The gray, roiling clouds that hung over the westbound lane of I-20 were nothing short of a premonition.
For the first time since a Middle School field trip almost twenty-five years ago, I was headed to our State Capitol. A historic vote in the House Education Committee on whether or not to expand the charter school laws of Mississippi was about to take place, and I wanted to be there to witness it.
“What am I doing?”, I thought to myself. “I should be at the office. I should be meeting my wife for lunch. I should be helping her out by shopping for my four-year-old Daughter’s birthday present, which is tomorrow.” But, selfishly and like a man possessed, I pushed onward as if being hurled down the interstate by some nameless and immeasurable force.
I turned the radio dial to the statewide talk radio station. It is yet to be determined whether or not this was a mistake or a blessing. The topic was, of course, charter schools. It was quite the circus. Accusations, name-calling, lies and insults abounded — all of which were directed at the professional educators of Mississippi’s public schools.
The host enlightened his audience with descriptions of public school districts as “fiefdoms”, each of which is its own “evil empire…ruled by a Superintendent” from “the dark side” and “with an iron fist”. They even had the theme from Star Wars playing in the background.
As a public school parent who has worked very hard to develop the type of strong, community member/Superintendent relationship that is essential to the success of all children, I was not amused. And, as the radio host’s litany of falsehoods continued and as the Mississippi sky darkened the land around me, my anger rose.
Later, as I rolled into Jackson and took the State Street exit off of I-55 to the capitol, an elected official who is a proponent of charters joined the program(If you’re wanting to know his name and title, sorry; this blog isn’t about ruining people for political purposes).
At first he made the usual arguments: “parent choice”, “reform”, etc. It was the standard line that I’ve heard and read repeatedly in recent weeks, only to discover that study after study shows that charter schools essentially operate under the tried and failed philosophy of “separate but equal”.
But then he said something different:
“I’m not going to send my grand kids or kids to one of these inferior schools.”
I was shocked.
Not failing…Not low performing…Inferior. Please remember that this was a live radio program being broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people across the state.
I dialed the call-in number quicker than a knife fight in a phone booth:
“Yes, I’d like to ask the gentleman a question. A moment ago he used the phrase “inferior school”. I ‘d like to know if he would be willing to go to one of these schools, look the teachers and the kids in their faces and tell them that they are “inferior”. I’ll hang up and listen. Thanks.”
And as I hung up, he responded “Yes. I absolutely would.”
Shock turned into a cold acceptance of reality. To be totally honest, I wanted to pull over and cry. In the year 2012, how could it be possible for anyone, much less an elected official, to refer to a group of children and the professionals who give their lives to educate them as “inferior”?
As I pulled into the lot across the street from the Capitol, I parked my truck in view of the graceful, 19th century facade of First Baptist Church, its shaded buttresses of stone emitting a presence of calm. After listening to the shameful discourse on the radio for the previous ninety minutes — one that renewed my awareness of the widespread misconceptions of American public education that are partially due to a misguided system of accountability labels, but largely due to what former Mississippi Governor William Winter called “the fault lines of race and class and educational and financial disparity” that exist in our communities — I was reminded of just how far we’ve strayed from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I was early and there wasn’t much of a crowd, but when the start time of the committee meeting in room 204 drew near, there were between 50 and 75 people in the hallway. A good portion of these folks were superintendents from across the state who don’t support the idea of non-district, autonomous charter schools that are self-governed and funded from the same pool of tax dollars that districts rely on for things such as the hiring of qualified teachers to adopting state-of-the-art curriculums to guaranteeing that little Johnny will have a computer in his classroom so that he can learn how to create a spreadsheet.
Nor are these educators in favor of the fact that charter schools have a proven track record of skimming the best and brightest students away from district schools while enrolling a significantly lower percentage of special needs and at-risk students than their district counterparts. The result is “successful” test scores and showers of praise, while the districts are left with less money to educate the kids who the charter schools won’t take.
So, no, the Superintendents who were gathered in the hallway of the capitol are against charter schools. And, given the evidence, why in God’s name would they be for them?
They opened the doors around 1:00 and only allowed 10 people into the meeting room. Naturally, most of us didn’t make the cut. I tried to follow what was happening via the Twitter feeds of the journalists who were inside.
Twenty minutes later the doors opened and the meeting was over. The charter school bill had officially died by a margin of one vote, 16-15. Loud applause and emotional shouts of joy rang throughout the hall.
One emotional Superintendent shouted “Glory!”, perhaps relieved by being able to return to the business of educating children in the unified, traditional model that works when communities make it work and, yes, fails when communities allow it to fail.
I called my good Superintendent friend back home. I told him that it was over. He and I agreed that we could now refocus on continuing to strengthen the public school system that my wife and I are products of and that both of our children will be products of.
But, as I was hanging up the phone, five words flashed across in a text message from a friend that felt like a perfectly delivered punch to the gut: “GOVERNOR TO CONSIDER SPECIAL SESSION”.
Drained and dazed, I walked out of the capitol and headed back home.
And so, here we are. Back to square one in the fight to save Thomas Jefferson’s quintessentially American idea of a “…system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens….”
But it is no longer a fight. Now, like the churning cumulus of a Deep South storm cell or the thunderous vitriol of an anti-public school radio broadcast, it has very much escalated into a full-scale war.
I urge Mississippi to choose community over charter schools and equality over separation.