In Facebook Debate on Charter Schools, Maybe the Fight’s the Thing

In the bitter battle over public school reform, will the clouds ever part and show us something we can use?
In the bitter battle over public school reform, will the clouds ever part and show us something we can use? Ahmed Abdulbasit (Pakistan) / Wikimedia Commons
Close your eyes, hold your nose, turn around three times, stamp your foot and say “charter schools.” A vision will appear. No, really. I just noticed it, over on my personal Facebook.

Personal Facebook is where the action is for me now. Over here on the Dallas Observer, it’s so boring. I’ve got this editor. He’s all, “Oh, Jim, we can only say things we actually believe to be true.” Guy’s got a rule for everything.

But over on my personal Facebook, we have no such rules. It’s all about decibels. Scream, scream, scream, and then, hocus-pocus, the clouds of smoke part, and the inner truth appears. Or something. These editors need to look into this stuff.

The latest Facebook scream-fest was about the most recent Democratic presidential debate and charter schools. I kicked it off by saying … well, certain things. I won’t even try to repeat them here, because … editor.

People went nuts. There was invective, polemics, misrepresentation, hyperbole, histrionics, a couple of character assassinations, one possible instance of demon possession. It was wonderful.

Then the smoke parted briefly, and I experienced this incredible vision. It occurred to me that a fairly fantastic array of people from quite varied walks of life were all passionately debating the education of poor children of color. Speaking as a journalist who has covered public school issues for about 100 years, I can tell you with absolute certainty that a public debate like this simply did not happen back in the day, whenever that was. When I was a young reporter.

Except for the families whose kids were actually attending mono-racial urban public schools, people 25 years ago didn’t even have this issue on their radar. Now they do. I think that means something, and what it means may be bigger and more significant than any of the narrow, polemical, histrionic, demon-possessed positions people take on specific parts of the larger question.

And we had a bunch. Not to take sides (editor, please note very commendable even-handedness here), the people who hate charter schools seem to have a bigger catalog of utterly untrue urban mythology than the people who support them.

"You're quick to call out other people's b******* but I'm calling your b******* out. Be an honest man, write about it.” — unnamed Facebook commenter

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I’m not going to name my Facebook correspondents here, because they didn’t sign up for being quoted in the old-school media. I have to edit some of their remarks down a bit to weed out delusional rambling and litigation risk. But I will give you the gist.

The first and most stubborn myth about charters among people who hate them is that they cherry-pick only the best and most promising students, like private schools with stiff entrance requirements. One commenter on my Facebook said:

“By the way Charters do not have to accept children with disabilities. They do not have open enrollment. You're quick to call out other people's b******* but I'm calling your b******* out. Be an honest man, write about it.”

I quoted him a statement of policy from the Texas Education Agency based on state law:

“A charter school’s admissions policy may not discriminate against students on the basis of sex, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, academic, artistic, or athletic ability or the district the child would otherwise attend.

“Charter schools cannot deny admission to students on the basis of a disability or because of a student’s need for special education and related services.”

I didn’t get a response.

Another favorite bromide of the anti-charter crowd is that charter schools are part of a strategy of the rich to seize control of public schools in poor urban neighborhoods. Sometimes when I hear this argument, I ask, “Why would rich people want to take over public schools in poor urban neighborhoods?” The usual response is a howling silence.

On Facebook this week, I did not ask the question, but I got an answer anyway: “Once you understand how schools in poverty were set up to fail, then you will understand how the system must collapse in order for investors to capitalize on that failure.

“Add disaster capitalism to the list of things I don’t like. Your promotion of ‘collective impact’ fuels an ecosystem that relies on continued poverty in order for the social venture and social entrepreneurs to get a return on that poverty.

“For example, if the impact markets are pre-K, 3rd grade reading scores and 8th grade math scores, BCG can use ‘Predictive modeling’ to make the baseline what they need it to be in order to create the ‘growth.’”

OK, then. So we move on. One commenter said this in support of charters:

“I have to agree with Jim from personal experience. My daughter’s mother came from significant poverty growing up and the only reason she graduated was because of a charter school.

“I also have known teachers that have worked in charter schools and let me tell you, they are doing God’s work. For all the talk of bias and unequal opportunity of education as it exists today in schools, charter schools are last chance opportunities for the most vulnerable youth in society.

“They are not perfect by any means and they are not the ideal of how overall the education system should be based on, but they serve a hugely important purpose today and are needed until more comprehensive reform can happen later on down the road.”

A thought-provoking question came from a commenter who attacks me frequently on Facebook and often frustrates and angers me by being thought-provoking. This was back on the question of charter school admissions and who shows up to apply for admission.

“Because what we see happen is, parents with more resources use those resources to get their kid into one of these high-achieving institutes by hook or by crook. And operations intended to be bulwarks against inequality end up looking inexplicably privileged.

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On one hand, fighting on Facebook is mainly just for the fighting. On the other, it's interesting sometimes what we fight about.
Evan-Amos / Wikimedia Commons
“Every seat that goes to the child of some well-meaning yuppie is another seat denied to an underprivileged child. And what happens to the underprivileged kids who don't hit the lucky number in some lottery? Separate, and unequal, hardly seems like a just arrangement.

"Your promotion of ‘collective impact’ fuels an ecosystem that relies on continued poverty in order for the social venture and social entrepreneurs to get a return on that poverty." — unnamed Facebook commenter

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“What is happening to all the other kids? And are there any mechanisms to ensure that those kids have equal access?”

He touches on a troubling piece of the puzzle. Even in a perfect and imaginary world where charter schools never bend the rules on admissions, what does happen to the children left behind? No child, after all, shows up at charter schools to ask for admission. Parents show up. Motivated parents.

Surely we’re not down on parents for being motivated. That’s another bromide: “Where are the parents? It’s all about the parents.”

OK. The motivated parents are down at the charter school making sure they meet the deadline to apply for their child’s admission. But what about the child whose parents are not motivated? What happens to her?

If that child is left out of the exodus, stranded in a public school so bad that everybody else is fleeing, are we operating a process of social sedimentation? Some kids, through no fault of their own, have unmotivated parents or effectively no real parents at all. Are these, who are the least of our brothers and sisters, to be abandoned naked in the cold?

The problem on Facebook got even thornier. If the charter school phenomenon offers an escape route for some but leaves others behind, is the morally just remedy to shut off the escape route? How can that be the end of the story? It can’t be. There must be a better answer. (Editor's note: Jim forgot to mention ... he must have forgot ... this same commenter's sharp analogy in response: If a bunch of kids are caught in a burning building, should we rescue some and leave the others to die or put out the fire? Hah. Score one boo-yah-in-your face for the commenter.)

But neither can the just course be a return to the status quo. On Facebook, I provided some numbers from the 2019 Texas Education Agency for college, career and military readiness at James Madison High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas. For students able to pass an advanced placement exam in any subject, the percentage was zero.

The percentage also was zero for dual course credits, industry-based certifications, individualized (special education) certifications and military enlistment. The zero percentage for military enlistment was especially striking.

That kind of institutional failure is so abject and egregious that it really obliterates any argument for preserving the status quo. The Dallas public school system is achieving stunning successes with many of its new innovative schools, launched mainly to compete with the charters and lure back families who have defected. But a school like Madison is a grim reminder of what too many majority-minority schools in Dallas were doing before school reform.

And yet, in all of this, even in the kind of mudslinging we do on Facebook, I can’t help being struck by the larger truth that we’re talking about it. We see the issue. Maybe the most important thing is not that we disagree passionately but that we are passionate.

Somewhere in that mess, there are answers. You’re not going to get them from me, and I’m not going to get them from you, but if we keep talking and stay passionate, you and I are going to get to them.

I think back to that guy who really irritates me, the one who always disagrees with me in ways I cannot easily dismiss. Everybody else was fighting about the winners, the motivated families and where they belong. He looked into the din and smoke and saw the faces of little losers, the kids left behind who have no one motivated for them or about them.

That’s an important insight. It goes to the core of the problem. The problem is humanity, the value we place on it, the effort we are willing to make. It cannot be a bad thing that a bunch of white people, Hispanic people and black people, rich, middle class and poor people are in each other’s faces about this stuff.

Where else should we be? Where in the world have we been all this time? What took us so long?
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze