Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Parents, Schools, and the Personal is Political Question

For a while now I have been following Leonie Haimson (yes, following on twitter and getting her email messages). Leonie Haimson is the executive director of a New York City group called Class Size Matters. Sure, New York City is nothing like Washtenaw County, and New York City has a mayoral control system--which really sucks if you are a parent trying to have some input into the school system!

Still, I'm interested in New York because I'm interested in New York, and obviously. . . most obviously. . . class size does matter. So today Leonie Haimson sent out an email that she titled "A Personal Note," and I want to share it.

Dear parents:

I haven’t written much about myself or my family on my blog or in these newsletters; however, I am doing so now because GothamSchools [ed. note: link] is intent on writing about me, my organization Class Size Matters [ed. note: link], and about the fact that my son entered a private high school this year. I told their reporter Geoff Decker about this in the fall, in the midst of a longer, off the record conversation about many things, and ever since, whenever I have contacted him about possible stories, he has brought up this issue instead of more important ones.  I myself don’t think it is either particularly interesting or relevant, but since he is intent on writing about the situation, and said he intends to compare me to Michelle Rhee, who also sends one of her children to private school, I decided I should explain why I think our situations are quite different.

I had kids in NYC public schools for a total of 15 years; my daughter attended public schools from K-6th grade; my son K-8th grade.  My record of advocacy and my continued work in this area should prove my commitment to public school children.  The private schools they attended have the sort of small classes that I believe all children have the right to receive.  It is a parent’s responsibility to find a school that they believe best fits their children’s needs; and for that reason I have never criticized Bloomberg, Bill Gates,  Rhee or anyone for sending their own children to any school, whether private, charter or public. 
So I thought this was really interesting because it mirrors some of the issues I've been thinking about in regards to Washtenaw County schools, in particular in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

In Ann Arbor, when the Community High School lists came up, several people I know immediately began discussing on facebook whether they should look at private schools or other schools. Some of them had older kids in the comprehensive high schools, and some of them didn't, but had heard things they didn't like.

In Ypsilanti, I have several friends and acquaintances who are working hard to make the new Ypsilanti Community Schools a success--they are on committees, they are going to meetings. And yet their children are already in private schools, charter schools, or schools of choice in other districts. We saw this also in the school board candidates for the new YCS school board, some of whom had children in charter schools. All of them desperately want the Ypsilanti Community Schools to be a success. But for their own kids? They felt they needed to make a different choice.

One of them said to me, "I feel guilty, but I don't know what YCS will look like next year, and I had to act now."

Ultimately, we as parents are responsible for our children's education. That is our responsibility, and generally, we don't get do-overs when it comes to our kids' educations.

Ultimately, our individual choices--taken collectively--can harm our efforts for public schools.

Should we judge these choices?

I sort of do. I sort of judge them as making the smart parenting choice. Most of these parents don't come to, or take their, decisions lightly.

I sort of judge them as selling out.

Mostly,  I sort of respect that a parent's gotta do what a parent's gotta do as a parent--even if in the long-term it hurts the work they are trying to do in the larger community.

Yes, the personal is political, but let's not forget that the personal is, first and foremost, personal.

And here Leonie Haimson gets to the key point:
What I have criticized is when powerful and wealthy individuals send their children to schools that feature very small classes, lots of art, music, etc., and little or no standardized testing, but then advocate for an entirely different kind of education for other children.     The evidence is crystal clear that all kids benefit from smaller classes, but especially poor and minority kids, and yet these children are LEAST likely to have access to them. The efforts of the corporate reformers mentioned above who have advocated for increasing class size, especially in large urban districts, while ensuring that their own children are provided with small classes is wrong.  I will continue my life’s work to try to improve the opportunity for all kids to be provided with small classes, as well as adequate and fair funding, an end to high stakes testing, and a voice for parents in decision-making, and to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it.
And guess where we see that hypocrisy? Right here in Michigan, where Governor Snyder is doing the exact same thing.

David Arsen, MSU School of Education professor and school finance expert, takes this on in a terrific (and long) "Open Letter to Governor Snyder." (Read the rest of David Arsen's letter here.) In this excerpt, in the section titled Trust Your Judgment, he writes:

My hunch is that you [Gov. Snyder] have a pretty good sense of what makes for a good school. You had the opportunity to send your own child to excellent public schools [Ann Arbor schools], but chose Greenhills School, a wonderful private school in Ann Arbor. It is selective. The school has attractive facilities and grounds, a student-faculty ratio of eight and an average class size of 17. Greenhills strives to provide a wide range of stimulating and challenging classes. Teachers and administrators take pride in the school’s democratic decision-making; it’s not top-down.
Annual tuition for Greenhills is nearly $20,000, and, as you know better than I, that doesn’t cover all operating costs. If the trend line for Michigan public school revenues looks like a frown, then the one for Greenhills looks a bit more like a smile.
I don’t question your choice. But this is what puzzles me. Students at Greenhills do not take standardized tests until they apply to college. The school’s educators sympathize with their public school colleagues whose professional lives now revolve around tests.
Greenhills does not accept credit for online classes, nor offer classes for credit in the summer. It takes a firm position against students taking courses at other institutions, including colleges or universities, unless they have already taken the school’s most advanced course in a subject. Greenhills students don’t graduate early, but rather all together at a spring commencement. The school is designed around remarkable physical spaces devoted to “forums” for students in each grade to meet, deliberate and socialize.
The school has a thoughtful rationale for these decisions: it wants students to interact with one another and faculty to establish a durable and supportive community. I try to imagine how the families and educators at Greenhills would react if they were forced to operate under the rules embodied in the Oxford proposal and HB 5923.
So whatever your personal choices, let's keep working for those same ideals for all children: small class sizes; public programs; parents being able to work with school officials and professionals; no high-stakes testing.


  1. First, Gov. Snyder’s son attended Pioneer, so it is shameful that David Arsen doesn’t know what he is talking about. Also, why not give all students a chance to attend a school like Greenhills and give them the money so they can choose.

    David Arsen’s letter justifies the argument for charter schools and attaching the money to the kid so all students can have a choice. This is already happening and soon, the public schools are going to be left with only the bottom 30%.

    Secondly, Greenhills does well because the kids are smart and can learn easily. Education can go to a higher level when this is your base. AAPS ‘s achievement gap is one of the worst in the country because 30% of AAPS kids and parents are smart and can learn regardless of the teachers or curriculum.

    All politicians send their kids to private schools (Jennifer Graholm and Obama’s) so this is the weakest argument I have seen in a long time and really is sad that you published this as a respectable opinion.

  2. Anon, I didn't know that Gov. Snyder's son had gone to Pioneer. I wonder what made him decide to send his other children to Greenhills.

    As you note, Greenhills can be selective about who they choose. However, that by itself is not what makes them an excellent school. I believe the small class sizes really make the difference.

    And by the way, if you were to take the money used to pay for your enrollment in Ann Arbor and use it to pay for school at Greenhils, (an idea I am opposed to, but hypothetically) you wouldn't even have half your tuition paid. And most people don't have another $11,000 lying around to pay the tuition.