There Is Nothing ‘Mom and Pop’ About Charter Schools

In a forgotten time in this country, the “mom and pop” moniker stood for everything that was right about the family owned small business. Urban grocery stores, owned and operated by small families who often lived in the same building, provided an indispensable service to neighborhood residents within walking distance. Qualifying for the nickname had everything to do with the daily responsibilities of running the business falling only to family members; mom, dad, and often the young children. With the rise of Walmart in the mid-twentieth century, true “mom and pop” shops began to vanish and the connotation of the name quickly expanded and consequently lost its original meaning. “Mom and pop” shops represent a time in this country when capitalism had a soul and upward mobility was more than a distant memory.

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Ben Felder of The Oklahoman recently reported that a $16 million federal grant is expected to significantly expand the number of “mom and pop” charter schools in Oklahoma. “Mom and pop” is used in this case to refer to those charter schools not operated by corporate Charter Management Organizations or CMOs. There are very few positive things to say about the current Oklahoma education funding crisis, but according to Felder, the relatively low number of charter schools run by CMOs in Oklahoma is directly tied to the low per pupil spending in the funding formula. We spend so little on education that the corporate education machine’s tried and true formula for a quick profit does not make business sense in Oklahoma!

The National Education Association reports that about 4 in 10 charter schools are run by for profit corporations, while 6 in 10 are not for profit and not directly tied to a CMO. The latter group wishes to emphasize their distinctive by taking on the name “mom and pop” as if to say, “we are not corporate.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, Stanley Hupfeld Academy in Oklahoma City would more appropriately be called “Integris Health Elementary.” Urban “mom and pop” charter school, John Rex Charter Elementary School should be called “Devon Energy Elementary.” Naming a charter school after an individual sends a very personal and local message while simultaneously masking massive corporate contribution and influence.

Selective enrollment is a cornerstone of the charter school model. There is nothing “mom and pop” about being essentially a “members only” organization. Even charter schools that claim to be neighborhood schools (serving students in the immediate vicinity of the school) have enrollment caps that consistently turn students away. In keeping with the analogy, it is worth noting that small businesses that refuse to serve particular clientele usually don’t win in court. The charter school way is more like “Sam’s Club” than anything else.

We spend so little on education that the corporate education machine’s tried and true formula for a quick profit does not make business sense in Oklahoma!

I have previously written about how the School Choice Movement, of which charter schools are an essential part, likes to be known as the “little guy” going up against the giant, monolithic, public school system. The “mom and pop” charter schools want to be pitied above all others because they view themselves as the “little guys” of the “little guys.” The truth is that neighborhood public schools pose no threat to charter school upstarts. Great public schools have been the center of activity in communities across this country for generations; without a charter, without a corporate benefactor, and without the “ability” to deny services to students whose education comes with certain challenges. If any school deserves the title “mom and pop,” it is the traditional neighborhood public school that is truly owned and operated by the community and for the community.

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Political Teaching – Part I

Teaching is an inherently political vocation. Every teacher, without exception, is a conduit for multiple political agendas. The Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) are the political agenda of the Oklahoma State Department of Education, with direct oversight from the Oklahoma Legislature. To be fair, for the most part, the OAS were created with input from actual Oklahoma teachers, but this does not negate the fact that the simple act of creating standards is fundamentally political. Standards are the way the state tells teachers, “We have made the political decisions for you.”

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The state Legislature has consistently shown to not be satisfied with the political agenda provided in the OAS. State mandated testing is nothing more than a show of force, a bully pulpit. Legislators, far removed from the actual teaching and learning process, awkwardly hide their own political agenda for education in a package called “accountability.” It is interesting that those whose actual job involves the word “politic” are often the worst at the nuanced subtleties of the political game. And, yes, while remnants of altruism can always be found in politics, it is, after all, a game.

If virtually every other stakeholder in the educational process gets to be political, should not the teacher be afforded the same privilege?

Textbooks are undeniably political. As social studies teachers know quite well, when publishers claim that their political agenda is the same as the state departments, they call it “alignment.” Truth be told, standards alignment is a pathetic attempt to make two often very different political agendas appear to be the same. If virtually every other stakeholder in the educational process gets to be political, should not the teacher be afforded the same privilege?

Teachers who claim to not have a political agenda are simply peddling someone else’s. But all teachers, even those who claim to be apolitical, bring their own style, personality, gifts, and life experiences into the classroom, all of which are part and parcel to the political process. Teachers are charged with teaching the state created standards using district chosen textbooks as tools. To be perfectly clear, I adhere to and faithfully teach the Oklahoma Academic Standards for 8th Grade U.S. History to the very best of my ability. But every day I make decisions as a teacher that necessarily move beyond the scope of both standards and curriculum and are fundamentally political in nature.

There are those on both the left and the right (though mostly the right) that envision a classroom void of politics where learning occurs strictly through the accumulation of amoral facts. This kind of classroom is neither possible nor desirable. I want my students to feel something just as much as I want them to learn something.

