I’ll probably alienate everyone with this one…but what else is new?
As I write this, my Facebook status is “Let’s disagree with some integrity, countering anticipated ‘mis’information with your own misleading ‘facts’ does nothing but further muddy the waters. If your case is that solid DFER and friends, then let real facts speak for themselves.” This status update was my reaction to the opening statement made at the public hearing hosted by the RI Department of Education regarding the latest Achievement First (AF) Mayoral Academy charter schools proposal. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and RI-CAN (RI Campaign for Achievement Now) have led the charge in support of the proposal to open AF schools in Providence. And, an array of community groups and residents has lodged opposition to the proposal, similar to the one that failed in Cranston just months ago. Let the mudslinging begin!
The evening opened with a representative from DFER who outlined anticipated arguments from those opposing the AF Mayoral Academy charter proposal and then countered these arguments with dubious statements presented as fact. For example, he denied that AF will siphon money from public school districts. But, it will. A fundamental tenet of the new fair funding formula in RI is that the “money follows the child” and that means, over the long term, that when a family elects to send their child to Achievement First, or any other charter school for that matter, the money that “follows” them leaves their sending district and goes to the charter school. It was pointed out that for beginning kindergartners, the money associated with their enrollment was, in fact, never part of any district revenue, but I find this argument to be merely semantic. DFER also denied that AF is a private organization with corporate backing. But, AF isn’t a public entity, it’s a private non-profit organization. Being a non-profit does not preclude you from being an organization that is backed by private corporate interests. And, the root of these corporate interests in the success of charter schools like AF is what causes me to oppose the proliferation of such schools.
Take, for example, two of AF’s advertised core values: “no excuses” and “sweat the small stuff.” “No excuses” is a term coined by the Heritage Foundation, an organization with a strong history dedicated to the interests of private corporations, the shrinking of the public sector, and the decimation of unions and social policy aimed at helping low-income communities and communities of color. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank dedicated to the continued economic stratification of our society through the celebration of free-market ideology in k-12 education, recently published a book titled Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. This book included research on AF’s Amistad Academy and lauded what it calls a “new paternalism” employed by no excuses charters. Why are two organizations that spend large amounts of money on the preservation of wealth and power for the 1% so interested in the work of charter schools for low-income communities of color? Some might believe that there are noble intentions, but I cannot.
Here’s what I think. The no excuses ideology is appealing to those with wealth and power because it absolves them of responsibility for addressing the needs of those less fortunate or privileged. It enables them to skirt the issues of poverty and racism. It allows them to point fingers at anyone else who they think are making excuses by talking about the severe barriers that poverty and racism erect to systematically deny high quality education and other public services to low-income populations of color. In short, it gives the 1% an excuse to vilify the traditional public school system and say, “See, if they can do it, why can’t you?” In this twisted way, no excuses schools enable those with power and wealth to continue ignoring what’s best and what’s needed for low-income communities and communities of color.
As for sweating the small stuff, I heard David Whitman, the author of the aforementioned book, speak on a panel at Harvard University a couple of years ago. I listened to him celebrate an educational philosophy that unabashedly assumes that low-income Black and brown youth and their families need paternalistic guidance through school in order to become educated. The underlying ideology of this “new paternalism” is reminiscent of what was behind Native American boarding schools: tightly controlled behavior and the promotion of dominant cultural attitudes in the cloak if “character” development—as if something is wrong with the character and culture of low-income communities and communities of color in the first place.
In short a no excuses, sweating the small stuff approach to education appeals to groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Fordham Institute because it is fundamentally racist and classist. There is little to no attention that this educational model pays to the uplifting empowerment of the long term health and wealth of the communities it purports to serve, thus working to preserve the power of the 1%. This racism and classism is most why I oppose the Achievement First mayoral academy charter proposal. While I support and believe in the power of families and youth to choose the type of education they want for themselves, I can’t, in good conscience, stay silent in the face of what I consider to be an egregiously harmful educational model practiced by AF.
Now, here comes the harder part for me to stomach. As I sat and listened to the statements being made both in support of and in opposition to the AF proposal, I heard these same racist and classist undertones included in arguments on both sides. Since I’ve spent until now problematizing those that support AF, I will turn to the problematic opposition. When I hear arguments saying that the AF model isn’t necessary in Warwick, North Providence, and Cranston, I hear the racist and classist assumption that somehow it is needed in Providence. When I hear the assumption that elders from the Southeast Asian community in Providence have been duped and have no agency in their presence in support of AF, I hear the same racist paternalism inherent to AF’s educational approach. When I hear that it is a common saying that if you’ve been teaching in Providence long enough, then you aren’t afraid of anything, I hear a racist, classist assumption that there are things to be scared of in Providence in the first place. When I hear people pretending that all that’s wrong with Providence public schools are faulty facilities and the lack of recess, I hear a uncritical denial of the systemic and individual racism and classism that plague our classrooms in the forms of bad policy and educational malpractice.
I will defend and support Providence public schools, but I cannot stand with those who do so while displaying the same toxic beliefs and assumptions that turn me against no excuses charters. As I said earlier, I support choice in our public schools, but let’s actually create a system of authentic options. For example, when Southeast Asian families are asked to choose between a system that effectively ignores their existence and one that has actually knocked on their doors to talk about the lack of quality education options for their children, this is not a choice. We need educational leaders—including the mayor, district officials, principals, and teachers—in Providence to work hard to build relationships and trust between themselves and those who they serve: families and students. We need these groups to come together to co-create educational options that provide real choice to Providence families and students, options that truly engage them (in more than a lottery), understand them as powerful leaders (not as passive consumers), and uncover their energy and ideas as experts of their own conditions (not treat them with any form of paternalism). When people are ready for this work, then give me a call at 1-800-BOTTOM-UP.