I’ll never forget the interaction with a parent of two boys who came to a school closure meeting to have her say about our district’s plan to shutter what looked like a failing school.

I was suit-and-tie school board member full of school reform vigor. She was a homeless mother who presented visual cues of a person going through some things. Yet, she still made it to our farce of a community engagement (read: school closing) meeting specifically to tell us not to close her school.

“It’s the only good school we’ve had,” she told me.

That was an incredible comment. Good school? It’s test scores were subzero and it’s principal out of prayers.

Why would she stump for this terrible school?

Even more baffling, as her story unfolded I learned she took two buses each day to get her kids to this school.

“We come all the way from St. Paul,” she told me. After her transitional housing shelter moved across the river she was determined to keep her boys in this Minneapolis Public School even if it meant a long and winding road there.

As she talked I realized how easy it is to miss our blind spots when planning.

She said one of her boys had been kicked out of several district schools until they found one that worked. It happened to be the only school on the poorer side of town that had an autism program (at the time it was assumed that 80% of autism cases were in the wealthier part of the district – go figure).

For this mother, the choice of a school my board saw as being academically inferior was actually a smart choice informed by her experience. It was rational, logical, and purposeful.

She was not a passive actor or the hologram we hold up in discussion of parents in poverty.

Or so I thought. What I hadn’t considered at the time is that the reason she chose this school was that she was just plain stupid and woefully disengaged.

Wait. What? I know, that’s a harsh turn for this story to take? Hear me out.

To clarify, her stupidity it’s the logical outcome of a powerful narrative carelessly abounding in education rhetoric.

As an example, look to Glenn Sacks, a Los Angeles teacher, whose OpEd in the Washington Examiner recooks the classist trope about district parents in low-income schools being less acute than those who opt for schools of choice.

You will have to read closely for it because it’s so slight you might miss it in the hackneyed word soup he’s boiled, but it’s on the flip side of his claim that charters “boast of their innovations and ideas, but they “win” because they cherry-pick their students.”

More than being selective, he means charters draw better parents than the ones district schools are saddled with after the picking happens each year:

The pursuit of a charter school is powerful evidence of a student’s and family’s commitment to education — a factor strongly correlated with academic success. Even fervent charter advocate David Osborne acknowledges “families have to choose charter schools, so kids with disengaged families are more likely to remain in district schools … this gives charters an advantage.”

[Sacks truncates Osborne’s quote, which says the supposed advantages of parents who choose charter schools rather than be assigned to district schools disappears when you account for the $2,000 less funding charters get in comparison to district schools.]

Both Sacks and Osborne – though nations apart on charter school policy – arrive on common ground with the integrity and intelligence of low-income parents buried beneath them.

To be fair, Sacks’ argument has valid claims for thinking people to dispute: Charters use sorting tactics when recruiting, enrolling, and dismissing students. They hire young teachers who are willing to work long hours for less pay (oh jeez!). And, because money follows the student to charters it leaves districts with deficits.

That last claim is important because when we say charters take money from cash strapped districts we’re not being specific enough. If the money moves from this place to that place, what is the vehicle?

Of course, it is the parent who chooses a non-district option. Normally that parent, especially when low-income, would be a sympathetic figure. She loses that sympathy when she threatens the livelihood of public employees who have a vested interest in preventing parents from seeking educators outside of district lines.

Sacks and others separate the charter-choosing parent from the district-assigned parent and then speculate a wide difference in their parental engagement, motivation, and sadly, their worth to educational systems.

The charter-choosing parent is assumed to be smart enough to get their kids out of declining schools, and they probably have better kids – those worthy of “cherry-picking.”

By contrast, the district-assigned parent is a wretched leach with kids nobody wants.

Though 99% of their demographic characteristics may be the same, one becomes imminently more qualified as a parent simply by the act of filling out a charter school application.

The other is invisible and a burden.

It should be shocking that middle-class educators with college degrees and above average occupational benefits trade in these hasty, dehumanizing generalizations. Even you the reader might harbor similarly classist stereotypes about the low-income parent who passively allows their kids to be redlined into the dark underbelly of public schools. Please, reconsider.

No blog post I could write will move you from that position, but I’m compelled to ask you to consider the choosing versus assigned parent trope might be more projection than the inerrant word of scholarship.

In fact, charter enrollment in Sacks’ state is similar to traditional schools.

Even if they weren’t it would be inappropriate to say a class of parents should not have a choice because it burdens other systems with the wrong class of students. That’s injurious to the former and insulting to the latter.

The choice of parents isn’t a toy of social engineers no matter how well-meaning, and public employees and their systems are not entitled to our loyalty. Public education should be done to people, and in fact, it should require the consent of the governed. A child may not be fully capable and authorized to determine how, when, where, and what she will learn, but the next closest agent of her overall care and welfare, her parent, should be sovereign in the decision-making process.

And no “public” servant should stand in her way simply to profit from her trapping.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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