When a pro sports team or a retail chain, owned by billionaires with plenty of cash to spare, comes to the taxpayers for a handout, grumbling may ensue from public officials and the news media; but ultimately it’s agreed that a) we can’t afford to lose them and b) the free stadium or tax abatement will turn out to be an investment with high yield for us all.
When a public school district cries that its beleaguered budget and its middle-class families are being sucked away by private entities – churches and entrepreneurs – with scant accountability for how they’re spending those tax dollars, politicians and the press generally agree that the educators miss the point.
The schools are “underperforming,” they are “failing,” they coddle “bad teachers,” they use poverty as an excuse, they put careers above the poor and minority children that white suburbanite elected officials and corporate education foundations and testing conglomerates care so deeply about.
In education and throughout social discourse, this phenomenon is known as adherence to the dominant narrative. Defenders of the track record of traditional public schools against staggering odds can make their case statistically as well as anecdotally in Indiana as elsewhere; but they chronically battle uphill against premises set by those whose only credentials of expertise are their positions of power.
Sadly, the establishment media buy into this because, well, they’re establishment. They think like the men with whom they are privileged to traffic. Thus it has been a given, especially over the past decade or so in Indiana, that schools need “reform,” not merely improvement. Tie that to a given of much longer standing – that you don’t “throw money at the problem” – and you have a powerful two-pronged psychological and political weapon against an American institution that was sacrosanct back when its constituency was predominantly middle class. Never, if you notice, is the discussion about pedagogy; only testing, labeling, collective bargaining and money.
With notable and rare exceptions – bless you, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette – the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett-Mind Trust forces have managed to paint urban public schools as villains rather than victims in the public conversation and thus open their already-shrunken purses to every variety of well-connected salesmen and clergy promising to rescue the “trapped” children. Even with Daniels gone and Bennett discredited, the dominant narrative persists. Even to the point that sabotage of the duly elected state schools chief by those forces is characterized in the bulk of media accounts as a feud that’s equally her fault.
Superintendent Glenda Ritz’s plight would be part of what is known as the counter narrative. Likewise part of the counter narrative would be couple facts: Charter schools do not achieve better results than traditional public schools, and the ever-expanding voucher program has not been a boatlift of poor kids from failing public schools so much as a blatant subsidy of religious schools.
As my opening sentence implied, it is canonical to the dominant narrative that you don’t expect a return on your tax giveaways unless they go to people who already have money. Education of the urban poor, meh – unless, of course, you launder the money through private parties that have access to the thrones of “reform.”
Oh, but wouldn’t it be lovely to see the sports moguls, the mall developers and the Gates and Walton foundations subjected to the scrutiny and demands for data that public institutions face. Alas, it is the dominant narrative that determines who enjoys the presumption of innocence and who endures the presumption of guilt. The best of our politicians and reporters will be anything but star pupils in that school.
Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to The Indianapolis Business Journal and Sky Blue Window and the author of “Indiana Out Loud.”