It’s amazing how much you can learn about people–and the system they represent–by reading between the lines of their decisions. I was at the Board of Regents meeting today, and what I saw there taught me a lot about the different levels of value those in power assign to the different communities they are supposed to represent equally.
For those of you who haven’t heard yet, the BOR voted to deny Achievement First’s application to open their schools in Cranston, following the request of Governor Chafee, who advised the Board to take into account the opposition by the Cranston community over the past few months.
The governor then, a mere sentence after validating the concerns of the hundreds of Cranston parents and community members who have been protesting the AF proposal on the grounds that it could be damaging to the Cranston community (protesters have cited the financial ramifications of taking that much money out of the district, the loss of public accountability inherent in allowing a private board to take governing authority from public institutions like a school committee, and worries about the organization’s discipline policies which many believe to be excessive) made a recommendation that the Board instead explore bringing the charter management organization into Providence. And the Board, mere seconds after voting to keep Achievement First out of Cranston–presumably because they agreed with the Cranston community’s claims that it could, indeed, damage their district in all the ways cited above–wholeheartedly passed a motion to begin the process of looking into creating an AF district in Providence.
Wait…how does that work?
Now, there are a couple different ways to read the governor’s advice and the Board’s actions. But as someone who was there, listening to the debate, I can tell you that it seemed pretty clear to me that Governor Chafee and the Board of Regents made a simple decision, and one that those in power have been making regarding those who aren’t for centuries: what’s not good enough for us is good enough for them. Specifically, an organization that the clear majority of white, middle-class parents in Cranston don’t believe to be good enough for their students is just fine for all those low-income students and parents in Providence.
It’s hard for me to understand their line of reasoning. How can they recognize Cranston’s concern about AF’s military-like discipline and history of excessive punishment scandals, but still think this set of values is fine to inflict on kids in Providence? (I’m not a big fan of PPSD’s discipline policies, but I don’t think they’re comparable to those of Achievement First.) How can they agree that Cranston’s parents are right not to accept a disempowering administrative system in which they have little or no say in how their children get educated, but still think such a system should be acceptable to parents in Providence?
I don’t know how to answer these questions without going back to that same fundamental perspective: what’s not good enough for us is good enough for them. It boils down to nothing more than inequality of the worst kind.
Of course, there are already immense inequalities between Cranston and Providence schools. And I’m certainly not arguing that PPSD is a haven of perfect pedagogy and policy; on the contrary, I work with students in Providence–at times organizing against the school district–so I know very well the deep problems in our school system. We need to think creatively about how we can have better parent engagement, because our schools will never improve until parents are involved, and what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working; we need a curriculum that students find relevant to their lives, because what we’ve got now consistently alienates kids into boredom and apathy; we need to improve support systems for students and create more secure cultures of learning, because now those are few and far between; and, in the long-term, we need to change the way low-income communities are short-changed out of resources for their schools, because without more resources much of the above list won’t be possible.
These are not easy problems to solve. But they are solvable. And they are only solvable if we put all of our public attention, energy, and efforts on public education, rather than diverting these resources into creating a new, private district with even less public accountability and an even dimmer community focus. The people of Cranston have made clear that their students deserve better than Achievement First. Why should Providence’s students deserve any less?