Career Calling

June 2, 2013

Sabbath, June 2, 2013

[On Sundays, this blog looks at issues beyond careers and jobs in “Sabbath.”]

Fighting for Justice and Public Schools

The primary role of public schools has been to give every child a chance to improve his or her life.  Americans claim to value meritocracy and opportunity.  However, when we look at the state of public schools in big cities, it seems like they really want a fixed game where a few students are trained for Ivy League schools and the rest are prepared to work at low wage jobs.

Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities called out this problem more than 20 years ago.  More recently, Diane Ravitch challenged current education “reform” in The Death and Life of the Great American  School System. I value both of these books for opening my eyes to a system that helped me.  I graduated from Cleveland South High School in 1979.  Most of my teachers were excellent, and their lessons have stayed with me over many years.  Today, the common attitude is that big city schools are “failing.”  People with little to no background in education have proposed solutions that often do more harm than good.

Barbara Miner’s book Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City looks at her home town of Milwaukee and how it has grappled with urban education.  Miner is not a disinterested scholar.  She grew up in the city and sent her child to its public schools.  She has lived through battles over desegregation, charter schools, and vouchers.

Miner writes in a casual manner, yet she guides the reader in understanding complex problems that are too often simplified in today’s debates over public education.  From the 1950s into the 1970s debates over public education focused on fair access related to racial segregation.  Since the 1980s, the language has changed.  The key word has become choice.  Miner outlines economic and political factors that drove this change.  Cities like Milwaukee lost their industrial base at the same time that white families left the city for the suburbs, where no one complains about paying for quality schools.

As city schools faced greater challenges, many of which were related to poverty, reformers offered answers like charter schools and vouchers, reforms that promised to let families choose better education options for their children.  These mechanisms have done little to improve the quality of urban education.  Instead, they transferred public wealth to private hands.  The story of the voucher program is especially instructive of this “reform” model.  Starting as a way to give poor families the option of sending their children to private schools, the voucher program has been expanded to provide public funds that let families of greater means send their children to religious schools that offer no accountability for performance.

While Miner writes about a city she knows well, she frequently puts Milwaukee’s story in a national context.  She examines key Supreme Court decisions, including Milliken v. Bradley that have gutted Brown v. Board.  She also looks at the roles of American billionaires and their foundations in reshaping the debate over education so it focuses on the stereotype of bad teachers, rather than factors like poverty and racism.

I strongly recommend Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City to anyone who cares about American public education.  Miner provides great local examples that supplement claims of reform critics like Diane Ravitch.  What both of these writers demonstrate is that some of the loudest voices claiming to want to make public education better are actually planting the seeds of its destruction.  If we believe in a country where every child has a chance, if want America to be a true meritocracy, we need to listen to people like Diane Ravitch and Barbara Miner who value public education.

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