What about charters and school choice--do you see these issues differently from vouchers?
In places like Philadelphia, where the school system is very entrenched, charter schools have particular appeal to communities that want to control their schools. I look at some of the charter schools that the Latino community has put together here, and I think, it's not systemic change; it's only going to reach however many hundred Latino kids who can get access to an education that's meaningful with people who care about them. But that's three or four hundred more kids than before. So in that sense, I'm leaning toward support of charter schools.
Luis Garden Acosta:
It's important that people understand that charter schools are public schools. Not all charter laws speak to our vision of a charter, but the kind of charter that we are envisioning for El Puente is the kind that really grounds the school in the community. Charter schools are in fact what we asked for in 1969, when we [in Ocean Hill-Brownsville] demanded community control of our schools from the school board. We want full and total control and responsibility and accountability for the education of our children. We want to be able to do this in a way that really focuses on the school, and we want to be accountable but to call the shots and not be dangling like puppets while some central administration office pulls the strings.
I wouldn't support vouchers but I do support school choice, and the only way that school choice seems to be able to happen right now, particularly in Atlanta, is through charter schools. I believe charter schools need to have an oversight committee that reflects in part the population of the children, but also that involves maybe university people and others who can bring resources and feedback, who will come in and say what isn't working. The charters often negotiate out of doing any kind of testing, and then there is no incentive for the school to change. And no incentive for the teachers not to say: The reason this isn't working is that these weren't the children we expected.
I would prefer that charter schools within the public sector have unions rather than prohibit unions, but I think it would be wrong not to permit teachers and other workers in charter schools to choose whether or not to form a union. I also think charters ought to be prohibited from selecting students and barring other students, such as those with learning difficulties, or from low-income or minority backgrounds. There ought to be a level playing field so that they compete under circumstances that are similar to those that exist for other public schools.
Charters are just schools. There are bad charters and there are good charters. Three things make for a good school: good teachers, rigorous curriculum and high standards. A charter may or may not have those things. But both charters and vouchers are very incomplete solutions to what ails the public schools. Even the biggest charter-voucher fans will admit that they'll only take care of a very small percentage of kids. You've still got kids left in the same boat as they were before. So they're sideshows. And they're sideshows that suck up all the oxygen in the discussion about what needs to be done to improve education for low-income and minority kids.
What are some of the major problems in urban schools and what can be done about them?
So much of the difficulties that urban kids, particularly minority urban kids, face in education is a function of lowered expectations. Because there's this implied proposition that "those children" can't do it. Whereas the reality is, there are countless examples of schools that are effective on a very high level in neighborhoods where, simply looking at the demographics, there should be no such expectation.
The most important thing we can do to make the schools better is to insure that low-income kids and kids of color have teachers of the same caliber as more affluent kids and white kids. If I could pick one thing, one lever to pull that would begin turning around the schools and win back the confidence of low-income parents, minority parents, in public education, it would be big, big attention to teacher quality in our schools.
What are the steps that the states can take? They can eliminate pay differentials between high- and low-poverty schools. They can forgive state student loans for well-qualified people who teach in high-minority or high-poverty schools, to make those schools more attractive to people. They can give signing bonuses to well-qualified people who agree to teach in hard-to-staff schools. And they can give staying bonuses to effective teachers who are already in the schools.
Then, at the district level, we have to sit down with the teachers' unions and talk about how the contracts--and sometimes the seniority provisions in those contracts--put the very newest teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools and allow the experienced teachers to transfer themselves out of those schools and into the "more desirable" schools. What can we do with union contracts to help insure that all kids have access to fully qualified and experienced teachers?
At the school level, teachers have to stop fighting among themselves about who gets to teach which kids. That's one of the things we see all the time--teachers tie their own prestige, their imagined prestige, to the kids they're teaching. And it's the youngest, most inexperienced teachers who get to teach the difficult, low-track kids. Because tracking segregates kids, the low tracks are very black, brown and poor, and the high tracks are very white and affluent. So you have the least qualified teachers teaching the kids who need the very best teachers. And the kids who need the least, frankly, are getting the cream of the crop.
Who should be held accountable for the failure of schools?
The adults who run them. Even those of us who call ourselves progressives and liberals and left have bought the argument that, because of poverty and racism, you can't expect these kids to succeed. Now people never say that out loud. But the way you hear it is in the shock, amazement, awe when people hear stories about black kids achieving at high levels. They go, Oh, my God, that's so amazing. Well, you know, it wouldn't be so amazing if a white kid did it.
What we've done by buying that argument is let the adults who run these schools off the hook. We've let the teachers off the hook. We've let the principals and the school boards and the superintendents off the hook. Poverty and racism present real challenges. But every day in every part of this country, there are people who prove that those challenges can be overcome. The Texas system, for example, holds schools accountable for improving the performance of all kids, broken down by race and income, in a more serious way than other states. In California, where the demography is fairly similar, you talk to teachers and you hear these horrible things--they really do believe demography is destiny and that you can't teach these children. In Texas the teachers don't believe that anymore because they know they have to teach these kids, their jobs are tied to it. Because it's a requirement, they've come to accept that it's possible.