Public Education and its Enemies

October 29, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the final scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the French sue for peace after Henry’s triumph at Agincourt. While the French king is away negotiating the final terms, Henry uses the opportunity to woo the King’s daughter Katherine to become his Queen.

Katherine is cool to this idea, but slowly warms to the notion under the glare of Henry’s charm. Finally, she asks “May it be possible zat I should love zee enemy of France?”

Henry replies:

“No Kate, it is not possible. For in loving me, you shall love the friend of France. For I love France so much that I will not part with a village of it.”

I think of this line often when K-12 reactionaries try to play the “well, I support public education” card. This you see, is supposed to put a reformer on a defensive and get them to scramble to say that they support public education too!!!

Nice try, but for my part, I have this to say: don’t tell me how much you love public schools unless you are willing to do what it takes to make them work for kids.

Yesterday Marcus Winters released a study showing that charter schools in NYC improve public school performance, especially for disadvantaged children. The effect sizes were modest, but what more can you expect given that the state still has a cap for the number of charters? The cap should be removed, and private choice options created.

Research has firmly established that ineffective teachers severely harm the education of children. Who is the enemy of public education- those who want to preserve tenure at all costs, or those who want to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom?

Last year, I was at a conference in Arizona. A philanthropist spoke movingly about the need to raise Arizona academic standards to internationally competitive levels. An assistant Superintendent of a tony school district said “We can’t meet the standards we have now, the last thing we should do is raise them.”

Who is the enemy of public education- the philanthropist or the administrator?

Later in that same meeting, I made a presentation about Florida’s success in improving public education, including the curtailment of social promotion to compel literacy training. One of the educators in the audience replied “I don’t want to see 9 year olds rolling on the ground crying because they don’t get to advance with their grade.”

That, you see, would be inconveint to her. It would be much less messy to simply pass the child along illiterate until he or she drops out in the 8th grade.

Who is the enemy of public education- me or her?

The reactionaries cleverly try to equate pouring more money on this broken system as compassionate. Balderdash. It is the goals of public education that people should be committed to, not any particular delivery mechanism, nor the employment interests of the adults working in the all-to-often dysfunctional system. We’ve tried the pour money method for improving public schools, and it failed miserably.

Show me don’t tell me how much you love public schools, apologists. As your critics multiply across ideological lines, the time has come to put up or shut up. I love public schools so much that I am willing to put in the right incentives and policies to make them work for a far larger number of children.

How about you?

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