Reasons to Oppose Achievement First in Rhode Island, part 2

First: PLEASE ATTEND the Board of Regent Meeting, September 1, 4pm, at RIDE, 255 Washington St., Providence.

Second: my apologies for the lateness of this post.  Hurricane and false start to school and all.

The purpose of today’s post is to present the second in a series of arguments against handing over 1800 students from Cranston and Providence to the Achievement First Mayoral Academy.  Today’s reason: the solid opposition to the school from everyone in Cranston—except the Mayor.

If you missed it, there was a huge rally in Cranston last week, organized by members of the school committee.  The rally was a really stunning confirmation of the will of the people of Cranston, and of the potential power of democratic institutions mobilizing their citizenry in defense of public resources—in this instance, the schools.

Here’s the speech given by a member of the Coalition to Defend Public Education:

My name is Jen Davey and I’m a parent of 2 boys at Dutemple Elementary – a 3rd grader and an incoming kindergartener.

I have had a very good experience with Cranston Public Schools. I am consistently amazed by what Cranston teachers and administrators can achieve with the limited resources that they have. Thanks to Dutemple, my older son was reading at the fifth grade level at the end of first grade, and he has consistently been challenged by his teachers. At Dutemple, we are a Title I school educating kids from a variety of backgrounds. At Dutemple and in Cranston in general, we have a great school system that succeeds in educating children from a variety of different races, ethnicities and income levels.

The so-called “achievement gap” that Mayor Fung and Achievement First Mayoral Academy proponents talk about is not one that I see in this city, and certainly not at the elementary school level. We have a school system that succeeds. I really see no justification for the introduction of such a massive charter, which threatens to rob our public schools of 900 Cranston and 900 Providence students.

Here’s what most parents think: Rather than invest resources in an unproven and largely unregulated charter, one which would educate only a select few students who win a lottery, we would like to see more money invested in our public schools, which are open to all students, regardless of ability.

Here’s what parents would like to see from our public schools:

  • We want our sports, gifted and music programs back.
  • We want smaller class sizes.
  • We want an environment where teachers have the creative freedom to educate the way they feel is most effective, without being bound by test scores.
  • We want an environment where our input as parents in our children’s education is meaningful and valued.
  • And finally, we want a positive message sent to our city’s students, parents, educators, and communities. We can and do succeed. Let’s demand the resources we need to keep succeeding.

We are Cranston Public Schools.

I think Jen’s argument sums up very succinctly what the issue is with charter schools: public resources are being handed to unaccountable, private entities.  This surrender of public resources is justified in the name of “the achievement gap” and the “crumbling schools”—when it is precisely because these public institutions have been starved of resources going back years.  Why should public tax money be paid to private operators as an “incubator of innovation”?  Why can’t we let people already in the public employ (i.e. public school teachers) have the resources and the freedom to try innovative approaches?  The whole thing is a smokescreen using fluffy liberal feel-good language to cover up a corporate theft of public resources.

The good news is: the people of Cranston aren’t buying it.

*****

There are, however, some points and questions that need to be raised, and I invite responses to any and all of these points:

1.  The Cranston rally—and the potential for a big turn-out at the Board of Regents meeting—stands as a stark example of what an elected school committee can do.  Again, not that it’s a panacea, but it’s also undeniable that part of the turn-out had to do with the opposition of elected officials to the charter school—and the ability of the elected school committee to mobilize parents via the PTOs.  This is a model of the people most directly involved in and affected by what happens in the public schools, standing up for their interests.

2.  The response in Cranston stands in stark contrast to the situation in Providence.  Here’s an appointed, lap-dog school committee rolling over and playing dead when told to by the Mayor.  The lack of real representation of the interests of the “stakeholders” in Providence—i.e., the parents, students, and teachers—is utterly shocking.  Or perhaps it’s just as shocking as the complete disregard that those appointed bureaucrats have for the actual feelings and demands of the people they effectively rule over.  To close schools in poor areas, claiming declining enrollments—and then to turn around and claim that these students are underserved by the public schools and deserve a “choice” in the form of a corporate-run school—this is utter, rank hypocrisy.

3.  One thing that does intrigue me: as much as I stand in awe and appreciation of what the Cranston School Committee has done, I’m also a union-supporting teacher, and I have a certain skepticism about school committees from that standpoint.  Specifically: what role did this school committee play in canceling the scheduled raise for Cranston teachers?  And how do Cranston teachers view this relationship?  This seems to me like a thorny question, and I’d like to hear from Cranston teachers what they think of this.

4.  One potential problem with the mobilization as it’s shaped up thus far: while Providence and Cranston themselves are far from homogenous municipalities, there is nonetheless a significant social and racial/ethnic difference between them.  There have been incidents in the past in which Cranstonians have expressed a certain prejudice vis-à-vis Providence students and Providence schools, a certain elitism that is both unwarranted and unhealthy.  Now it appears, from what I have seen, that this sentiment has been marginal to or absent from the Cranston-based activism around Achievement First.  I think this is an important development that needs to be built on.  Cranston and Providence have common interests in fighting off this corporate attack—and in fighting back against their mayors, who are clearly corporate puppets, despite their status as elected officials.  The quality of Cranston schools should also exist in Providence schools—and doesn’t, precisely because of the question of racism and poverty, and the unequal distribution of resources in the state.  Cranston parents and teachers have much more to gain from demanding equal resources for all—starting with their Providential neighbors—than they do from a narrow, provincial vision that focuses on grabbing resources for their own schools without looking at the big picture of school financing and its problems.

5.  The conclusion I want to draw from this is the following: that there is tremendous potential in Rhode Island school districts for fighting the corporate assault on our schools, and that this potential energy should find a common expression in a unified, state-wide, grass-roots organization that works with the local groups in struggle while also maintaining a broader vision of defending public education in the state, fighting against racial and socio-economic inequalities in the allocation of educational resources, and stopping the privatization and destruction of our public schools in a divide-and-conquer assault.  I think the Coalition to Defend Public Education has made some excellent progress on this account; and while it has maintained a level of activity throughout the summer, it should now be revitalized and expanded.  We need people from around the state, working jointly on the range of issues affecting public education, in order to coordinate our response and avoid provincial opportunism.  Charter schools, democratic governance, resistance to budget cuts, opposition to destructive “school reform” schemes and the expansion of standardized testing, and the defense of teachers’ professional and working rights and conditions—all of these things are interrelated and deserve attention from an organization of students, parents, teachers and community members, working in their own interests for the defense and improvement of public education for all.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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