Slip-Sliders and Knaves Live on Both Sides of School Voucher Debate

From A to F, which letter grade should be assigned to a school that can’t teach its students the alphabet?
From A to F, which letter grade should be assigned to a school that can’t teach its students the alphabet?
Smailhodzic, via Shutterstock
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Why does everybody in the Texas school reform debate think the most important thing to do is lie about it? It’s the great consensus of untruth. No matter what they do, they all want to make sure nobody can guess what they’re really up to.

Nothing is more emblematic of it than the current debate over state-imposed letter grades to reflect the performance of individual schools and school districts. The people pushing for school vouchers in Texas are insisting that giving individual schools and school districts letter grades has nothing to do with their school voucher agenda. They just want to make sure parents whose kids attend lousy schools understand how lousy they are.

Meanwhile the public school establishment in Texas insists its white-hot hostility to letter grades for schools and districts has nothing to do with a desire to hide public education’s worst failures. They say they’re just trying to protect the kids and their parents from a bunch of mean-minded voucher Nazis.

What a bunch of liars, the lot of them. You have to wonder if it ever occurred to any of them to try telling the truth for a change. Why do both sides have to act like they have something to hide?

Dallas school superintendent Michael Hinojosa told The Dallas Morning News he thinks the system of letter grades the state has begun assigning to individual schools and to districts will be too hard for parents to understand: “I think this is just going to create more confusion for everyone — the board members, parents, the community,” he said. “But that's what's going to happen when you try to give a simple solution to a complex issue.”

In a preliminary beta version of the letter grade system, Hinojosa’s district got a D in student achievement. What’s confusing about a D? It comes right after C and just before E, does it not? It means student achievement in Hinojosa’s district sucks.

I’m not confused. It couldn’t be plainer, as far as I’m concerned. And you know what? I resent being told that I am confused. I hold up the fingers on my left hand and, beginning with my thumb, letter them off one by one: A, B, C … D! Is this the one you mean? I guess it’s lucky we’re not talking about C.

But wait a minute. The people on the other side are just as full of it. They keep talking about how the letter grade system is just that, only that, just a bunch of letter grades, that’s all, nothing at all to do with school vouchers. Oh, give us a break will you?

The letter grade concept is enjoying a national rollout pushed entirely by the voucher lobby on the theory that showing parents how crappy their kids’ schools are will make the parents want something better, heaven forfend.

Robert T. Garrett and Holly Hacker had a great piece in The Dallas Morning News two days ago about the battle forming up now in the new session of the Texas Legislature. The governor and lieutenant governor are solidly in favor of a plan for so-called education savings accounts. On the other side, the public schools lobby, represented mainly by public school administrators, has thrown in with rural legislators who have districts where the public school system often is the biggest business in the district.

And right there — right at that point about public schools as big business — is my own sticking point, based mainly on the desultory efforts toward school reform we have witnessed here in the big city. As we have seen here, the great inertial power and political fortress of public education is built less on the teaching of kids than on the role of public education as an employer of people and a distributor of contracts — in other words, public education’s role as an empire of patronage.

At the very time Hinojosa was complaining that letter grades might confuse adults who don’t understand the alphabet, his school district was suffering a defection that Hinojosa should never have allowed — the departure of Mike Koprowski, director of the district’s Office of Transformation and Innovation, who left his post without another job to go to.

I was not terribly surprised but deeply saddened by Koprowski’s departure. His mission was to help the district build new innovative mixed-income schools. His dedication to that mission impelled him to go before the Dallas City Council last October and argue on his own merits as a citizen for a citywide ban on discrimination against people who seek to pay their rent with housing vouchers.

His argument — that low-income people need stable homes, too — ought to be irrefutable, but it is anathema to the Dallas real estate industry. The landlord lobby in Dallas wants to be able to discriminate against voucher-holders and send them packing even when they qualify as potential tenants on all other scores.

It was a brave stance for Koprowski to take. Perhaps more to the point, in only two years at DISD Koprowski spawned 15 new campuses more innovative than anything the district has accomplished in decades, all of them designed to attract and hold students from diverse economic backgrounds.

I haven’t seen anything Koprowski has said about why he’s leaving without another job. My own efforts to reach him have not been successful. I know he’s ex-military, and I would guess he’s unlikely to whine on his way out the door. But I have spoken with reliable sources who tell me his departure is evidence that the district’s support for innovation and personal courage walked out the door a year and a half ago when former Superintendent Mike Miles left.

And, look: I’m not basing my feelings here on the departure of one guy, more on the lack of support the district has shown generally for innovation since Miles left. But my feelings are strong.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” is both a fact and a powerful metaphor.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” is both a fact and a powerful metaphor.
Jared Boggess

It’s too bad the backers of school vouchers think they have to skulk and dissemble about their agenda. I wish they could be more direct. In that Garrett and Hacker piece I mentioned above, they do a great job showing how the voucher lobby is trying to get the camel’s nose under the tent by arguing first for special treatment for kids with disabilities, because who doesn’t feel sorry for kids with disabilities?

Then later, when they have some kind of voucher or education savings account system set up for the disabled kids, they figure it will be easier to sell a wholesale voucher system for all kids. And, yeah, I know, politics is politics, but sleazy is also sleazy. Slip-sliding around about your real agenda does not engender respect.

On the other hand, the public education lobby can hardly afford to stand in the schoolhouse door with its hands on its hips insisting they are only sticking up for the kids, when their entire track record has been of thwarting, sabotaging and outright defying every meaningful attempt at reform.

From left to right across the political spectrum, there is an urgent awareness of the “school-to-prison pipeline” phenomenon, a fact but also a metaphor for the part a failed system of public school districts plays in prolonging and exacerbating social injustice and dysfunction in our society. No entity that big with that much money flowing through its veins and that crucial a role to play in the human condition can get away with simple intransigence forever.

I wish the voucher-pushers would tell me, “Damn right the letter grades are a means of pushing vouchers, and damn right vouchers are a means of forcing public education to change or go away.” Hey, I think I’m up for it. That’s a letter grade I can handle.

And of course I wish public education would say, “Damn right we’re opposed to letter grades because we don’t want to be judged by a bunch of voucher-pushers. We think we’re great the way we are, and you suck.” I think that would be a great conversation. I have that one around the house all the time.

Meanwhile, a pox on both their houses for heaping so many layers of obfuscation and deceit over the entire debate. It makes you wonder. Why are all of the people who say they’re fighting for the kids so skeevy about it? Do we need to call 911?

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