Where Should White Teachers Teach?

The latest data shows that slightly less than 50% of America’s students are white, while the percentage of white teachers, though slowly trending downward, remains near 80% (USDOE). Combine these numbers with the reality that our schools are more segregated now than they have been in decades, and that means that my situation is far more common than we may be willing to admit; a white teacher teaching at a majority non-white school.

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It is worth noting that a majority non-white school does not necessarily indicate a segregation problem. My school is roughly 35% white, 35% black, and 15% Hispanic. We have about as diverse a student body as anyone could hope for. But our diversity is a distinctive of our lower middle class community (What It Means That My School Embraces Cultural Diversity). If you go east away from the city, property values rise, and the schools have higher concentrations of white students. If you go west toward the city, property values decrease, and the schools have higher concentrations of students of color.

I am in my 6th year of teaching, and I have only taught at one school. My perspective on what it means to be a white teacher is very much shaped by (if not limited to) my experience at my school. But at this particular stage of my career, I am beginning to wonder. What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?

I am almost certain, for instance, that my effectiveness would decrease (Hechinger Report), even if slightly, if I transitioned to teaching at an urban school with a high percentage of black or brown students. Don’t get me wrong. I place high value on cultural competency and culturally responsive teaching, and believe that equipping white teachers with these skills is the number one thing we can do to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. But even a culturally competent white teacher can easily fall into the trap of believing themselves to be the “white savior” who offers students of color “a way out.”

What kind of school allows me to have the most effective and authentic impact as a white teacher?

I do not believe that white teachers should flee large city school districts en masse. White teachers in urban centers should hold their ground, prioritize their self-care, get involved in their local union/association, and read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” and Chris Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too.” Perhaps most importantly, white teachers in majority non-white schools should defer to but not lean on their colleagues of color when relating individually to non-white students (Rethinking Schools).

My real quandary is this, what would happen to my effectiveness if I were to teach at an almost all white suburban or rural school? I have long had disdain for this idea, but mostly for selfish reasons. I do not have any particular interest or perceived personal benefit in teaching at a mostly white affluent school. Higher pay perhaps? More rigor? Ease of classroom management? Ultimately, these are not my career priorities.

But would teaching at a mostly white suburban school afford me more opportunity to do what white teachers do best; challenge other white teachers, and white students alike, to think critically about race, class, and the injustices/privileges that stem from the intersection of these socially constructed categories? Or perhaps would this so called “opportunity” instead result in conflict, controversy, and my potential removal?

I currently don’t have the answers. I am just trying to come up with better and better questions.

Public Schools Are the Shit!

Public schools are the shit!
Ask any fourth grader.
“What do you think of your school, Timmy?”
“My school’s the shit!”
“Does your teacher let you talk that way, Timmy?”
“Of course not! I just really want you to know how
important my school is to me.”
And there are over three million fourth graders
in this country just like Timmy who are pumped about
the Bernoulli’s principle demonstration
in Science class tomorrow.

For over 50 million American students,
the public school is their place of learning
and so much more.
It’s their breakfast and lunch.
It’s their friends and their frenemies,
their likes and their dislikes,
their comforts and their challenges.
It’s their fashion, their sexuality,
their prejudice, and their secrets.
It’s their music and Snapchat story.
It’s their passion and power.
Their hobbies and habits.

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The majority of people
in the United States have attended a public
school at some point in their lives.
More people in the U.S. go through public schools
than have cable television,
go to church every Sunday,
or take regular baths.
The kinds of things Americans do at similar
rates to attending public schools are things
like owning pets.
The kinds of things Americans do at higher
rates than attending public schools are things
like riding in cars and walking on sidewalks.

Public schools perform astounding feats
every single day.
Four teenagers walk into a Target, and
Loss Prevention loses their collective mind.
Meanwhile, public schools organize students
into classes of 15, 30, and sometimes more
for 7.5 hours a day.
Neighborhood public schools take the
students from the community,
put them all together in one building
(and a few portables),
and then teach them.
Almost every single day,
hundreds of young people
go into a public school
and safely come out at the end of the day.
This is nothing short of miraculous!

So when the sensationalist “School Choice” blog,
Choice Remarks, highlights outlying tragic stories
in a culpable attempt to say “all public schools”
and don’t even take the time
to actually write about it
(instead, posts links to the writing of real journalists),

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And when the white bourgeoisie readership of said blog
make malicious comments on social media
attacking the personal character of the teacher
responsible for Spoon Vision
without ever reading the actual post
in question on this site,

the message is clear.

Public schools are vital, supported, and strong.
The critics are few, loud, and bigoted.
And public schools are here to stay!

Donald Trump is President, and I am a Public School Teacher

(In my classroom, I rarely speak his name, so forgive me for repeating it here.)

Donald Trump is president, and I am a public school teacher.

