Monday, October 18, 2010

They Haven’t Heard the Last of Me

I saw “Waiting for Superman” this weekend, directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), a film about the public education crisis in America. I feared learning more horrible truths about the state of public education in our country. But I didn’t. I’ve heard it all before. Is that good or bad? Either way, it’s pathetic.

I know how bad it is because I have made it my business to know. I have been an active public school parent for the past eleven years. I am one of the few parents, at least in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who continually researches issues on public education in our city, and goes above and beyond what should be expected of any parent to try and help make things better, for all kids.

There are about 672,000 kids enrolled in LAUSD. But there are only a handful of us really active parents. Some parents contribute to their child’s school via the PTA (if the school is lucky enough to have one), or by making some sort of financial contribution to their schools’ direct appeal campaigns (which, of course, are conducted by schools in more affluent areas where students have parents who are resourceful and sophisticated enough to not only give to such a campaign, but who can actually organize one. Poorer schools, which make up the majority of LAUSD, do not have direct appeal campaigns or PTAs, which means that schools function with little or no parent support.) Those of us who are actively involved in our children’s schools are in the minority. The rest of the parents in LAUSD are nowhere to be found. They leave everything to the school district, teachers, and the few active parents to do the work for everyone else. I have been calling these parents out for the past couple of years, but nobody really wants to hear it, because criticizing parents isn’t politically correct at this point in time. The media and the general public would prefer to keep pointing the finger at governments, school districts and teachers’ unions (which all deserve it), but they’re leaving uninvolved parents alone. Why is this?

I am glad that the movie got made and I hope everybody sees it. When they do, I hope they keep in mind that there are millions of kids across the country who don’t have parents like the ones in this movie. Many of America’s kids are powerless and invisible because they do not have anybody advocating for them, keeping up with what is going on at their schools, or even helping them with their homework. Their parents or guardians are totally clueless. There are many variables as to why this is, but never the less, no child should have to bear the burden of neglect or lack of interest by the adults who are entrusted to care for them. Remember that for every child featured in this film whose parents have entered their names into charter or magnet lotteries, there are thousands of kids who have parents who are either unaware of such alternatives, overwhelmed by life, or just don’t care. That’s right. I said it. They don’t care. These kids have no one on their side. Many politicians, union leaders, and overpaid administrators claim to care about these kids, but most of them are just using them. They’re exploiting the "at risk population" for their own political agendas. If everybody cared about these kids as much as they said they did, we wouldn’t need Superman.

The most active parents fighting for public education right now do it, not just for their own kids, but for all kids. We’re a small, but mighty pack of annoying small dogs, biting at the heels of the big dogs, trying to keep them a little more honest with our constant barking and nipping. We have an important role to play, for we hold up tiny mirrors that reflect back to the people in power, exposing their hypocrisy, forcing them to stick to the issues, and keeping them from sweeping things under the rug. We can’t fix all of the problems, but we can keep nudging the ones who can. Sadly, though, I have noticed that the yelping, nipping and the circling of the big dogs have all but stopped. Fewer small dogs are out there, responding to the negative news stories that keep showing up in the papers, local TV news shows, or radio stations. Social networking sites that keep us informed on issues are still reporting, but very few are weighing in on many posts, or even initiating any discussions, because they are too weary to respond. They have had it. I have never seen anything like this before.

The little dogs have run out of steam. And worse, they have run out of hope. They are reserving all of their energy and meager personal resources to take care of their own. That’s what I am hearing.

I, too, have laid down my tired, small legs to take a long, well deserved nap. I can’t bark anymore. And my family, just like all families I know, can’t afford to keep spending any more of our own money bailing out our schools. We no longer have any expendable income.

I hope that with this movie, “Waiting for Superman”, people will find the energy to jump back into the public discussion about how to reinvent public education in this country, Not reform it. Not improve it. Just tear it down and build it up again - from scratch.

That means that all of the many crooks, profiteers, do nothing administrators, union leaders, and politicians who are guilty of robbing our children of a quality education should go, for they are the ones that keep the system the way it is. They can not be allowed to keep making obscene amounts of money whether kids learn anything or not. Truth be told, they like the system just the way it is.

There is no silver bullet, no one answer to fix this crisis. No one person, no Superman (not even my hero, Michelle Rhee), can handle this issue alone. Let’s start all over again. As a parent, here’s what I’d like to see happen first to rebuild public education in America:

1. Run it like a business (not your typical, corrupt American big corporation, but a solid, mid sized business where things run efficiently, the employers value their employees, and the employees value their jobs). If everyone in the school district understood (from the custodial workers, office personnel, and teachers to the principal) that they needed to go to work every day with a good, PROFESSIONAL attitude and make a sincere effort to give an honest day’s work for a day’s pay (like the rest of us), and that they could get fired (just like the rest of us) if they don’t. A change in attitude of all school district employees would be a great start to rebuilding the system, because most inept employees that I have encountered over the years have, at best, a defeated attitude about their jobs and the school district, or worse, they’re down right lazy and rude, attitudes that would cost them their jobs in the real world.

2. Unions must finally budge on common sense issues (like bad workers need to go, and good workers need to be rewarded - just like in the real world), before they will earn the public’s respect and trust. Admit that they are workers’ unions and stop claiming to be child advocacy organizations. Quit exploiting our kids and quit protecting bad and dangerous teachers and administrators. To end the culture of mediocrity in public education, the unions have to make the first move.

3. Insist on high expectations from parents. Get them to understand that their children’s education may be “free”, but that every parent has got to make some significant contributions to their schools. We can no longer use the district “happy talk” to make excuses for bad parenting. Immigrants need to be trained on how important and necessary their involvement is. Middle class parents need to be less self involved and more involved in their schools. And the upper class needs to take a greater interest in the rest of us.

I think the root of the problem is greed. Too many people benefit from the system being so dysfunctional. The average American, whether they will admit it or not, is too focused on their own, small worlds and wants. More despicable than this, is that most of the privileged and powerful in America just don’t care about the plight of the many. Even those who appreciate and compensate their housekeepers, nannies and gardeners well, turn a blind eye to where their employees send their children to school. This is immoral. Education should be a moral issue, not a political one.

Americans need to care less about themselves, and more about each other. We need more leaders with guts who lead with a conscience. If all else fails, abolish private schools and force the politicians and wealthy individuals to send their kids to public schools. Superman would definitely show up for them, with bags of silver bullets.

As for me, I have opted to take this tragic and painful time and channel it into something more creative and productive. I’m painting like never before, and I have a writing partner. We’re writing a script about a couple of pissed off moms who take on the Status Quo.

So listen up Status Quo, I may be tired and hoarse, but you haven’t heard the last of me yet.