If public education dies don’t blame school reformers, union-busters, government haters, plutocrats, neoliberals, or other misanthropic varieties of ideological zealots.
Instead, blame the Niggards.
Do you know any Niggards? I bet you do.
If you believe the government should affirm your life choices while denying others theirs, you just might be a Niggard.
In education, these are people who not only know what’s best for their kids, but they have a compulsion for prescribing what’s best for others too. The research always tells them they are the sole bearers of correct thought, and of course, any conflicting study is the work of dark forces determined to undermine their authority and the vitality of our supposed collective institutions.
These single-minded supporters of false nostalgia and education tradition are tiring if for no other reason than they are the most energetic and blessed with free time. They blog, email, organize and show up to public meetings with the intent of crafting the public education in their own image.
I’ve met Niggards galore in my time as a parent and activist, but I met the most of them while serving as a school board member. They relentlessly sought to educate me about the best policies and practices for our school district, because when people disagreed with them, it was a matter of ignorance, not the possibility that reasonable people could disagree.
When I’d arrive for their meetings, I’d find several cordial people with bright smiles, soft skin, practical shoes, and the look of eager surgeons preparing for a delicate tactical operation.
I was their mark.
Over time I learned how to quickly assess their “ask” and determine what was in my power to do for them.
In each case there was a program or school they argued needed more attention, improvements, and expanding. That was the positive part of our conversations and the part where I excelled. Like most politicians, being a champion was my favorite role.
Sadly, many of these conversations would spoil because it wasn’t enough for these parents to solicit my support for the schools that served them well. They also scapegoated unrelated programs as the cause of our inability to fully-fund their every whim.
“Why are we spending money on standardized testing?”
Some wondered why we couldn’t end testing and redirect the money into programs that built toboggans for homeless people.
At the same time, I was lobbied by parents who lived and died by school test scores, and anything that looked like their children were high-achieving. They spoke plainly about the connection between their choice of a high-priced home and the expectation that a high-performing school come with the cost.
“You guys are spending all this money on magnet schools, and it’s hurting our neighborhoods,” some parents would say.
Magnet school parents would say the opposite.
They would ask “do we need all these immersion programs when some schools are cutting back on the basics?”
Parents with kids in immersion programs disagreed.
By far the biggest band of crunchy Niggards were those who came gunning for charter schools.
“You’re letting them steal our kids,” they’d cry.
That one always bothered me because they always talked about charter schools as if the students, parents, and teachers in them were invisible and less worthy of resourcing. They spoke of charter people in the way bigoted people talk about other outgroups.
Over 11,000 students had left our district for charters. The leavers were mostly low-income families who were frustrated after decades of district indifference to the achievement of their children.
The critique of charters almost always came from well-off busybodies who feared losing district resources needed for their well-off children in well-off schools. In too many cases that justifies otherwise progressive people blocking access for less-fortunate families to education alternatives.
For the Niggard all of life is zero-sum, and they have zero chill about it.
Consider the case of the KIPP charter chain attempting to open an elementary school in San Francisco with a great deal of parent and community support (that included the NAACP), but the local school board denied their plan.
It couldn’t be because the San Francisco Unified School district does so well with black and brown students because they don’t. Over 96% of California school districts that serve black children outperformed SFUSD, a school district in the state’s wealthiest county.
The reason the board gave for going against the wishes of the community that wanted KIPP to open was that their presence would “chip away” at traditional public schools, meaning, their district money.
Niggards. Be. Like. We own your children even if we don’t teach them well.
Generous and liberal people need to take a meta-view of our education system and realize you can’t please everyone by offering one thing.
Our students have differing and sometimes contradictory needs, cultures, values, and desires that can never be served well by one uniform system of education that focuses more on means instead of ends.
The universal public school is illogical in a country of liberals, conservatives, independents, Buddhists, Catholics, atheists, non-conformists, and so on?
Why is the country so boastful of its pursuit of personal freedom beholden to a public-only system of education that is atypical in the developed world?
For public education to work in a pluralist, open society, we have to think about it like religion, speech, and marriage. To each their own. If I want to be free, I have to fight for you to be free too or else your oppression will become my oppression.
If we fail the live and let live maxim, choosing instead to fight for our own way, we might as well resign to the inevitability of perpetual education wars.
If public education ever dies, don’t blame evil forces and dark money.
Find the Niggards and ask them why they were so intent on killing it.
This post originally ran on citizenstewart.rocks