Let that sink in for a moment…

Now, allow me to explain.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that ridiculing people with disabilities is a sign of poor character.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that you can’t be a “good person” and a white supremacist.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my male students that they should never touch a woman anywhere without permission.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the phrase “law and order” is steeped in systemic racism.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the U.S. government should not be run like a business.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that refugees should be welcomed in this country.

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Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that black lives matter.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that babies carried across borders are not criminals.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that transgender people should be able to choose their bathroom and their branch of military service.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that it is their constitutional right to protest the nation’s anthem, pledge, flag, and political leaders.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that Andrew Jackson was a murderous racist.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that concentrated wealth multiplies poverty.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that most of the time, when people kill people, they use guns.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that the greatest nuclear threat the world has ever seen is the United States of America.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students that education is about building bridges, not walls.

Donald Trump is president, and I teach my students the benefits and drawbacks of a capitalist economy.

Donald Trump is president, and I am a proud liberal progressive public school teacher.

“If this be treason, make the most of it!”

Aaron Baker

What It Means That My School Embraces Cultural Diversity

I should clarify. I am not in a position to speak on behalf of my entire school. What follows are the implications of cultural diversity as they are apparent to me. My hope, however, is that I have earned the right to speak small truths into the theories and practices of my education colleagues both inside and outside of my building.

Last month, my middle school adopted a vision statement that includes the phrase, “…produce generations that embrace cultural diversity.” Embedded in this statement is the charge to become a school that embraces cultural diversity so that we can produce generations who do the same. But what does it mean to embrace cultural diversity? It seems innocuous enough.

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The truth, however, is that the word “diversity” comes with its own set of historical baggage. Through the centuries, people from all sides of the political spectrum have rejected the virtues of a diverse society. A nineteenth century group of white abolitionists called the American Colonization Society assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 free African Americans to the newly formed west African country of Liberia. Abraham Lincoln was among the proponents of this “repatriation.” Furthermore, the colonization movement would eventually inspire the black separatist political and religious movement known as the Nation of Islam.

Conversely, The New York Times Magazine recalls how one social experiment in Virginia in the 60’s and 70’s set out to integrate an all-white private school for the express purpose of teaching the virtues of diversity to the white students who would one day become the thought leaders of a new society. Salon has a piece aptly titled, “Diversity is For White People,” which addresses the problematic ways in which the term “diversity” is used to avoid the difficulty of true anti-racism work.

So back to the question at hand. What does it mean for a school to embrace cultural diversity?

To begin with, embracing cultural diversity means both emphatically rejecting the white supremacy and white nationalism of the “alt right” and respectfully disagreeing with the black separatism of movements like the Nation of Islam. There is no place for claims of “good people on both sides” of Charlottesville. Diversity compels us to speak openly at school in opposition to any ideology that calls for the separation of people based on race. Furthermore, our curriculum should neither be Eurocentric nor Afrocentric (though a healthy dose of latter may be needed to counter the former).

Second, for a school to embrace cultural diversity means that its teachers and administrators must be equipped to have daily conversations about race with varying size groups of students. These conversations are not restricted to Social Studies classrooms. Diversity is cross-curricular. White teachers should regularly find themselves saying things like, “I am white.” Talking to a class about race can be difficult. Talking to individual students about race can be even more difficult. But it must be done if our product is a student that embraces cultural diversity.

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Third, embracing cultural diversity means rejecting the re-segregation of the corporate education reform movement. We know that capitalism does not produce diverse communities. The most privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly white) and the most under-privileged neighborhoods and schools (mostly communities of color) testify to this. It is in the lower middle class, where civic support is moderate to good and where housing is affordable, that we typically see the most diversity. The answer to the re-segregation of our inner city and suburban schools is not selective admissions and voucher programs. These only serve to exacerbate the problem. Affluent mostly white suburban schools should be looking upon lower socio-economic diverse schools with envy instead of animus.

Fourth, when we embrace cultural diversity we are embracing sanctuary for undocumented students. No one can truly embrace cultural diversity while clutching to the irrationality of xenophobia. Public schools are currently at odds with immigration policies espoused by the President of the United States. Education is about building bridges, not walls. The day that schools are required to obtain information concerning citizenship status is the day that teachers will become galvanized perhaps like never before.

Fifth, embracing cultural diversity means that on some level we acknowledge the reality of, or perhaps the need for, class warfare. This piece from The American Prospect takes the position that our society’s focus on diversity has distracted us from the real problem of economic inequality. This may very well be true, but I believe that embracing cultural diversity can also be a window to understanding class struggle. For instance, at my school, the answer to the question, “Why is our school more diverse than others?” is inherently about class and opportunity. I also believe in the possibility of a revolution of the people that begins in under-served urban schools (Reading for Revolution).

I am not naïve. We are not diverse because we have embraced it. Our decision to embrace cultural diversity is predicated on our student body being diverse. But regardless, we have been granted an opportunity, a gift even. For me it’s very simple, my school is a model of the kind of world I want to live in.