Archive for June, 2011

The Wheels Are Coming Off

June 13, 2011

Witnessing the downfall of the Bristol-Warren Regional School District will be like watching a train wreck in slow motion unless enough concerned citizens somehow manage to steer us clear of the oncoming disaster. The wheels were, of course, set in motion last year when the RI Department of Education unrolled a series of changes, including a funding formula that slashes millions of dollars from the district’s budget. Unfortunately, since then, only a handful of local residents have tried to slam the brakes on the reform (or, to be accurate, deform) movement taking place here and in school systems across the country.

Quite frankly, I’m amazed that more people haven’t questioned these educational policies, which have little to do with what actually takes place inside classrooms. Sure, high stakes tests and charter schools are fancy buzz words, but neither are the silver bullets with which their supporters wish to blaze a trail through public education. Evidently, the original intentions behind both ideas are lost on the deform crowd. Charters were meant to be utilized as laboratories for teachers to experiment with innovative curriculum, and tests as metrics to assess the strengths and weaknesses of students. In other words, charter schools and tests were supposed to inform and improve the teaching profession.

Instead, they are being used to drive and damage it. The deformers often cite poor test scores as a reason for firing teachers and closing schools to open up RI’s own version of charters, called Mayoral Academies — like the 5 Achievement First schools now proposed for Cranston and Providence. What they fail to cite as frequently, however, is that most charters don’t perform better than public schools. Hey, but at least with privately managed schools they don’t have to deal with those pesky unions anymore! With teachers’ unions out of the way, they can end all the messy labor rights stuff like tenure and collective bargaining and save tons of money by hiring inexperienced scabs to teach our kids on the cheap! It’s practically a no-brainer… because if you believe that junk passes for real education reform you might not have a brain.

Teachers’ unions definitely have problems. Their leaders don’t always represent them well… maybe because they’re too busy representing Doug Gablinske in emails, I don’t know. But trying to get rid of unions altogether will create a lot more problems than it will solve, especially since rank-and-file members didn’t cause an education crisis. Teachers aren’t failing schools. Politicians are. The next time I hear someone rail on “lazy teachers stealing from taxpayers”, I’m going to ask them to name names. Either they won’t because they don’t have the guts to defend their position, or they can’t because they’ve been led to believe in boogeymen. You know those pricy pensions that everybody’s talking about, the ones that were raided by state governments to pay for their deficits the same way the federal government has borrowed from Social Security? Yeah, those aren’t really the issue. Neither are “bad” teachers. No, to get to the heart of the matter, we’ve got to understand one reason why public funds are drying up so quickly (I mean, besides the obvious multi-trillion dollar wars and bank bailouts).

But, before that, let me just state something for the record. My wife and I believe in certain forms of philanthropy. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have worked with groups such as the Bristol Land Trust or the Bristol-Warren Education Foundation (BWEF), to name just two of the volunteer organizations to which we’ve donated time and money the last few years. A lot of good can come about through philanthropic work, but a new form of philanthropy — known as venture philanthropy — makes me more than a little wary. Venture philanthropists don’t donate to causes in good faith, they heavily invest and control them,  creating organizations which care more about short-term profits and tax evasion and less about long-term sustainability and problem solving.

Cuts to school aid, high stakes tests, and charter schools aren’t going to produce educational miracles. They are simply the vehicles which will allow for the privatization of public schools. As for teachers, they’re the scapegoats not because they’re “pigs at the trough” but because they prevent greater profit margins and have enough power to resist impending school deforms. Sadly, when I first brought this message to neighbors earlier in the year, I don’t think it was warmly received… and that’s putting it mildly. Although I now wonder if, in light of what’s happening in Cranston and Providence, it’s starting to sink in a bit.

It’s not by accident that Mayoral Academies aren’t accountable to elected school committees, but to a board stacked with pro-deform advocates. Nor is it a mistake that a RI-CAN Board Member, Kara Milner, is heading up a group in support of a school funding task force in Bristol-Warren to provide budget recommendations to the Joint Finance Committee. While her work as president of BWEF has been admirable (and taken alone might merit her inclusion on such a task force), Kara’s presence on the board of a pro-charter group should send up red flags when determining whether she should also have a say in school budget decisions. It’s easy to see how this connection to RI-CAN could be a huge conflict of interest. In offering advice on where and how much to cut from the district, she could weaken BWRSD in a way that makes charters an easier sell to desperate citizens and opportunistic politicians. Then, once the mayoral academies are put in place, who’s to stop the appointment of the pro-deformer(s) from the task force to the mayoral board? Not the school committee!

The battles in defense of public education have already proved costly on a personal level. I can’t sleep (It’s 3:30 AM!). I’m sure I lost some friends. Okay, they’re only acquaintances (People who write blogs on education in the middle of the night probably don’t have many friends.), but it still sucks! I also lost a little faith in society when I realized that ideas don’t win out necessarily on merit, but on momentum. My writing on the subject of school deform has been called conspiratorial. Even theatrical. Well, being a screenwriter by hobby, I guess I should take that as a compliment. If I were to ever write a script based on the losing fight over public education (Don’t worry, I won’t — it’s much more horrible and dramatic to watch everything happen live!) the screenplay would be a twist on a theme of one of my all-time favorite movies, the Oxbow Incident, which fittingly starred a Bristolian. Here’s a quick outline:

Crazy Train

Act I: A young family boards a train heading cross-country only to learn that it was chartered by financial terrorists and rerouted to an incomplete new track so they can bet millions on when it will derail.

Act II: The family is only able to convince a few passengers of the plot. They ruffle a few feathers. Most ignore the family’s pleas or dismiss them as crazy upon the rebuttals of the people convinced that the new route is the right way to go. The family gets off the train at the last safe stop, but continue to warn people around them of the possible calamity.

Act III: ? I haven’t gotten that far yet. 🙂

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