Koonlaba: Mississippi, What do you think you are doing?

11164757_10206497932583916_3464456028614437679_nI’ve just read the most depressing article this morning from back in the spring about Detroit’s schools. It tells about how much some families struggle to get their children to school in a place where school choice policy has run rampant for many years. I can’t imagine having to do any of the things described in the article to get my children to school. I completely count on the good public schools where I live to provide an education for them.

I acknowledge that we are privileged to live where we live, which brings me to the first major point I want to make with this post: I want ALL students, not just my own, to have access to quality schools.

Forcing schools to compete, students to compete, parents to compete will not provide our society with what it needs to sustain itself. Education should be a basic, civil right. The principles of the free market do not work for education. I’ve said and written all of these things what feels like a billion times. However, I keep saying all of this because we should never forget that the product of an educational system is human beings…not cars, not technology, not entertainment.

I fear that I am becoming a minority in this country and state as I refuse to only look out for my own best interests in this matter.

I still believe in the common good. I believe in ethical decision-making. I believe this country and this state are not mine, not yours. America and Mississippi are ours.

I once had a Twitter conversation with Dmitri Mehlhorn, one of the co-founders of StudentsFirst and the Hope Street Group, major pro-school choice organizations at the national level. He wanted to know how I respond to research that proves that school choice works for poor children. So, I informed him that I had not seen any research that proved school choice works for poor children in a place as rural as Mississippi and invited him to show me this research. I explained that Mississippi families cannot transport their children to a school of their choice. They depend on the public schools to transport them to the only school within a 30 minute-drive in our rural areas. He agreed that he had not yet seen evidence that school choice would work in a place like Mississippi either. He was very polite and professional in acknowledging the research is mostly on urban districts.

Think about that. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but this was Dmitri Mehlhorn!  If even he can admit current school choice models have little, if anything, to offer rural areas, why are we pushing this at the state level?

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Screenshot of my Twitter convo with a leader in the school choice movement.

 

This brings me to the second major point I want to make with this post. My family is privileged to still live in a community that strongly supports public education. I am counting on the good public schools in my area to be here when my children are of school age. Yet, even in my privilege, I can acknowledge that school choice is part of a push to privatize public education. I fear this will happen, even in my community, before my children are old enough to attend school.

I don’t believe public goods should be privatized. There is a reason they are called public goods. They are for the public. Privatizing makes it about profit, not the public good. Unfortunately, school choice is being used to privatize the public good of public education. Many school choice proponents have profits in their hearts about this, not our children. (See this MS Ed Blog series for more information about the school choice movement.)

But, why would some of our state leaders want to privatize education? A teacher once asked me to explain the privatization movement to her, which I did, emphasizing some of the motives described below. Her response was, “Surely they wouldn’t do that.”

This brings me to the third major point I want to make with this post. Assuming blindly that everyone has your children’s best interest at heart is a mistake. There are a couple of reasons that I can think of as to why they surely would do that, as they have in many other states.

First, it is possible that some want to see the schools re-segregate and believe that privatization is the means to accomplish this. I don’t think we will ever get ahead around here if we don’t acknowledge that some people wish Brown v. Board of Education had never happened. The sort of thinking that leads one to want schools re-segregated is really bizarre to me. Thus, the fact that some people still do think that way has been a hard thing for me to accept, as I am sure it is for many of you.

It is also possible that some stand to benefit financially with the privatization of schools. We already know there is little accountability, transparency, and oversight of campaign finances in Mississippi. We also know that organizations like ALEC have a big presence in this state and stand to gain financially from an undereducated workforce. ALEC is also heavily backed by large corporations that stand to gain from large tax cuts that drain public education funds.

So, there is a tried and true method for privatizing a public good: Starve that entity of resources until it fails. Then, it can be privatized without pushback from the public because the public becomes desperate for a solution. That is exactly what is happening here.

These conversations are important when we talk about the state budget, which is why this is on my mind this morning. We aren’t funding the schools we have but are willing to spend money on corporate tax breaks and school choice. How are we supposed to get good, longterm results from that?

Mississippi could push back on the privatization of public education at this point and become a leader in the nation. Now is the time for pushback! We should not wait until our schools completely fail, and we become desperate for a solution.

This brings me to my final point for this post. You don’t have to take my word for it, and I am not here to argue with your difference of opinion. There is more than enough evidence out there for you to come to your own conclusions. I just don’t want you to blindly accept any of this.

I believe the best thing you can do to participate in this representative government to protect your own interests is to listen to teachers who do have your children’s and your communities’ best interests at heart.

I especially urge you to listen to the educators who have spent a great deal of time and effort studying this subject, as I have and as many of my colleagues have. Then, communicate with your representatives in the government and ask them what they think they are doing!

Mississippi is a wonderful place but is plagued by many issues. Setting ourselves up for what has happened in places like Detroit, especially when there is no evidence to support this, will not solve anything but make those issues even worse in the long run.

Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

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