The best defense is to be offensive

The best defense is to be offensive

Anti-school choicers are getting desperate.

The traditional public education monopolists are using some truly bizarre arguments to ensure that children remain in government-run schools.

In July, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten intimated that parents who opt out of government schools are equivalent to southern segregationists.

Then later in July, Katherine Stewart penned possibly one of the silliest op-eds ever. In “What the ‘Government Schools’ Critics Really Mean,” Ms. Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, lays into those who refer to government schools as, well, government schools. She proceeds to trash the Mackinac Center, the Heartland Institute, Betsy DeVos et al for being part of a conspiracy whose goal is the ascendance of the religious right and the destruction of our democracy. But National Review’s David French refutes Stewart’s argument, writing that many of us call them “government schools” simply because that’s exactly what they are. Moreover, he maintains that government schools “are largely a progressive enterprise, dominated in many states by progressive teachers’ unions. School choice, by contrast, means parents often choose institutions dominated by conservatives, libertarians, or (gasp) Christians. School choice means competition in the marketplace of ideas.”

Last month, history professor and anti-choicer Johann Neem invoked Weingarten’s lame segregationist argument and then tossed the Founding Fathers into the conversation. He asserts that “Americans agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the future of the republic depended on an educated citizenry. They also believed that the opportunities offered by schooling should be available to rich and poor alike.” Well duh, I don’t know any choicer who would disagree with that statement.

Neems’ intellectually anemic defense of government-run schools doesn’t get any better than that. Importantly, he neglects to acknowledge that until 1850, only two states required children to attend a school outside the home. Yes, the founders knew that parents, not the government, should be the ultimate deciders as to the type of education their children should get.

But none of the above can compare to Matt Damon, who unveiled Backpack Full of Cash last week, a film he narrated which purports to show that charter schools, vouchers and the like are harming our most vulnerable children. But Damon’s children? He sends them to private school, of course. When asked why, the actor explained, “I pay for a private education and I’m trying to get the one that most matches the public education that I had, but that kind of progressive education no longer exists in the public system. It’s unfair.”

Right on, Matt! Those nasty right-wingers have taken over everything…even our public schools!! But seriously, Matt, putting your incoherent rationale aside, you can’t escape the fact that you just used your right to choose – exactly the same right you want to deny those parents who are not filthy rich like you. Even Time Magazine referred to you as a hypocrite.

As I write, populist, I-am-everyman-Damon is about to purchase a home in New York City’s Brooklyn Heights, a penthouse that will cost the actor a whopping $16.645 million, the most expensive residential sale in Brooklyn history.

Too bad Damon decided to leave Los Angeles where he lived until 2015. The LA school district has just announced that the graduation rate for 2016-2017 is 80.2 percent! Woo-hoo!

Okay, now that the high-fiving and back-slapping moment has passed, let’s look at reality. Here are a few things that must be said about the grad rate:

  • Two years ago the school board decided to roll back graduation requirements, allowing students to pass A-G courses (classes that are required for college entrance) with a D instead of a C. At the time only 47 percent of students would have graduated. The lower requirements are still in effect.
  • Another reason that the 80 percent number is a sham is the demise of the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), which was eliminated by the state legislature in 2015. The English–language component of the test addressed state content standards through tenth grade and the math part of the exam covered state standards in only grades six and seven and Algebra I. Worse, the legislators chose to give diplomas retroactively, going back to 2006, to students who passed their coursework but failed the test.
  • The 80 percent grad rate is also a joke because since 2015, the district has allowed students to get credit for taking vacuous “credit recovery classes.”
  • Even before we dumbed down the requirements to graduate, LA students did not fare well in college. According to the most recent data available, 68 percent of the district’s graduates managed to enroll in a two-year or four-year college within a year of graduation, but only about 36 percent of them managed to earn a degree within six years.

Where does that leave us now? New school board member Kelly Gonez has introduced a resolution that calls for district collection of certain data that she feels can be used to make LA students more college- and career-ready. Only time will tell if her reasonable plan will bear any fruit.

But in the meantime, Ref Rodriguez, reformer and school board president, has been charged with three felony counts involving campaign contributions to his 2015 election bid. If convicted, Mr. Rodriguez could do jail time and would of course lose his board presidency, not to mention his seat. In that case, there is no telling who his replacement would be. So any LAUSD reform actions are really on hold till the board president’s legal issues are resolved.

Of course none of this affects Matt Damon or his children a whit. Even if he still lived in LA, his biggest problem with LA schools would be that they are not progressive enough. Good grief. 

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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