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the growing divide

October 7, 2010

If you're looking for a scapegoat in public education teachers unions make a good one. Most people don't understand how they work so charges of lack of accountability or costly pensions or healthcare (paid by your tax dollars) are more likely to go unchallenged. The WSJ has an interesting article on two latino students in Oklahama City. One goes to a public high school and one a charter school. They compare how many are eligible for free lunch (95% at the charter, 96% at the public) and numbers of college bound (62 out of 71 seniors at the charter, 40 out of 147 at the public). Both students miss a month of school to go to Mexico at some point, but only one student is working two jobs. One is college bound with scholarships, the other got one scholarship but will keep working locally.
 
I question their supposed implication for who is really successful. The charter school student, not having to work, got to participate in a lot of great high school programs. He left his gang days behind and instead "took to wearing straight-leg jeans and fashionable glasses." Do clothes make the man? Does imposing a uniform set of dress that society does not associate with hoodlums actually do anything for the "reformed" youth? And when he graduates in four years with a degree in whatever liberal arts discipline interested him will he be better off than she is as she continues to work?
 
Besides teacher unions, distracted parents are also blamed for the struggles these students go through. Often it is their teachers who are encouraging them to get into college. I can't help but wonder if that isn't imposing some western ideals on families whose definition of success might be different. I do think education is a great thing and that every student should have the opportunity to go to college. But maybe sending away the community's best and brightest without clear goals of what kind of degree is necessary to succeed, having them break ties with their neighbors, and not preparing them for what a college degree is actually worth these days is selling them a rotten deal. First generation college students, or students for whom very few members of their network went to college at all, may not realize what the struggles are. And we're only preparing them to get there, not showing them how they can then use that opportunity to leap to greater success.
 
The real heroes of the story appear to me to be the community leaders. The ones who stayed, invested in scholarship programs for these students, and organize the community events that both of the students were involved in.
 
I also dislike the comparison between a charter school and a public school. Besides the obvious, a charter school not having to "deal" with unions, laws, and many state or federal mandates on how to spend their money, the article sweeps over the difference in extra funding charter schools often get. All the benefits of public funding without any of the mandates, usually a much newer school than the public (this one is nine years old) and often with significant private funding. Yes I do think charter schools are useful to try new things that might get incorporated into public schools, but a school with private funding that gets to cap its enrollment is definitely more likely to help its students succeed than an overflowing public school that may have less freedom in booting out the less academically successful students. You'd think the conservatives over at the WSJ who applaud charter schools and their innovations could move pass the obvious teacher's union strawman and realize that more money means a better school.
 
We are left feeling the public school student will be less "successful" in terms defined by a white, middle-class business-centric authorship. I hope she is happy and satisfied with her life and that she still finds opportunities and challenges that she seeks, even if they aren't the ones the authors would consider important.
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