‘Save Our Schools’ march won’t unite us, but that’s fine

Jay Mathews
Columnist July 28, 2011

Thousands of educators and supporters are expected to be marching, rallying and talking here this week in support of public schools. If I were at the “Save Our Schools” march around the White House, my sign would say “Bring Us Together.” Too many of us who care about schools are picking at each other, but maybe I am expecting too much.

Some of us want to focus on what is happening in classrooms. We argue with those who think more attention should be paid to children’s home lives. Some of us want to end high-stakes testing. We don’t have much patience with those who think standards slide without those exams. Some of us want to push states that lag behind national standards and don’t listen to those who think federal dictates cause more problems than they solve.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The march organizers want equitable funding for all public school populations, an end to high-stakes tests, locally developed curriculums and policymaking by teachers, families and local leadership. A good conversation on those issues might bring much agreement. For instance, I prefer more funding for poor than affluent children. But if the march organizers mean that poor kids should get the total value of what rich kids get at school and at home, as their background materials indicate, then I am with them.

Still, we rarely meet each other halfway. I have tried settling disputes between education advocates I admire. It hasn’t worked. Last year I suggested that two prominent adversaries — historian and author Diane Ravitch and investor and charter school advocate Whitney Tilson — be nicer to each other and stop exaggerating their disagreements given that they agree on some things.

Tilson said Ravitch had “completely disavowed her earlier beliefs” about improving schools. A careful reading of Ravitch’s new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” shows that is not true. Ravitch in turn castigated innovators such as Tilson for saying charter schools are the silver bullet that will save inner-city schools, although I found no evidence of that.

Neither Tilson nor Ravitch liked that piece. Our educational factions don’t seem capable of agreeing to disagree, even when they reveal sympathy for what the other side is saying. Ravitch’s book is supposed to be against charter schools, yet she e-mailed me from Texas after it was published praising charter schools she was visiting there. Tilson and other charter supporters allegedly ignore the need to invest in helping poor families deal with job, housing and health problems. Yet there is much evidence of charters dealing with distresses at home. It was a D.C. charter school social worker who demanded authorities investigate the disappearance of four girls whose mother, it turned out, had murdered them.

Maybe it is unrealistic to try to bring warring camps together. Such arguments are, I admit, part of our national character. Debates can move us forward. To score a point over an opponent, we have to research the facts. That can produce useful surprises, and policy changes such as legalizing public single-sex schools that help some children.

A little fear and loathing is not always bad. It is hard to raise funds without offering dragons worth slaying. Those of us who want to improve classroom achievement may say we are fighting the power of teachers’ unions. Those of us who want to shift funds to improve students’ living standards say this will counter corporate interests trying to privatize public schools with big grants and charters.

If that’s what gets us dressed and ready to go in the morning, okay. Motivation is good. We say our work, including the march this weekend, is for schools. We may use some of that energy yelling at each other. But if our effort and money raise the achievement of the children, maybe I shouldn’t be so bothered by all that noise.

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