Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy’s experience introduces readers to Tralfamadorians:
The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings, especially about time….
The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the we way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a strong, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. (pp. 33, 34)
One of the most memorable moments of Billy becoming unstuck in time is his watching a war movie backward. Viewed in reverse, the film becomes a narrative of renewal, of peace, as fighter planes “sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen,” and “[t]he bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes” (pp. 93, 94).
In the spirit of folding time back onto itself to give us clarity of sight, let’s become unstuck in time while viewing American Indian Charter Schools.
Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education?
Like Billy watching a war film, we start now and move backward.
Jill Tucker reports (June 26, 2013) that American Indian Charter Schools have had their charter revoked by Oakland Unified school district:
The American Indian charter schools, which enroll 1,200 students in grades K-12, are among the highest-scoring in the state on standardized tests.
Yet Oakland district officials said they had a duty to the public to close the schools given the inability of the schools’ management to rein in the misuse of taxpayer money.
A 2012 state audit of the charter organization found several instances of financial impropriety, including $3.8 million in payments to the school’s former director, Ben Chavis, and his wife through real estate deals, consulting agreements and other services, raising ethical questions and conflict-of-interest concerns.
The decision was supported by the state’s leading charter school advocates.
“In this situation, it is clear that academic performance is not enough to either overlook or excuse the mismanagement of public funds and the unwillingness from the board of directors to respond in ways that would satisfactorily address the legitimate concerns raised by OUSD,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, in a letter to the board in support of the revocation.
Mitchell Landsberg explains—in a provocatively titled “Spitting in the Eye of Mainstream Education” (May 31, 2009)—about American Indian Charter Schools:
Conservatives, including columnist George Will, adore the American Indian schools, which they see as models of a “new paternalism” that could close the gap between the haves and have-nots in American education. Not surprisingly, many Bay Area liberals have a hard time embracing an educational philosophy that proudly proclaims that it “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”
It would be easy to dismiss American Indian as one of the nuttier offshoots of the fast-growing charter school movement, which allows schools to receive public funding but operate outside of day-to-day district oversight. But the schools command attention for one very simple reason: By standard measures, they are among the very best in California….
“What we’re doing is so easy,” said Ben Chavis, the man who created the school’s success and personifies its ethos, especially in its more outrageous manifestations. (One example: He tends to call all nonwhite students, including African Americans, “darkies.”) Although he retired in 2007, Chavis remains a presence at the school.
Focusing on American Indian Charter Schools among five other “no excuses” schools adopting a new paternalism, David Whitman (2008, Fall) praises the accomplishments and possibilities of these schools:
Yet above all, these schools share a trait that has been largely ignored by education researchers: They arepaternalistic institutions. By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often-forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.
The new breed of paternalistic schools appears to be the single most effective way of closing the achievement gap. No other school model or policy reform in urban secondary schools seems to come close to having such a dramatic impact on the performance of inner-city students. Done right, paternalistic schooling provides a novel way to remake inner-city education in the years ahead….
Still, these entrepreneurial school founders battle on, slowly replicating their institutions across the country. It is too soon to say that all of the copycat schools will succeed. But the early results are extremely encouraging. It is possible that these schools, so radically different from traditional public schools, could one day educate not just several thousand inner-city youngsters but tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in cities across the nation. Done well, paternalistic schooling would constitute a major stride toward reducing the achievement gap and the lingering disgrace of racial inequality in urban America.
The Invisible Hand and Gutless Political Leadership
Backward or forward, this story is ugly. “No excuses” and the new paternalism themselves are classist and racist—ways in which the middle class and affluent allow “other people’s children” to be treated, but not their own—yet the larger faith in the Invisible Hand is the ugliest part of the narrative.
Idealizing parental choice narrowly and choice broadly is the foundation upon which both political parties stand. Why is the Invisible Hand of the Free Market so appealing to political leaders?
The answer is simple: Abdicating political leadership to the market absolves our leaders from making any real (or ethical) decisions, absolves them from doing anything except sitting back and watching the cards fall where they may.
And thus the charter school movement, with its school-choice light that allows progressives to tap into their closeted libertarian. Experimenting with impoverished children, African American children, Latino/a children, English Language Learners, and special needs children—this is the acceptable playground for the Invisible Hand.
Political leaders bask in the glory of Capitalism because the free market requires no moral conviction, no ethical stands, no genuine decision making based on careful consideration of foundational commitments to democracy and human dignity and agency. Capitalism allows Nero to sit and fiddle while Rome burns. If the fire needs putting out, and someone can monetize that, the market will take care of it, right?
Political leadership has ignored and marginalized children in poverty for decades, notably in the schools we provide high-poverty, majority-minority communities. The school-choice light commitment to charter schools is a coward’s way out of facing that reality and doing anything about it.
So it goes.