Jefferson County has a new Minister of Truth: Devan Crean. She has hearty corporate reform chops, working almost exclusively for corporate-profiteer-style Republican publications. To be clear, I am referring specifically to the corporate profiteer variety, not the traditional conservative Republican Party I have known much of my life and with which my husband identified when he registered to vote over 30 years ago. I’m still not sure what happened to that party. Neither is he. Anyway…
There is so much to take on here, but I’d like to focus on “choice,” which is complicated enough to take some time. Ms. Crean wrote for pro-profiteer publications like National School Choice Week, The Education Reform Bulletin, and The Colorado Observer, and she tweeted that a “tax credit gives ALL parents an opportunity to meet child’s education needs.” I mean, this is the crux of the thing, isn’t it? Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jeffco citizens do NOT want more charter schools (see page 8 of link), the board majority keeps insisting that this was the platform they ran on (not that you could tell, given how very, very few interviews they granted during their candidacy). Therefore, they will continue to pursue this to the detriment of all else. To that end, they have hired someone whose job will be to market whatever new charter schools they can bring into Jeffco.
Now, I have said this before and genuinely mean it: I am not opposed to choice in education. I teach in an alternative program imbedded in a neighborhood school. It’s a choice. Ms. Crean’s tweet about tax credits included the statement that “one size fits all doesn’t work,” and we are in agreement there. But understanding how “choice” really works for all families requires people to step out of their bubbles of privilege.
If a family has the resources to navigate a system of choice and to make transportation arrangements, the world is their oyster in Colorado. We have open enrollment, which means any kid can go to any public school, regardless of district, provided that school has space to take choice enrollees. Jeffco also has some great option schools, from the Dennison/D’Evelyn duo to Jeffco Open to McLain. I think it’s terrific that we have STEM at Deer Creek and charter schools with Montessori and Waldorf approaches. But we simply cannot have a system where kids MUST go to a charter school because their neighborhood school is bad. If that is already the case for some, then the answer is to improve their neighborhood schools, not abandon them. Why? Because many, many kids do not have a choice, no matter how many choices there are.
Let me tell you about some of the kids I’ve taught over the years:
A high school sophomore who was removed from her home when she was 8 because her father was selling her body to pay for his drug habit: At the age of 10, profoundly broken emotionally and spiritually, she was adopted by a loving couple who committed to taking care of her extensive needs. A year later, her adoptive father was in an accident at work and was left paralyzed from the waist down with other complications. The mother was plunged in over her head, as there was no other nearby family support. She was simultaneously managing her husband’s ongoing health issues and her daughter’s constant truancy and behavior problems. If you think this woman could wrangle a choice system and transportation, think again. Not to mention that she was back and forth to the school quite often, leaving her disabled husband at home. The fact that it was in the neighborhood was imperative.
A junior boy, also removed from his home, this one at the age of four, because his teenaged mother had been giving him LSD: When he arrived in my class, he had moved back in with her after a 13-year separation during which he had bounced around the foster system. She was clean, but still immature. They were more like teenaged roommates than mother and son. He was in charge of his own life, for the most part, and working hard to get back on track after years of failure and truancy. This was made possible largely due to the fact that he had a good school with counselors who guided him to a solid program for at-risk kids in his neighborhood. Neither he nor his mother had the emotional or educational savvy to navigate a “choice” system.
A junior girl in the foster system, but still in contact with her drug-dependent mother and emotionally unstable siblings (2 lost to suicide): She switched foster homes several times while I knew her, for a number of reasons beyond her control. Child Services was able to keep her in the same school by keeping her in the same general neighborhood. Her school and her peers were the main source of stability in her life. I cannot attest to the ability of each of those families to keep her in the same “choice” school, especially since at least one of those homes had other foster children.
A junior girl whose mother worked two jobs—a swing shift and another right after: This allowed the mom to make ends meet because she left her high school daughter in charge while she worked and the children slept, and she didn’t have to pay for childcare. Sometimes, she couldn’t get home in time for the teenager to get to the neighborhood school on time, even when the teen’s schedule was adjusted to give her first hour off. What would have happened if the only good “choice” for my student hadn’t been right in the neighborhood? What if it had entailed a long bus ride? (The family had one car, and it didn’t consistently work.)
I cannot count the number of students I have taught whose parents did not speak English. I had to rely on the kids themselves to give their parents an accurate accounting of how they were doing in school. (It helped that, if they weren’t doing well, I could hear the parents’ raised voices through the phone, even though I was standing several feet away, so I was pretty sure the kid had been honest.) I’ve had kids whose parents were working hard to master English, but conversational English and the kind of English required to navigate educational systems are two different things. How would you explain Montessori to a mother who is a legal immigrant but is still learning the language skills necessary to navigate the supermarket? How would you describe even board-majority-supported Golden Classical Academy and the system used to get into it to such a mother? Opción mi Tía Fanny.
