Over the past few weeks Georgia has been the epicenter of education debate, hosting some of the most notable — and controversial — voices in the field today.Speaking to the Georgia School Boards Association in Savannah 10 days ago, historian Diane Ravitch urged, “Don’t stand by and let politicians tear down a public institution that has been the foundation of our democracy for 150 years.”
Reminding the audience that more than 90 percent of Georgia’s students attend public schools, Ravitch, author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System, ” said: “We must improve those public schools. We must not pretend those children don’t exist while we are creating more choices for 2 [percent] to 3 percent of them.”
Following her to the podium was a politician, Gov. Nathan Deal, who won applause with his pledge, “We have to restore the joy of teaching to our teachers. And that means diverting away from the concept that everything hinges on a CRCT score.” (If that sounds familiar, it’s because Deal, the candidate, said much the same thing to the same group last year in Savannah.)
Last week, the National Charter Schools Conference brought 4,000 charter school advocates and a pantheon of national figures to Atlanta, from former President Bill Clinton to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke to the conference attendees from Washington, telling them, “I think one of the most insidious things that’s happened in this country over the past couple of decades has been the dumbing down of standards for children. In far too many states, including the state I come from, Illinois, we have been lying to children and lying to families in telling them they are prepared for college and careers when, in fact, they are nowhere near ready.”
The charismatic and fiery Mayor Booker was more preacher than politician in his speech, calling education the new civil rights challenge and declaring, “We fought the greatest war on American soil for the liberation of our people yet we imprison more and more of our own in prisons of ignorance every single day.”
Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman also spoke at the charter conference and amplified Booker’s theme of ending the cradle-to-prison pipeline.
“Public education is the battleground for the future and soul of America, ” she said. “Today education is the Freedom Ride and the sit-in movement of this era.”
Edelman described the moment in which she realized the desperation of many poor children’s lives. The day after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Edelman went into Washington, D.C., schools to warn students not to riot or loot because arrests would hurt their futures.
A boy about 12 looked Edelman in the eye and said, “Lady, what future? I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.”
“I have spent the last 40 years and will spend the rest of my life proving that boy’s truth wrong, ” Edelman said. “I had no idea how hard it would be. This boy saw and spoke the plain truth for himself and millions of others like him.
“Despite great progress for some over the last 40 years, so much peril remains to snuff out the hopes and dream of children like him, ” she said. “Incarceration is becoming the new American apartheid, and poor children of color are the fodder.”
America’s most pressing dangers come not from an enemy without, she said, but from a failure within to invest in its children.
Quoting Frederick Douglass, Edelman said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Donald L. Hense, a Morehouse College graduate and founder of the Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, came to Atlanta to receive a hall of fame award from the charter conference. Hense’s charter high school, which awarded its first diploma in 2003, awarded its 2,000th this year.
As the student representative on the Morehouse board of trustees, Hense served alongside King, who was a Morehouse grad. When King was killed, Hense ushered at the funeral. In the aftermath of King’s assassination, Hense recalled sleeping in his Atlanta dorm room with buckets of water for fear of bombs and fire.
“What with everything that we faced in the 1960s, I feel threatened more today as a part of the so-called education reform community than I did then, ” he said.
“Our schools are threatened not by people who don’t believe in charters or school choice, but by education reformers who believe that reform is best charted and directed by the same public school system that did nothing the previous 100 years, ” he said.
Hense said the charter movement is under siege, adding that he lives in “a city that will try to kill charters by a thousand cuts. Every single year, something happens to try to knock the legs of education reform from under charter schools, every single year.”
“Somehow, we have to find a balance between the undertow caused by those who justify the continued existence of failing schools and the overzealousness of TV reformers who believe that schools can be transformed in 20 months, ” he said.
“We cannot allow the continued mindset of either these groups to prevail, ” Hense told his audience at the Georgia World Congress Center. “Our children’s lives depend on those of us who believe that the liberating value of education is too important to be left to either group. Thoughtful reforms with a clear sense of urgency, without gimmickry, must take the lead.”
When you attend these education events and hear how many dedicated people are working toward better schools, from small-town school board members to former U.S. presidents, you have to wonder if anyone is listening.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog