Kudos to one of the leading advocates for charter schools in our state, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, for putting together a top-notch piece of cinematic creativity. The fine-tuned persuasiveness of the film should come as no surprise to the viewer, given that the President of this Jackson based think tank spent much of his career inside the world’s foremost school of high powered political finesse — the Washington D.C. beltway.
Unfortunately, while the film is chock-full of creativity, it is severely lacking in the area of reality.
The thesis is that the citizens of the Mississippi Delta are hopelessly “stuck” in a failing school system and that the reason for this is simply a lack of “school choice”. And while there are certainly school districts in the Delta and elsewhere that are failing, lack of school choice is hardly the reason. For example:
- In the film: “You spend your time disciplining, not teaching.” — From a former Delta public school teacher, in reference to traditional public schools. In reality: This is a reflection of poor leadership from either the Principal’s office or the Superintendent’s office or the school board — all of whom work for the taxpayers. This is not a reflection of the lack of school choice. In well-run traditional public schools, disruptive students do not remain in the classroom.
- In the film: “There was lots of fighting…” — former traditional public school student, in reference to her former school. In reality: Again, a reflection of weak disciplinary leadership from school administration — not a reflection of a lack of school choice.
- In the film: “One teacher does this, another does that. Everyone is fragmented.” — a graduate student and ardent supporter of charters in the film, in reference to traditional public schools. In reality: Fragmentation and lack of uniformity among teachers only exist in the schools whose administrations allow such things to exist. These things do not happen because of a lack of school choice.
- In the film: “We have high expectations of the kids.” — from a current charter school teacher. In reality: Teachers at well-run traditional public schools have high expectations of their students, also.
- In the film: The aforementioned grad student cites the “success” of charter schools in Georgia and North Carolina. In reality: According to the Stanford University study that has been shared here several times, charter schools in these two states fared “no different” from their traditional public counterparts in mathematics.
- In the film: “[public schools] need a new tone, a new direction.” — from the Principal of Greenville-Weston High School, a traditional public high school. In reality: Isn’t it up to the Principal to set the “tone and direction” of a school? If not, what/who is holding the Principal back? (Hint: Principals answer to Superintendents. Superintendents answer to school boards. School boards answer to the taxpayers of the communities that they serve)
- In the film: “The bar is set too low” — from the grad student, in reference to the perceived standards of traditional public schools. In reality: The bar of each school district — no matter how low or high — is set by the leadership of each school district. If the community wants to “raise the bar”, they have a right to demand it through the democratic process.
And the democratic process is the only thing that will “fix” education in Mississippi.
Each and every public school district in this state is governed by a local Board of Trustees, each of whom are elected or appointed. These individuals are charged with creating the vision of their school district. They are then charged with forming the policies that will enable their schools to realize that vision. If the voters are unhappy with the current state of their public schools — as it appears to be the case in the film — they have a right and responsibility to affect change through the democratic process.
Have charter proponents dismissed the ability of all Mississippians to understand and take part in democracy? I have too much faith in the human spirit to think so.
No, I simply think that they — like all of us sometimes do — have fallen victim to over-analysis. Indeed, it seems as if society as a whole is drifting further and further away from our basic democratic principles.
In light of the world that we live in — one that is broken by a crushing pessimism and an acceptance of our struggles as an unchangeable reality — I would like to remind the reader of something: We are — still — a democracy. It is our right and responsibility to be the very “system” that so many of us feel so hopelessly disconnected from.
We currently have the tools to transform what we already have — our schools, our government, our society — into the more perfect work of art that God wants us to be.
But it will take each and every one of us — regardless of zip code, income, race, religion or personal politics.
Let it begin.