Thursday, March 03, 2005

A new antagonist; an old refrain

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:23 AM |  

You're so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You're so vain
I'll bet you think this song is about you
Don't you? Don't you?

Artist: Carly Simon

Okay, I’m so vain. But I do think this “song” is about me --
One of the perks of this position is that I get invited a few times a month to visit a classroom, talk to a high school newspaper staff, attend a third-grade play or write about a really cool teacher.

Since I'm not nearly as busy or important as the people shaping our public education policy, putting out think-tank reports, creating state budgets and crafting editorials, I often have time to stop by.

Artist: Laura Billings
There just aren't a lot of people "crafting editorials" that are challenging the educational status quo.

Pioneer Press PhotoThe gist of Laura’s serenade to the system of public schools in today's Pioneer Press is that visiting a public school, one would see that “the old argument about how private schools do better with less per-pupil funding than public schools holds up about as well as the comparison between apples and oranges.”

Well, duh. That’s the point.

Private schools, especially religious schools, are different than government-run schools. Both have a place in a public education system where “public education” means "education in the public interest" not any one specific method of delivering knowledge and skills. Vouchers are but one method of making private school “oranges” available to kids from families that today have no choice but government school “apples.”

Oh, and by the way, the old “apples and oranges” metaphor doesn’t really apply when contrasting (not comparing) private and public schools. While public schools do differ from district to district, school to school, they are all still basically apples. Not all private schools are oranges. If one were to extend the metaphor, private schools offer a fruit basket of options from the Brecks and SPAs to small religious schools catering to students that the monopoly system says they don't take.

Yes, Laura, there are private schools like the one you recently visited --

The students were bright, the computers were new, and the questions were sophisticated and state-of-the-art. They were familiar with the First Amendment, their parents read the paper, and they preferred Googling to going to the library.
There are also schools like Trinity First Lutheran School in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Tinity's student population is 62 percent African American, 8 percent Native American, 3 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Asian and 9 percent Caucasian. Seventy-five percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced meals. Thirty-three percent receive services through an on-site special education program. Only 13 percent of the students come from families that are members of a Lutheran church and over half have no church affiliation. One hundred percent of students receive some tuition aid.

To put those percentages in perspective, Trinity serves 76 grade-schoolers. That small number makes it easier than it is in a large public school to provide personal attention; it makes economies of scale impossible.

The Trinity Lutheran congregation provides 20 percent of the schools funding, which includes providing rooms in the Church basement. Tuition covers another 10 percent of the school’s costs. The other 70 percent must be raised every year from foundations and individual contributors. Administrators are not to proud to hold bake sales.

Oh yes, there is another difference. The school and staff openly profess that they “believe that a successful life is one led in the service of our Heavenly Father, our families, our community and our country. We are thankful for the blessings we have received and acknowledge that all come from our God.”

Now just what is there about Trinity Lutheran with its 76 students and its willingness to take about 20 more that so scares the public education system? If a student can do better in that environment, why not let him or her have that opportunity -- if it's really about the kids?

Yes. there are public schools like this one Laura visited --
About a mile from there [the private school LB visited] is a public high school almost a world away. There I met with about 40 writing students, most of whom had spent the previous school year in refugee camps in Africa, villages in Southeast Asia and homes in Central and South America. Only a handful spoke English at home. Many were orphaned or living with distant relatives. Some had not been to school in years or ever before. One young man I interviewed asked me what a newspaper was.

There are also schools like the San Miguel Middle School, a primarily Hispanic and Catholic school in Minneapolis where 85 percent of the student body (capped at 60) are English language learners. Suffice it to say not all their families arrived in the Twin Cities on Northwest Flight 1822 from Mexico City. Many of the children are living with relatives and have parents and siblings in Mexico. Many were problem students in their careers in public schools.

What Billings and monopoly-system education advocates refuse to acknowledge is that no one is questioning that public schools face profound challenges everyday. Yes, public schools are mandated to take every student that comes through the door, which magnifies profound challenges. But profound challenges don’t obscure fact that public schools are simply not adequately educating everyone who comes through the door. Private schools are more than willing to help. Why is the public system so afraid to accept the offer?

Under the Hann/Buesgens bill, only instructional costs leave a school district when a family opts for a private school -- $4,601. The balance of the allocated funding (phased out over three years) for a child remains with the district. If the full number of low-income students eligible for a educational access grant under the proposed legislation takes advantage of the opportunity at the full $4,601 dollars, Sen. Hann estimates that school districts will have an extra $300 per remaining student.

More money per student; fewer students. And that is bad because?

Well, it’s bad because it reduces the power of those in education who have it right now. Smaller class size is good when that means more unionized teachers, bigger budgets and expanded administrative authority. But it is bad when it means fewer students, no increase in teachers, smaller budgets, less power and contrastable accountability.

But this is about kids, right?

The public education issue is not, as Billings wants to define it, a win/lose scenerio about supporting the existing school system or destroying it. The task is creating a public education system of diverse choices that doesn’t just strive to serve all students, but actually does -- a system that doesn’t depend on a handful of experts betting a generation of children on the newest educational fad.

Maybe I'm vain, but at least I know the real "song" isn't about me. It’s not really about Laura either. It's not about the system. It’s truly about the kids.