Yesterday I criticized the critics of Seattle Public Schools for comparing the district to “the failing school systems of blighted East Coast cities,” a critique I find irksome both for its intentionally hyperbolic portrayal of the district’s woes, and the narrow-minded provincialism in which it off-handedly disparages historic cities that long ago achieved the kind of economic and cultural greatness Seattle’s civic boosters have aspired towards since the city was first christened Alki New York: “New York, by-and-by.” (We’re still waiting.)
The post generated quite a vigorous debate, some of which was openly hostile and personally dismissive, with many commentators choosing to take offense at words I never wrote. Apparently, I’m a selfish elitist because I choose to send my daughter to an underfunded and ethnically diverse South End school. Go figure. I’m also, apparently, an unashamed apologist for the district establishment. (Um… did any of you actually read my running commentary on the school closure process?)
What all this tells me is that an awful lot of people seem emotionally or ideologically invested in portraying Seattle Public Schools as a district in extreme crisis on the edge of an abyss… if not already irreversibly plummeting towards the bottom. And at risk of resorting to the same sort of broad-brush-stroke methodology adopted by my detractors, I’d wager that many of those advocating drastic measures such as a city or state takeover of the district, don’t actually have children in the Seattle Public Schools. How much of this is cognitive dissonance (Seattle residents who opted for private schools, now seeking to justify their decision,) or political convenience (non-Seattlites looking to block spending more state money on city students) I don’t know. But I do know that the rest of the state uses this popular portrayal of the district as a bloated piggybank for corrupt, incompetent officials as their primary justification for refusing to throw good money after bad. And as long as civic leaders prop up this simple-minded analysis we will never restore state education spending to adequate levels.
Fortunately, we still have two newspapers in this town, and this morning the Seattle P-I warned the crisis-mongers to “back off“:
Yes, the board has handled school closures badly, essentially leading to the resignation of Superintendent Raj Manhas. But is the school system in “crisis”?
The district has turned a multimillion-dollar deficit into a multimillion-dollar surplus. Academic performance is on the rise and the district retains its “market share” with private schools.
Again, let me repeat for the umpteenth time that I’m no fan of the current school board and district administration, and I’m sick and tired of uninspiring bean counters and educational amateurs guiding the district on their own. But as the P-I rightly points out, “poverty, not governance, is Seattle education’s greatest challenge,” and all this talk comparing Seattle schools to those in Boston or New York or Philadelphia or any number of other “blighted East Coast cities” is not only misleading but counterproductive.
Yes, there are governance problems, and I’m not opposed to considering reforms that include appointing some (but not all) school board members. And while I’m not convinced, I’m intrigued by the possibility of a Superintendent Norm Rice who can wield his political skills and connections on behalf of the district.
But the district is not anywhere near a crisis that warrants a takeover, nor does it appear to be heading in that direction, and any debate over such a move would only distract us from the more important debate over prioritizing real educational reforms, and coming to consensus on how to pay for them.