Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hope and Hopelessness in a Lonely Middle

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the United Way Education Summit in Los Angeles, courtesy of the generosity of John Lee of Teach Plus, to whom I am indebted. The stars of the show were three "education mayors" (they were billed thus), Antonio Villaraigosa, Rahm Emmanuel, and Cory Booker. Among these, the standout speaker was Mayor Booker, who gave one of the most impassioned and inspiring speeches I've ever heard, spontaneously, from the heart. He spoke of our need for investing in children "of color", which is always code for some kinds of children (black and brown, African-American and Latino) in preference to others. He correctly pointed out that, if we neglect the education of these children, we may well pay a heavy price for that neglect a couple of decades from now, when they will likely constitute the majority of our work force. He and the other mayors spoke of a "new apartheid" in America, where a disappeared middle class will leave behind a group of privileged children and a larger group of children who have been discriminated against, and spoke of the consequence being the equivalent of a permanent recession.

A talented young leader like Cory Booker must give us hope; but an ironic consequence of his passion, and the evident agreement it inspired in his like-minded audience, was a simultaneous sense of hopelessness. I saw at a nearby table Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, for whom I once worked, which now appears to me to be an organization marginalized compared to five years ago, challenged, in part from caring too much, perhaps, to help the neediest; for having taken on one of the toughest of all jobs, the turnaround of Locke High School, and having succeeded pretty well at it, but not well enough for the media nor for those of us who wanted so much more. Green Dot is finding itself, like Mayor Villaraigosa's Los Angeles, and like other cities, a mecca for the underprivileged that it champions; while Republican districts like the Irvine where I live increasingly turn their backs on the poor, and raise up artificial barriers (such as becoming a "basic aid" school district, maximally withdrawn from California's dysfunctional school funding system) to those poor whom they would keep out behind security-guarded gates if they could. And so these education mayors, through trying perhaps too hard to help those who desperately need it, run the risk of finding themselves steadily abandoned by middle class families in flight, surrounded by hordes of the poor crying out for ever more and without a tax base from which to respond.

And yet what choice do they give those of us who are tempted to reluctantly join that flight? Do the people in these confabs not actually realize how alienating their agreed rhetoric can be to the middle class who struggle and fail to find an aspect of these leaders' visions that can possibly attract children like our own? The visions of these leaders sounded to me not like visions of an education system for all, but a system for only favored minorities, a system that will try to redress past social wrongs by reverse discrimination, ensuring that less deserving youth of the favored colors are granted coveted spots in universities (like UC Berkeley) that we once attended but that our own children are rejected by, no matter how hard they work to earn superior qualifications, because our, possibly adopted, children are not of the favored color and do not tug the heartstrings of politically selected admissions staff so powerfully.

Ronald Reagan said, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; it left me." I never thought it could come to this; but if these visions are not more encompassing, more and more middle class people are going to flee the public school systems that we have been products of and have worked for, will move into private education, and will end up voting to consistently cut the taxes that support public education systems that we attended but now feel unrepresented in, and shut out of.

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