Yesterday I told you to go to that Parental Choice in Public Schools town hall event at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Did you manage to make it? Yeah? Really? Well, that’s interesting because I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE.
I was there, though, along with 300 or so other people, and oh what a time it was. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Cynthia Howell contributes a fine write-up (subscription required, suckers), characterizing the debate on stage as “spirited.” She might have also called it “contentious.” Because if you were under the impression that this was going to be a happy smiley “GO SCHOOL CHOICE” event, you were wrong.
The debate largely came down to disputes between some nerdy, wonkish education reform advocates (including hands-on educators like Scott Shirey, head of the KIPP Delta School program, and John Bacon, CEO of the eSTEM charter school in Little Rock) versus unapologetic demagoguery from Little Rock Schools Superintendent Morris Holmes and state Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock).
And so Holmes questioned the very premise of the event, suggesting it was intended to “demonize” public schools, as if he hadn’t, you know, been invited to sit right there and participate in the forum. Holmes was in a fighting mood, arguing that “this is about a war to make all schools good for kids. The war is about how we do it.”
Walker, with characteristic nuance, accused school choice advocates of attempting “to end public education” and to establish “a new segregration.” The choice crowd, as is their nerdish wont, responded with statistics and data (Shirey boasted that his buses travel 800 miles across east Arkansas every day! 800 miles!).
Howell’s report in the ADG doesn’t cover the audience question session that followed (I’m betting she had to dart out to meet deadline), which is a shame, because that was where the more interesting dynamics arose.
A contingent of teachers representing the Little Rock teachers’ union, on hand to cheer Holmes’s every utterance, posed some sharp questions; another young woman expressed her dissatisfaction that the panel included no strong voice representing parents.
Other attendees offered more personal testimony. An African-American mother of two took to the microphone. “You mentioned war. Let me tell you about war,” she said. “I’ve been in a war with the Little Rock public school system.”
She told of how she had struggled to get her daughter into better schools, placing her name on three separate waiting lists, and encountering a bureaucratic wall of resistance at every turn. She finally surrendered, removing her daughter from the system and home-schooling her.
“We should have choices,” she concluded. “I’m gonna make sure mine are educated if you don’t.”
It was an impassioned plea, and Holmes’s response was completely useless: “You can join me in the war and we can war together.” Again with the war-mongering! So the working mother poured out her heart, and the bureaucrat responded with empty rhetoric.
As the forum neared its end, a public school teacher with 45 years of service took to the microphone to note that “‘Choice’ has a synonym and that is ‘escape.’” Her point was that school choice advocates seemed to be developing strategies for families to escape from poor schools, rather than to dig in and fix the problems.
And anyway, what the hell’s so great about imprisonment?