Monday, April 3, 2017

Choice, Vampires, Swedish Fish, Jane Jacobs and Diane Ravitch

When I was a boy, my mother took me to the candy store to pick out a few Swedish Fish. Those candies used to be in a box that sat on the counters of delis and corner stores all over the place. For a penny, you could grab one out of the box and get a quick little sugar rush while you were waiting for the man  to finish ringing you up.  On this day, mom gave me two cents, enough for me to pick two from the box. She gave me specific instructions to pick out one for myself and one for her. When I asked which one she wanted, she said it was my choice. She didn't really care.

Image result for swedish fish boxWhile all Swedish Fish are the same, the question I asked her, 'which one', had a very specific reference in 1980s Long Island. You see, no one much liked grabbing the "Fish" from the top of the box.  Those were sort of hard and other people had probably touched them. We always liked the ones just under the surface. They were softer and tasted, I don't know, fresher than the ones on the top. They were better.

That said, it was considered rude to 'go digging' into the box. You know, you don't just go digging into someone's Swedish Fish box. That was a 'no no'. During the Regan Era, doing something that was considered, in polite company, to be a 'no no' meant only one thing: You had to be sneaky about it.

As a ten year old, I thought I had mastered this art of sneakiness. I proceeded to drop my two pennies on the counter and, while the clerk was pulling them both toward him to put in the cash register, I quickly picked out one for my mom from the top layer of the box, and then one just beneath, in the softer, fresher layer, for me. Pleased with myself, I held up my hand and offered mom her fish.

She immediately snatched both and gulped them down.

Astonished, I looked at her as if to ask what had just happened. She just shrugged and said, 'You made abad choice!'.

Whenever I read something about school choice vouchers, I am astonished about how popular they are. It's shocking to learn that roughly 40% of  voters support a process that essentially opts out from the one staple of community that has bee around since the Northwest Ordinance (namely a school for each community). It is difficult to understand why so many Americans don't see this as a threat to community until I realize that, sadly, too many Americans have lost faith in the idea of community.

But I wonder if these people have ever thought it through. I mean, do they understand the ramifications of an entire society left to the concepts of universal choice?

The best Vampire movie ever, Nosferatu, features this scene with a mischief of rats desperately trying to make their way through a hole just large enough for one or two. That's the vision I get with universal choice; desperate stakeholders, who have lost faith in their local school, clamoring to get a job, or their child or themselves in the 15 or 20 percent of schools that everyone considers 'good'. The only thing is, those schools only have so many seats available and those same parents would have to clamor for the second tier schools.

And then the third.

And for some, the fourth.

And, perhaps, the fifth.

Choice isn't choice for those parents and it isn't choice for the schools either. It certainly isn't choice for the teachers who would, of course, clamor to go teach at those top tier schools opting only to "settle" for school communities that weren't seen as top tier.

This is choice's dirty little secret. It's not that anyone wouldn't be concerned about the second or third or fourth (or fifth) tier schools or the children who learned there. It's that they would fail to care for them because all eyes, and I mean all of eyes in this system, would be on the top tier schools.

A failure to care is the very definition of neglect.  And, as one teacher once put it, a neglect in resources [always] follow the neglect of attention.  The fact that universal choice would create near universal neglect just isn't something that these 40 percent of folks have thought through. And yet, the sheer math behind an idea that will allow every single parent to just walk away from the American version of the Social Contract is impossible to ignore. We can't all fit through the hole when we're all trying to go through it.

And no. We're not rats. Not nearly. But we are people who can either simultaneously jump a ship because we've been told it is sinking or work to try to make it better.

In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs wrote that, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

School communities are no different. They can only provide something for everybody in their community when they are created by everybody within that school community. That takes leadership, hard work and commitment, not an ticket to exit the community.

Ravitch made this same point almost 50 years later in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "Neighborhood schools are often the anchors of their communities, a steady presence that helps to cement the bond of community among neighbors".

Schools and communities share one important aspect: They both require an all-in commitment from their members or they will both fail. They are also two sides of the same coin: To walk away from a school is to walk away from a community.

This public school thing of ours isn't like a Swedish Fish box where you can pull out the nicer, tastier one below. That path destabilizes the entire system and parents, leaders and teachers would likely soon find themselves scrambling for the one or two openings that they can find.

It's just astounding how more than one third of Americans haven't thought that through.

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