Vouchers, Disruptions, And Hypocrisy In DC Schools

Sherman Dorn nails it; the whole "closing the voucher schools is disruptive" meme just got shot down with logic.
Closures and transitions

There is a double standard at work right now in the discussion over the federal DC voucher program. I'm not just speaking of the evidentiary slipperiness Aaron Pallas pointed out Monday and Thursday. In addition, I am thinking of the argument that students in DC-area private schools on the vouchers should not have their schooling disrupted for a policy change, a curious argument to make by those who have been advocates of disrupting the lives of students in public schools when the schools are closed or staff are fired en masse. Voucher programs should be protected from disruption while decisions about public-school programs hedge on the side of disruption? Secretary Duncan is one of those who have tried make both claims, and given his Renaissance program of school closures in Chicago, this inconsistency fails the smell test.

Beyond the issue of consistency, there is a legitimate question of how to handle transitions in ways that respect the legitimate interests of students and of adults in the system. Sy Fliegel spoke openly about program closures and transitions in Miracle in East Harlem (1993), his memoir of open school choice in Spanish Harlem (Community District #4). You think of that experiment in association with Deborah Meier? Good for you! But Fliegel makes clear that a number of programs were clearly failures, either of ideas or mismatch with the community or management problems. As he explains in the book, his job was to handle program closures and to do it in a way that left the least pain possible. For some reason, his approach struck me as something akin to the attitude toward business owners when an idea fails: "Okay, that didn't work out. Dust yourself off and try again, and thanks to the separation of personal from business assets, you're not wiped out." Well, not quite a painless exit: there's the opportunity cost of time spent running a business. But a failed business is not inherently a scarlet letter, and Fliegel wanted to make clear that failure in developing a Community District #4 school did not mean that an educator (or set of teachers) was worthless.

For some reason, though, neither school systems nor wannabe reformers have paid much attention to Fliegel's approach, either in dealing with schools in crisis or in closing down schools for financial reasons (as in Rhee's closure of schools in DC). In the first case, teachers are often "passed around" or told to sink or swim in a transfer/waiver system. Neither approach is appropriate.

Students are also affected deeply by any massive transition. Some welcome the change (when schooling dramatically improves) or are resilient. Others have their lives traumatized. My daughter had her preschool experiences disrupted twice when one school's management fired her teacher, and a few years later in a different city, the management fired the director. My daughter did well through the transitions, but the corporate approach by the centers in each case simply stank from the perspective of most parents: the employee was shepherded out of the center by security personnel with no chance for the children to say goodbye to a teacher or center director that they loved. In neither case was the termination for disciplinary reasons or anything where the escort was for safety reasons. It was just a knee-jerk "this is how terminations are done; damn how this will teach children that some people are disposable" decision. Sometimes reformers and managers forget that children are watching what happens and how the adults around them are treated. [emphasis mine]

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