Race and Charters: Facing not-so-friendly fire in Mr. Pondiscio’s war against social justice school reformers

In his latest burst of fragging, conservative school reformer Robert Pondiscio recently argued that social justice-minded school reformers have only themselves to blame if suburban Massachusetts voters reject a ballot proposal to lift the cap on urban charter schools.

Under this reasoning, I qualify as culpable because I recently called out white middle-class voters for organizing against a ballot measure that does not affect them but if defeated will hurt thousands of low-income urban families looking for quality school options. My pitch, as boiled down by Mr. Pondiscio, was this: Hey, soccer moms, you’ve got yours; don’t be so damn selfish!”

I feel qualified to take on affluent white suburban soccer moms because, well, I am an affluent white suburban soccer mom. And I know where our blind spots are. I know how obsessed and self-involved we can be when it comes to the achievement of our children, and how hard we’ll advocate when it looks like the educational opportunities (dare I say privilege?) of our Caitlins and Connors are threatened.

And yes, I did just go there. I explicitly mentioned race, not to be provocative, but because race is a part of this–even if Massachusetts charter opponents like to pretend this is just about money and privatization. Racially driven educational inequities are something a lot of affluent suburban voters don’t like to think about or talk about, but I’m not inclined to give these voters a pass just because race talk makes us white people uncomfortable.

Of course, acting on self-interest doesn’t make someone a racist. We want what we want for own kids, but we need to step back and realize this isn’t a zero-sum game. We won’t lose our water polo teams and orchestra programs if more children in cities (like Boston or Worcester) have better schools.

I’m just arguing for a little perspective here, or as my colleague Erika Sanzi so deftly described it, an acknowledgment that “one demographic is stuck in a house that’s on fire now; the other is watching Backdraft on TV.”

But, alas, Mr. Pondiscio won’t acknowledge that it’s important to first put out that fire rather than just improve the TV reception of those Backdraft viewers. So rather than lay blame on a disingenuous, largely union-funded campaign “to scare and mislead voters about the fiscal consequences of charter schools” (as a Boston Globe editorial described it), he seems hellbent on tossing yet another grenade at the folks fighting on (roughly) the same side of the charter wars. To wit:

“If the answer turns out to be no, don’t point angry fingers at selfish Massachusetts voters. Blame falls equally upon a movement that has long been a bit too enamored of its own civil-rights-movement-of-our-time rhetoric to worry much about building a constituency among the middle class.”

Mr. Pondiscio’s market-driven solution to broadening that middle-class constituency is simple: Build charter schools for affluent families who want something even better than their well-resourced suburban schools and might otherwise enroll their kids in private schools or gifted magnets.

I agree this approach might indeed appeal to the purely self-interested and engender political support from a population that is widely misinformed about charter schools. But seriously gunning for suburban schools, even the ones that are far more mediocre than they should be, also will open up a new front in the charter school wars–one that Mr. Pondiscio won’t be prepared to fight if he keeps firing at his fellow soldiers.

I’ve had a few heartfelt exchanges with Robert, mainly over a touching reflection inspired by his only daughter’s departure for college, so I know we can disagree vehemently on some of these issues and still peacefully co-exist in the reform movement.

When it comes to charter schools, I am moved by one goal: Improving educational equity for children of color and in low-income neighborhoods. I don’t care much about market demand, the politics of catering to the middle class, or expanding niche charter schools to affluent parents already blessed with great options.

It’s not about white guilt or hating on rich people. It’s about knowing this: I got a good thing, and I don’t want to be selfish about it.

And I can carry that message to my fellow soccer moms without shouldering the blame for whatever ails the school reform movement….and whatever fails in Massachusetts.

You fight your fires, Robert, and I’ll fight mine. We don’t need to fight one another.


Photo courtesy of the Boston Globe

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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