The good news about public education is everyone’s talking about, and fighting over it these days. For a long-long time it was mighty quiet out there. Those were the good old days when the white collar working classes could afford private school and Harvard or Yale too. Not so much now with lay-offs, credit card debt, out-of-control mortgages, and rising college costs. Public education is now an attractive and affordable option in these downsized times.
This morning, President Obama appeared on the Today Show for a one-on-one with Matt Lauer for a special report “Education Nation” transmitted live to an audience outside NYC for Q&A. I’d rather feature that link in place of the President’s weekly. I encourage readers to watch/listen to the interview in its entirety, or read the transcript. Already, the soundbytes are sending the topic in a controversial orbit. Headline already: “No DC Schools for Obama Girls.”
Washington, DC has for decades been a testing ground, even battleground for the rise or yet another fall for public education reform. The media soundbytes from this month’s DC primary elections for Mayor (City Council Chair Vincent Gray winning over the incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty), framed the vote on whether or not DC residents wanted education reform. Are they with smart or stupid. To put any and all outcomes of education reform on the shoulders of one individual, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, was from the beginning a risky proposition for the city and public school students. Kryptonite always lands somewhere. The reactions to the election outcome became part of an inaccurate narrative of the school reform movement. And, in its on-going reach for conflict, colorful characters, and controversy, what better media frame than race to put the election and its implications for school reform in a simple and polarizing box. Because no one with the mic can have a sane and meaningful discussion about race, it’s the conversation that keeps on going without going anywhere.
As someone who was educated in DC Public Schools from pre-school through high school, I’ve got stories that would fit into any narrative of what good schools and teachers can inspire in a student; and bad schools and teachers can inhibit. But there were no debates about it during my enrollment. Magnet schools were gaining traction, and I qualified to attend one. Private schools saved the rest. The majority of DC’s students had no other choices. We made the most of it. And most of all, parents filled in and made sure we didn’t fail in what was labeled a failed system. I went on to college at a prestigious private institution. I have a lot to say on DC’s public education, but I want to bring attention to three op-eds that addressed the city’s election, education reform in DCPS, and the misinformed narratives circulating among the uninformed. I would also add, there’s a lot the Obama administration can learn from the DC election as they set their sites for 2012.
Education Reform: What Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty Got Wrongby Michael Lomax was published on The Root. Lomax is President and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. Here’s a quote:
Education reform must also be about communities, because in our country, education is subject to the democratic process. Whether schools are under direct mayoral control or governed by a school board or board of education, voters have the ultimate say. If they aren’t persuaded that education reform is in their best interests, or if the tribunes of reform institute their changes in ways that alienate the people who vote in city elections — even if they are the people who stand to benefit from those changes — the reformers will find their mandate to reform abruptly terminated. That is what Fenty and Rhee discovered.
Natalie Hopkinson, Washington writer and author of the forthcoming Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City was featured in The Atlantic online, the day after the election. Here’s an excerpt.
As a former DCPS PTA mom, I am among the many DC voters who had grown weary of the endless churning in the system. The D.C. public school my child won an out-of boundary “lottery” to attend in the early 2000s had passionate teachers and dedicated families, but inept administration and a dangerously neglected building forced us to leave after three years. We enrolled in a private school just as Rhee came into office in 2007 when the school board was abolished and the mayor was given control of the schools. But we’ve been shopping for a reason to come back into the system ever since.
….among mayoral and council candidates, the person pulling the most votes citywide was [Phil] Mendelson, with 71,704. Gray came in second with 66,526. Fenty, with 54,424 votes, registered fourth behind Kwame Brown, who garnered 62,837 in his winning bid for the council chairman slot.
People pontificating about race in this city, based on parachute jumps into black neighborhoods where they conduct two or three interviews and then scoot back to file reports on what black folks are up to, don’t know what they are talking about.
Phil Mendelson is white and won the primary vote for Councilmember-At-Large.
So before you write DC off, do some homework, hang out with some people who’ve actually attended and graduated from DC public schools. College basketball scholarships expanded in DC thanks to a Harvard-educated physical ed teacher named Edwin Bancroft Henderson. Parents marched for better conditions in schools that were separate and unequal in the 1950s. They went as far as the Supreme Court with several other cases. And Warren Buffett graduated in 1947 from a DC public high school, Woodrow Wilson. And, “yes,” people who’ve been through it can be sensitive about this. There are some gems worth cheering about including a long history of reform in DCPS. But this may not be the time for the city to rest on its laurels. There’s work to be done today from this point forward. But it’s going to require a tremendous investment by the city’s community at large who are willing to see the benefits beyond just personal interests.