'Broken schools' -- or broken debate over education?

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 11:50 PM

 “I don’t want to hear the words ‘broken schools’ one more time!”  This senior scholar of education usually speaks with the tone of a high school physics teacher -- measured, clear, and calm.  But she is fed up.  We were at a forum on North Carolina women and politics recently, and a young woman had just used the phrase to ask a reasonable question about child-to-teacher ratios.  This scholar responded by sternly warning us not to buy into the jargon of “brokenness.” 

Since her uncharacteristic rant, those two words have jangled in my ears when I hear them.  She made them as jarring to my teacher sensibility as a split infinitive.  “Broken schools.”  I now contend that this phrase has been part of a smart scheme to set up the terms for a conversation about who can come in and “fix” education across the country.

 “Broken?”  Think about it.  Is that the right word for the man who mopped up vomit when a second-grader overindulged in Halloween candy?  Or the woman who remembered my daughter’s cafeteria account number when her little fourth grade mind was otherwise engaged, busy wiggling her newly loose tooth?  Or the cop at the high school who has to deal with one more confounded fender-bender resulting from teens “checking one another out” rather than carefully backing out? To borrow from a cute pop song, the public school system’s “not broken, just bent.”  The question we ought to ask is this: Who bent it?

The example of sneaky old Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” is useful.  If you want effectively to undermine the complicated, daily work of teachers and custodians and counselors and school traffic cops, you first need to destabilize people’s confidence in the solvency of the overall system.  You basically need to create the educational equivalent of a run on the bank.  People are hearing through grapevines as disparate as National Public Radio and Fox News that public schools are “broken” and in need of a superhero leader-ish leader to come in and rescue them. 

So, we become susceptible to the idea that there is a kind of broad, cultural consensus that public education is failing.  Polls can be made to say almost anything, but it seems that most parents with children in public schools carry in their brains, simultaneously, two divergent things.  First, they basically appreciate the people who are caring for their children and think they ought to make more money and have job security.  But, second, they think there is a broad consensus that public schools are “broken.”  Similarly, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” people in the town genuinely love George Bailey, his Uncle Bill Bailey, and his cousin Tilly, who together (with a crow) manage the local Building and Loan Association with fairness and finesse.  But anxiety can be as contagious as courage, and Old Man Potter takes advantage of people’s fear to divide them and turn them against the Building and Loan.  A crucial turning point in the story comes when the frantic citizens look around and see one another rightly, again, for what they are -- neighbors -- buying into a future, for a town they truly hold together.

As anyone who has a television knows, Uncle Billy haphazardly misplaces a huge pile of cash held in trust, and Mr. Potter, by chance, wins the opportunity to hoard it and wreak havoc.   In the case of North Carolina, as in other states, various versions of Old Man Potter have quite intentionally underfunded the public school system.  For example, they’ve cut the penny sales tax as well as the godzillionaire tax.  And then they’ve had the gall to fake avuncular concern that our underfunded public schools are not serving children well, participating in events funded by corporate sponsors to showcase “School Choice.” 

North Carolina now pays our public school teachers less than in 46 other states.  We are now 46th in the country.  That shouldn’t scare us.  That should make us mad.  As Deborah R. Gerhardt reported in Slate a few weeks ago, “North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008.”  Voters who can read well, and who can read between the lines, are not easily manipulated.  Maybe this is a reason why the Potters of our beautiful state are trying to send us running scared, ready to yank our children out from under the tutelage and care of hard-working and good-hearted people we actually know and trust.  It is a crucial time in our own little story, a time to look around and see one another for who we are -- neighbors, together in this endeavor of public education, for the long haul and for our children’s good.