Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Who's part of the problem?

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:49 AM |  

Another poor children "column op"

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nick Coleman laments that there are not nearly enough books of the right mix and reading levels and subject matters for the minority students of St. Paul’s Maxfield Magnet School. He asks, “How did we get to the point in Minnesota that we have a school in a minority neighborhood of our capital city where there aren't enough books?” He scolds, “If you don't find that situation outrageous, you are part of the problem.”

Well, Nick, I do find the Maxfield situation outrageous, but I also “know stuff.” I know that simple outrage is not a solution to problems, no matter how loud you write. Nor does providing more money. Nor does expressing undefined outrage make one part of the solution. Nick, holding poor and minority children hostage in a failing school system for the sake of political power -- now that‘s outrageous.

Why doesn’t Maxfield have enough books? Read your own column, Nick.

First, you say, “When you are trying to teach reading in a climate of spending cutbacks, hostility from political leaders who control the purse strings and public indifference toward the poor, you are between a rock and a hard place.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s a correct assessment of the situation. That’s a problem, Nick, inherent in a government monopoly education system.

A government-run education system is always beholdin’ to the legislature and the pulse of public opinion. Parents and students will always be in a state of uncertainty in the shadow of the next legislative session, the next administration -- regardless of which political party is in power. Live by political favor, die by political disfavor. That’s the nature of the government beast.

Nick, you quote “literacy coach” Debbie Bell, who makes two telling comments. First, she says, "When they test kids, you can't see them sprawled out on the floor with a book. That's not something that shows up on a test.” She’s exactly right. But a government run monopoly can’t make such fine distinctions about intangible benefits ofeducation. You want a government-run system, you’re going to have to live with collective measurements that provide public accountability for public funds. In a government-run system, parental satisfaction is secondary to the accountability of the system -- regardless of which political party is in power.

Bell also wisely notes -- “Our kids [95 percent qualify for free or subsidized lunches] don't have much, but their parents have the same hopes and dreams as everybody.” Exactly right, but their low-income status prohibits them from the same opportunities as the more well-to-do. Middle- and upper-income families have the option of placing their children in private schools or moving to school districts that better meet their kids needs. Poor kids are stuck with their neighborhood school, kept there by those who would preserve the system at the expense of the kids -- people in both political parties.

Nick you say, “former Education Czarina [Cheri] Yecke” never seemed overly concerned about the special problems at a place like Maxfield. You say, “few have shown any interest.” You ask “How else to explain that Maxfield doesn't have enough books?”

You’ve given us the explanation, Nick. You just don’t want to see it. A government-run education system must concern itself with the system as a whole. It must use collective statistics to judge its adequacy. It must homogenize everything from curriculum to funding mechanisms to ensure no one is offended or feels slighted, which also means no one is satisfied.

Inherent problems of bureaucratic management run contrary to the personalized education every parent wants for his or her child. And despite that fact, the education establishment puts preservation of the system above the welfare of students.

We don’t need more of the same failing policies, Nick. We don’t need more polemics, more scolding, and more despicable use of poor children as “column-ops.” School choice is not a panacea, but it is the practical, ethical and moral alternative to preserving an inherently inadequate education system above the welfare of children. The problem is, Nick, when it comes to substantive change, “few have shown any interest,” and you are the ones who are part of the problem.

That, Nick, is outrageous.

UPDATE: A number of people have commented on the obvious hole in Nick Coleman's column, which is the question "Who is really responsible for ensuring there are books for the kids to use?" Someone was managing the school's budget. What budget items were more important than buying books? Speed Gibson (R-Five) does a nice job defining this problem.

It's pretty obvious that there were (are) management problems here. But to focus on that camouflages the real problem -- When kids, especially children from low-income families, find themselves in a poor school, they have little option but to endure it. There are always going to bad schools, government run, charter and private. The point is, when school choice is the norm, when parents have real options, a bad school is merely a speed bump on the road to education, not a brick wall. Sure, we can fix this school, but that doesn’t solve the real problem of providing individual children with the education that meets their needs.