This is a tiny sampling. I’ve had siblings whose father was shot right in front of them, kids who found their parent’s dead body (two such kids, not from the same family), kids who have been beaten by parents or older siblings, orphans living with grandparents who have never known anything but the neighborhood school system and are already overwhelmed raising kids in a different world than the first time they raised kids. I’ve had students who lived for years without running water and a kid who spent his early childhood running from the cops with his parents, not attending school at all until late in the game.
Judging these families (those parents shouldn’t have been doing drugs or engaging in illegal activities; that mom shouldn’t have more kids than she can afford; those immigrants should learn English—presumably even the most advanced levels instantaneously), as many who support corporate education profiteers do, does not help the kids! This is the true crux of the issue. The board of education should not be about profit-driven schools or political agendas. It should be about kids—all kids, even the ones who had the nerve to be born into less than ideal circumstances beyond their control. My kids, whom I love in all their pain and confusion and all their wonderful zaniness and curious strength, need strong neighborhood schools!
While I was pushing and pleading and hugging and holding these kids accountable, Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk were campaigning against a tax increase for schools. Okay, fine. But now they’re in office and raising the amount of money being allotted for charters at the same time they are seeking new charters—spreading thin resources thinner every day. It would be one thing if they were simply shoring up existing charters or allowing Jeffco community members to organize charters they see a genuine need for in Jeffco. What they’re doing, though, is inviting in outside charters whose agendas are profit, politics, religion, or some combination of those. What’s missing from those agendas? Kids. Besides, if they wanted to expand charters and increase their funding, shouldn’t they have been the first to support a tax increase?
It’s kind of like this: All members of a family need nutritious food, from the able-bodied, working adults to dependent children and the elderly or disabled. It’s as though the board majority are the able-bodied working adults, and they want to have choices—a local Mexican restaurant one night, maybe some fast-food when they crave something greasy, a top-notch steakhouse for celebrations with friends from their same station in life. Unfortunately, they can’t afford all those choices, unless…yes! All they have to do is cut what is available for food for the rest of the family! The weaker members of the family, not bringing home the bacon for whatever lame reason—too young, too frail, too ill—can eat less, and the food they eat can be of a lower quality! That will allow for more money for those steak dinners!
See, the old-school Republicans I know would have insisted that the heads of families are responsible for the weaker members. You take care of your kids and your parents when they cannot care for themselves. Then if there’s money left over, go out and eat what you can afford. If you want more than that, you need to increase your revenue. Ask for a raise, if you deserve one. Get a second job to earn a little extra. You want to increase funding for choice schools? Great! You should have been on board with Amendment 66. Otherwise, make do with what you have, but do not leave our most vulnerable children with the scraps from your table! And the most worthless scraps at that—the rancid and the empty-calorie-filled.
Vouchers and tax credits allowing for choice? A great school like Colorado Academy is going to cost around $25 thousand for a high school student the first year. Even a $7 thousand dollar voucher leaves a family with an $18 thousand dollar balance per child. Can your family afford that choice? Mine can’t, and we’re solidly middle-class. The families I told you about can’t even dream of it. It’s true that Colorado Academy offers scholarships, but are they going to take the kids I described above? A voucher will cover the cost of some Christian schools, but what if the family isn’t Christian? And many of the Christian schools in this price range do not hire highly qualified teachers or teach what most scientists would consider science. And again, since they can choose kids, as well as families choosing them, will they choose the kids I’ve told you about? Some private schools are truly kid-focused and would be willing to take some at-risk kids, but they cannot afford to scholarship them all. A tax credit offers even less. What it does do is decrease revenue for public schools.
Many of my kids won’t have a choice, no matter how many choices are offered. They must take whatever their neighborhood school can provide at whatever level of funding it receives, and my kids won’t disappear. If we don’t pay for their schooling, we may very well pay for their prison sentences. (Incidentally, many of the people who invest financially in for-profit charter management companies’ “choices” also invest heavily in private, for-profit prisons. Think about that.)
On the surface, choices for everyone sounds great. It is pretty great, so I am entirely in favor of providing high quality neighborhood schools with good choices—pathways for different kids with different needs. That’s an awesome way to invest in education reform. Creating systems that—by complexity or price—exclude the kids with the highest needs serves no one.