Monday, September 17, 2012

Commerce, Choice and Poverty (and the Chicago Teacher's Strike!)

This post comes from guest blogger Luke Freeman, a masters candidate at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College.

Last week, I heard a presentation at a conference in which the speaker pointed out that at the heart of the school choice movement lies a basic redefinition of the relationship between schools and students. As part of a much larger argument, the speaker, Michael Gunzenhauser, said that the relationship between schools and students is now more like commerce than it is like education. Of course, most parents, students, and teachers do not experience school in a commercial way, nor do they conceive of it as such. However, the point stands: funding is tied to enrollment, and charter schools draw students from schools city-wide. Thus, even traditional schools are now notionally bound to their students in a commercial role.

While the U. S. school system (broadly conceived) has always included private and thus commercial schools, the sort of commercial relationship between private schools and its students is qualitatively different from that of public schools. Consider for a moment what private schools typically offer to students: not choice, but a confessional environment, or a particular socialization experience with "old boy school ties," or advanced academics, or language immersion. Rarely are private schools founded because of a sense that public schools could benefit from a little competition for the sake of reform (if this is indeed all that charter schools are intended to do).

This essential redefinition of the relationship between schools and students will have the greatest implications for students from impoverished families. As Shara Bellamy pointed out last week, some children are being raised in an environment where surviving is the goal, not thriving, and not social or economic advancement. It is these children who need public schools the most, and not always for education. They need it for care, broadly conceived. Care of the body, mind, and soul. The burden for providing this care falls to all society, who has chosen to place it on the shoulders of schools and teachers. If the relationship between teacher and these students with extra-ordinary needs is redefined according to the crass logic of commerce, what can we expect for them? And, as this NY Time Op-Ed asks (prompted by the Chicago Teachers' Strike, what can we expect of our teachers?

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