Dinner conversation with tea partiers: How to fix urban education

I recently had dinner with a couple who were incredibly smart, friendly, funny… and conservative. They are active members of Tea Party organizations. My politics range from pretty liberal to very liberal, and I gravitate to the like-minded, so our candid conversation hit me as a shock to the system.

Since I’m a teacher and we all have opinions about education, the inevitable, guaranteed, stone-cold-lock cocktail party question was posed to me:

So Dan, what do you think of Michelle Rhee?

I find it really hard to give a short answer to this question. I’m critical of many of Rhee’s policies and I believe her legacy (hushed-up cheating scandals, stagnant test scores, disenfranchised parents, alienated veteran teachers, a viciously anti-union ideology) is problematic.

This tends not to go over well with the ballroom set who have been conditioned to revere her brand by Waiting for Superman and cover stories in Time and Newsweek. So I start with the positive: the status quo was no good and Rhee brought much-needed attention into DC Public Schools. She got people talking about school reform.

As I was falling all over myself in an attempt to be even-handed, diplomatic, and still true to my beliefs, the couple politely and directly asserted their vision for inner-city education.

It involves (and I’m paraphrasing as best I can):

Allowing individuals to donate to private charities that will choose how to allocate funds in schools;

• Narrowing the vision of the school day to teach basic skills reading and math (and occasionally the arts) while providing two good meals per day;

• Eliminating all government assistance programs because they enable laziness and bad parenting;

• Encouraging all parents to get jobs.

Each suggestion contained a grain of reasonableness surrounded by skewed assumptions and a vision shaped by ideology rather than understanding. We were at the same dinner table but evidently living in two different universes. When one side believes that all public funds are at best suspect, and at worst actively ruining society, it’s hard to imagine truly strengthening a public school system.

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