Telling Your Story

By Nora Carr

Every school board, and every school board member, has a story to tell -- and it’s a story this country desperately needs. Right now, the very concept of public schools that are free and open to all is under attack -- and the wrong side is winning the debate.

That’s because we’ve let others tell our story and define the agenda for public education. We hear that public education should run more like a business, and that schools with struggling students should convert to charters or close, or be given a tax-supported voucher to religious-based schools.

The new, politically correct adage is, “I just want good schools. I don’t care what the governance structure is or who runs them. Let the market decide what is good, and what is worth keeping.”

We know many businesses refuse to operate in the neighborhoods and outlying areas we serve, and that children are so much more than the sum of their test scores. The “run it like a business” mantra also puts hard-won fights for creating democratic and socially just schools at risk.

Research consistently shows that charter schools actively discourage (“counsel out”) students with disabilities and other “hard to educate” students from enrolling. Even those that serve higher percentages of disadvantaged students tend to have high attrition rates for low performers or for students with discipline or behavioral challenges.

Charters also don’t have a lock on innovation, and the students most likely to have their parents opt-out of their neighborhood public school under No Child Left Behind are those already performing on grade level or above -- not exactly the students legislators had in mind when providing an escape hatch. For some reason, data-driven decision-making as a key business concept applies to everything in education except charter schools, tax credits, and tuition vouchers.

The reality is that public education today is an incredibly complex human enterprise, one that simply defies many of our most coveted business maxims.

As the only schools that truly serve all children, public education matters. So, here’s the real bottom line: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you’re probably not going to like it much.

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