Taking Stock As School Begins

Another school year begins this week here in Cleveland, with school starting between August 15 and the first week of September across the country.  As children we all marked these dates—a new teacher—new books—maybe a new chance.  This is a time to stop and take a look at how we are attending to the needs of our children.  But the rubric we are using for the analysis rarely names the children.

Across our cities, school districts are reconstituting Title I schools at the behest of the federal government, which has conditioned receipt of federal money in struggling schools on such “reforms” as closing these schools altogether, or firing or reassigning teachers and principals, or charterizing what were traditional public schools.  Cleveland is promoting the beginning of school with spreads in the newspaper that describe the relocation of entire student bodies to refurbished buildings; schools where the students and the building are the same but the staff is all new; and teachers being trained by consultants hired to remake the culture in what are called the “intervention schools.”

The School District of Philadelphia and the Chicago Public Schools are both opening in an atmosphere of crisis after a summer of upheaval.  In Philadelphia, after more than ten years of state control and major cutbacks in state funding over many years, the schools will open on time only after the superintendent presented an ultimatum to the mayor and governor:  “Find $50 million to rehire minimal staff by August 16 or we can’t open.”  The money has been found, as it was in the budget crisis two years ago after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from the state’s contribution to public education, by borrowing through the sale of bonds, this time by the City of Philadelphia.  Superintendent William Hite is now trying to hire back some of the over 3,000 district staff laid off in the spring, though the more than 20 schools closed will not re-open.  Aaron Kase describes the ongoing crisis in what is understandably an angry, but also very accurate analysis:  “Indescribably Insane”: A Public School System from Hell.

In Chicago, after closing nearly fifty supposedly “underutilized” schools last spring, the school district has, according to the Chicago Sun Times posted a request for proposals for new charter schools in north and west neighborhoods said to be “overcrowded.” Catalyst-Chicago reports , “just a few months after the district decided to close 49 neighborhood schools, tensions and skepticism about new schools runs high…”  The Sun Times continues:  “And all summer, neighborhood schools have been grappling with CPS’ new budgeting system, which many say leaves them with big budget cuts and forces layoffs.”  Ben Joravsky, writing for the local Chicago Reader, interviews the principal of a school described by Joravsky as “not among the highest-or lowest-scoring in the system, just somewhere in the great middle.”  The principal recounts that budget cuts imposed this summer forced her to fire the teachers she struggled to find and hire last year including the reading specialist.

In this school year’s first newsletter from the Forum for Education and Democracy, George Wood, executive director, and public school superintendent in a progressive rural school district near Athens, Ohio, reflects on ethical lapses among education reformers that have created “a summer of discontent.”  Wood recounts the resignation of state superintendent Tony Bennett in Florida after a school-grade-fixing-scandal during his previous tenure in Indiana; describes the new Ohio budget that awards the biggest boost in state aid (bigger than for any public schools or even successful charter schools) to the for-profit, White Hat management company that runs poorly-rated charter schools but whose owner David Brennan is among the biggest legislative campaign contributors; and describes the alleged but never investigated Michelle Rhee-cheating scandal in the nation’s capital.

Wood wonders, “So where is the public outrage?  Hundreds of millions of public dollars are funneled, year after year, into top-down, corporate-driven ‘solutions’ like vouchers and for-profit charters that simply do not work.  Meanwhile, schools that are serving our most vulnerable students are threatened with closure or sanction because they do not meet some arbitrary test score cutoff; administrators spend most of their days meeting mountains of regulations; and too many good teachers, who have had profound, positive effects on the lives of children, are leaving the field.”

As an educator, however, Wood concludes by returning to the interests of the children.  He pledges to “follow the advice Queen Elizabeth gave to her subjects during World War II:  ‘Keep calm and carry on’…   Our district has just approved a set of deeply progressive operating principles that could put us in opposition to many of the current mandates.  It will be my job to keep us within the limits of the law, but to test every boundary that stops us from acting in the best interests of children, families and teachers…  Carrying on will have to do.”

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