more likely to pursue solutions with innovation. They are less likely to hold on to idealism for the sake of the perceived greater good. Businesses in a free market are less likely to fall prey to the political economy of the status quo. As such, we see private investment efforts from capitalists like John Rogers, while in Georgia, school board turn away investment from private investors. When an investor like Bill Gate’s foundation gives, we take the money and put it into the same system which his foundation itself seeks to reform. Change agents and investors alike know that systems in need of help will rarely change using the same methods that got them there in the first place.
The business community, by evidence of interest in educational policy from Georgia Pacific to large property investment groups, is becoming impatient with what they see as the white elephant in the room. That being, the public education system’s release of students to the workforce market with less than desired quality controls.
How Some Private Schools Control Quality
How the quality of a school’s output is measured depends on the consumer. Private secondary schools (suppliers) focus on preparing students for post-secondary systems (consumer). The “product” in this case, can be said to be the graduating student. One of the ways private schools uniquely control quality in its “product” is by establishing a “pre-first” year. Schools that do this realize that it is not to their advantage to ship a student to the upper school, not to mention college, before they are ready. The school’s reputation would suffer even as much as the student’s experience. Admissions directors look favorably upon private school applicants who have been allowed to mature this way. Businesses and manufacturing are critical customers of the public educational system. They want a better product. That criticism, and the propaganda and public debate that follows is creating much tension.
A Georgia Conundrum
Many national education leaders, outside looking in, find Metro Atlanta to be an oddity. One legislator said to me, “I don’t understand what is different about Prince Georges County Maryland’s Black American demographics and Metro Atlanta’s.” He was referring to their similarities in having large Black American middle class populations. What he didn’t know was that Metro Atlanta is separated by both race and class at the top leadership levels. Diversity of the school boards in Maryland is the rule. Diversity and voice in Metro Atlanta is an exception. Attend a public policy meeting, a chamber board meeting, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and the State Board of Education meeting, and you’ll see that race and class diversity in Georgia has not penetrated beyond the grassroots levels of leadership. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, while lauding efforts like Atlanta’s Ivy Prep public charter, and even tapping some Georgians for their national board, does not have a chapter in the nation’s third largest Black American metropolis.
Some Praxis Questions
- Should we study what Prince Georges County and Memphis Tennessee are doing?
- Locally, what systemic differences are there amongst the region and backyard neighbors like Decatur City, Marietta City, and Gwinnett County?
- Will UGA, KSU and GSU follow leaders like the University of Chicago and create a public charter school?
- Will local colleges, universities and think tanks contribute to unbiased research on school reform efforts? (It blew my mind to meet UGA Professors who say they don’t feel safe to talk openly about education in their home state without risking research funding.)
- While the President has made it clear he is willing to defer to the states, many of us look to him for guidance. Are we still “Waiting for Superman?” Or should we have local conversations and roundtable discussions about education?
- How are school boards seeking voice from all levels of constituency?
- What is “Local Control” and how does it relate to HR1162
A small group of Smyrna citizens will meet Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. They will discuss in roundtable format, action steps towards constructive and localized deliberations on education. The meeting will take place at REV Coffee, 1680 Spring Rd. Smyrna Georgia. For more information e-mail email@example.com.