Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Taking Off The Gloves

In 2005 at a Washington, DC conference on education philanthropy, former big city school Superintendents Howard Fuller (led Milwaukee Public Schools in the early 1990's) and Alan Bersin (who was in the process of stepping down from the helm of San Diego's schools, before accepting a position as California's Secretary of Ed) politely chastised philanthropists for encouraging a culture of niceness in school reform efforts.

Fuller called it the Rodney King syndrome, as the well-intended civic leaders and check-writers encourage school reformers to bring radical change to education systems - while somehow managing to make sure no one's feathers get ruffled along the way. You can see the end result of this kind if thinking in disastrous graduation rates from coast to coast.

(I've wondered, for example, if today's education philanthropists had bankrolled the Boston Tea Party, whether the participants would have chatted over a cup of hot green tea chai rather than dumping it into the harbor.)

For a long time I've thought the charter school movement suffered from a similar counter-productive "Why can't we all get along" mindset. Many charter school supporters tiptoe around important (and sometimes potentially volatile) political issues, while year after year kids get screwed by uncaring school systems that are aligned in ways that always consider the wants of grownups before the needs of disadvantaged kids. Essentially, Charter Chuck is worried about playing nice while another generation of New York's kids slips through the cracks.

Today's New York Sun suggests we may be starting to see signs of a more politically sophisticated operation supporting chartering as a necessary reform option in New York State. The group Parents for Public Charter Schools is planning to spend $2 million on a television and radio advertising campaign targeting (i.e. publicly shaming) Democrats who aren't supporting reform friendly legislation. The Sun mentions one ad is attacking Assemblyman Ronald Canestrari, D-Cohoes (pictured above,) for being "dead set" against allowing parents to choose public schools for their children.

Now we're talking.

The group Democrats for Education Reform, working with another group called Education Reform Now, has hired Brian Meara, a lobbyist with close ties to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to twist some arms.

Oooh. The Chalkboard likey that too.

Public education is inherently political. Without political activity, charter schools couldn't and wouldn't exist. The future of the reform effort depends on strong political activity. Sometimes it means you have to get your hands dirty. Sitting back and waiting for politicians who claim they support education reform to deliver simply doesn't cut it.

Two thoughts: (1) As a Democrat, I'm happy to see the heat being turned up on our party to spend more time considering the needs of real families, and not just the special interests who run the show within the party. But I also hope the Republicans in New York are watching closely. It's important for parents to ask the GOP what it is doing for school reform too. (NB: Providing record amounts of spending for school districts alone doesn't count as reform.)

(2) These kinds of campaigns are crucial, and as Neal McCluskey notes on today's EdSpresso, the real power for reform will come when parents demand their right to choose schools for their children and then refuse to vote for anyone who won't give it to them - Democrat or Republican.

Our kids have to matter that much.

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.