by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe, D-Great Falls
In a scene I love from To Kill a Mockingbird, a mob gathers outside the local jail, intent on grabbing the black man inside and stringing him up. Only one man, Atticus Finch, stands between them and the evil deed.
They approach Atticus en masse. The flash point rises. But then Atticus’s children emerge from the darkness. One of them, Scout, doesn’t understand what’s about to occur, but she does recognize one of the men in the mob. It’s the father of her classmate, Walter Cunningham. At the beginning of the school year, Scout made fun of Walter because he had cooties. That led to fisticuffs on the playground, which led to interventions by her father and others to help Scout understand that Walter’s circumstances were a little different from hers, but he was still deserving of decent treatment, still worthy of respect. Now she and Walter were friends.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” Scout says to the man in the mob. That angry man gapes at this little girl, prattling away, and sees the classmate of his son. He realizes that Atticus Finch may have the temerity to defend a Negro accused of raping a white woman, but Atticus is also the father of a young child, just as he himself is, and that child would be lost without Atticus, just as his Walter would be lost without him. He wouldn’t want to tell Walter what he was about to do to his friend’s father — or what he was about to do to that Negro. So Mr. Cunningham convinces his buddies to back off and go home.
We talk a lot these days about the curriculum and performance of our public schools, as we should. We don’t talk much, though, about one particular byproduct of these 13 years our children spend together. It’s the only time in their lives they’ll forced to interact in depth and at length with individuals whose backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and druthers are different from their own. Those interactions teach them more about appreciating diversity and building community than any formal curriculum ever could. As Neal Postman observed, the understandings and relationships forged in our public schools don’t just educate a public. They create one.
That’s the main reason I’m disconcerted by all the bills this session providing incentives for parents to pull their kids out of our public schools – or rewarding those who have already done so. Certainly, parents can and should make choices for their kids’ education. But those private choices should not be publicly funded. It’s not in the public interest.
Our public schools generally do a good job, “school choice” proponents concede, but some kids “fall through the cracks” and need a different environment. History teaches us that sometimes the cracks kids fall through have more to do with society than with the school. But, yes, occasionally a particular school has a climate of intolerance or indifference that hurts kids. Whether societal or school-specific, when there are cracks kids are falling through, the public interest is served by calling them out and insisting they be fixed.
These proponents also remind us that “one size doesn’t fit all,” and parents need the freedom to search for the school that “fits” their child. If any institution on earth knows that children’s needs and interests and ablities are infinite in variety, it’s our public schools. The differentiation in instruction, setting, and programming and the variety of opportunities parents will find there are far greater than what they’ll find in any private school. But these parents don’t really want variety. They want a gated school community, often a faith-based one, where every child is comfortably similar in some fundamental way to their own. That’s a private choice they’re entitled to make. It should be privately funded.
The choicers say our public schools are too rigid in their curricula and our teachers don’t have the freedom to innovate. To the extent that’s true, it’s the result of expectations foisted on these schools by the public. Nothing has done more to drive the joy out of teaching than the national public school “reform” known as No Child Left Behind, with its relentless testing of discrete and dull skills unconnected to anything meaningful to the child. NCLB was brought to us by public officials at the national level in a publicly deliberated process.
Accreditation requirements and teacher licensing requirements are also publicly crafted products. Local curriculum, programs and policies as well are put in place by publicly elected school boards. Do I like all of these practices? No. But when I lose a particular argument in the public arena, I don’t take my ball and go home. We shouldn’t encourage anyone to. Decisions about public education, like decisions about all public enterprises, should be made in public with the active participation of as much of the public as possible.
With these empty platitudes as their rationales, the choicers propose legislation designed to chink away at Montana’s high-quality public school system. Some bills promote tuition tax credits for parents who choose a private school for their child. Some bills shamelessly exploit children with a special pull on our heartstrings to justify publicly funding private school choices. The most egregious this session is HB 322, providing public funding for private, even parochial, schooling of children with developmental disabilities, children with chronic illnesses, children of soldiers in active duty, and children who have suffered abuse or neglect … as well as any siblings these children may have, not only while they themselves are in a private school, but long after they’ve left it.
And then there’s HB 596, promoting “public charter schools” – a parallel system of public schools that don’t serve all the public, don’t have to meet accreditation requirements, don’t have to hire licensed teachers, and above all, don’t fall under the general supervision of the Board of Public Education.
The bill is so riddled with violations of Montana’s constitution that it’s hard to believe its sponsor and its primary author are both lawyers. Even harder to believe are the sponsor’s responses to questions about the bill’s constitutionality. Article X, Section 9 of Montana’s constitution authorizes the Board of Public Education to exercise “general supervision over the public school system and such other public educational institutions as may be assigned by law. ” The sponsor claims that the parallel system he proposes is one such “institution.” When asked what the constitutional framers intended by using that term, his reply was, “I wasn’t around at the time.”
When asked how, grammatically, this language could mean anything but that the board has general supervision over the system we know now as well as any other institution the legislature might create, his answer was, “I don’t see it that way.”
At some point during that long, long hearing, I began to think about what my husband was doing at that very moment. Once a week, he and his old high school buddies gather at a local watering hole. Among them are a lawyer, a retailer, two insurance agents, a financier, an artist, two teachers, and whoever else happens to show up. Over a beer or two, they tell the same old stories they’ve told for years and know so well now that they laugh in anticipation of the punch lines. They all have separate lives now, but that bond they formed in high school still enriches their lives – and their communities.
I don’t oppose “school choice” bills because they’re unconstitutional, although they are. I don’t oppose them because they will inevitably weaken the funding and consequently the quality of our public schools, although they will. I oppose them because, in an increasingly polarized society, so much depends on the bonds of good will and understanding our public schools create. Our public’s schools are diminished by every Walter Cunningham or Scout Finch who doesn’t attend one. And so are our communities.