She wrote this piece for the Monday print AJC education op-ed page.
By Shanna Miles
In the 1840s, Irish Catholic parents lobbied for local control of schools so that their children wouldn’t be indoctrinated by a Protestant curriculum.
In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had to call in the National Guard to lead nine African-American children past a picket line of angry white parents who were outraged that their school was to be integrated.
Fast-forward a half-century or so, and the war between government and parents still rages with the passage of Amendment 1 and the introduction of the “Parent Trigger” charter bill. Now winding its way through the Legislature, House Bill 123 would allow parents and teachers to force a local school board to consider their petition to change their traditional public school into a charter school.
On the surface, the question seems to be, who should have control of the schools — parents or the government? But on closer inspection, another much deeper question arises: Whose responsibility is it to educate a child — society’s or the parent’s?
Business needs an educated workforce to ensure efficiency and profit. Governments need working citizens to pay taxes. Parents need their children to be educated so that they can feed, clothe and shelter themselves. It seems that everyone is on the same page, but there is a problem.
We forget that education is compulsory by law. Even children who are not willing to learn — because their basic needs are not being met, they don’t like the curriculum, or they just don’t want to sit still for hours on end — are forced to be in school. And these students are corralled into classrooms, placed next to eager children, and set before a teacher who is charged with being not only educator, but a warden.
What was once a classroom has now become a prison.
Schools, limited by federal and state funding, are becoming increasingly ill-equipped to serve students who need mental health services, stable housing or intense remediation — all of which are not, and some argue cannot be, provided by the schools. Is it any wonder that parents and teachers want out of this situation?
So a solution is proposed, a panacea for those weary of the policy debates and federal mandates and endless arguments on the school board and Senate floors: the charter school, the ultimate opt-out.
With it, parents and teachers can create “safe havens” where only those students whose parents are willing to volunteer, submit to additional testing and adhere to a longer school day, and who are able to provide their own transportation, uniforms, textbooks, lunch, whatever, are able to attend. In essence, a charter school is a place where all parents, if not students, think exactly alike.
But what of the school with the students who are left behind?
It becomes a sanitarium, and the educational landscape devolves into a state of plague, where the most vulnerable students are quarantined into even more poorly funded “sick houses” as those with options huddle behind the iron gates of entrance requirements and parent covenants.
Are we forgetting that the kids left behind will grow up? Then what?
Do we build larger prisons? Upgrade our neighborhood security gates to include an armed guard?
We all want education; the “public” part is what most of us don’t like. But we don’t live on an island, and we can’t sail away from difficult people and difficult issues. As adults, we don’t get to opt out.
As HB 123 works its way through the legislative process, all of us need to decide whether we’re going to lobby as responsible members of a collective society, or cower like citizens under siege.
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog