Right to be angry about our schools

October 12, 2010

SCHOOL REFORMERS are right when they raise angry voices toward the injustice our society commits against low-income and minority kids. The anger is entirely justified.

Though her policies are misguided, Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has the emotions right. We should all be outraged at how our society allows kids born to affluence to dream big, and how it represses the dreams of working-class and minority children.

The reason school reformers have not, and cannot, come close to the goal of closing the achievement gap between students from low-income and affluent families is that they are fighting the Third World War with bows and arrows. Educational inequity naturally flows from income, life conditions and status disparities, as well as from the increasing insecurity of the bottom-third of wage earners. The school is a weak institution for passing on values and attitudes compared to the intimacy of family.

Educational under-achievement flows from the real-life experiences of working-class adults who are trying to survive, and the messages their struggles send about formal institutions and adult authority figures to the children who love them. Kids learn--from their parents' difficult struggles keep jobs, pay bills and avoid deportation--that their society is an inhospitable place.

While school reformers join conservatives in suggesting that public schools have failed the business community, the reverse is true. The private sector has failed our society--as has the hypocritical policy of permitting immigrants to work here but keeping them insecure and disenfranchised.

Besides generous immigration reform, the policies we must have to close the "achievement gap" involve inflating wages for the bottom-third of wage earners; higher tax rates on the wealthy; establishing job protections that prevent private-sector companies from firing workers without just cause; creating government jobs programs when the private sector goes on a capital strike; protecting and expanding health care reform; enforcing labor laws; and protecting workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively.

That is one heck of a list, but these are the kinds of things we need to bring working families into the middle-class lifestyle. From that safe and secure place, the children of working families will approach teachers and schools, more often than not, with healthy, positive attitudes and with the capacity to imagine brighter futures.
Jesse Alred, Houston

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