This is Take Two in a series. Take One, with a fuller introduction, can be found here. Briefly, the idea of the series is to counter anti-teacher and anti-teachers’ union individuals and “reform” groups appropriation of the phrase “it is all about the kids” as a means to heap scorn and ridicule on public education and public education employees by investigating some of the actions of these individuals and groups in light of the question “is it all about the kids?” In each take, national developments are linked to local matters in relation to the Madison Prep charter school proposal.
Take Two: A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words: Public Lotteries and the Exploitation of Families and Children
The narrative arcs of the highly publicized films The Lottery and Waiting for Superman similarly follow families as they seek admission to charter schools via lotteries. Both films paint a picture of public schools as failures and present charter schools as the only means for the families to access quality education. The words “desperate” and “desperation” are used frequently in reviews to describe the families’ desire to escape public schools (more here and here and here and here…that’s enough). They are very effective propaganda.
Rick Ayers called Waiting for Superman “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions.” In a review for the National Education Policy Center’s always wonderful Think Twice” project, William Tate wrote of The Lottery
Unfortunately, in terms of substantiating its narrative argument, The Lottery is at times more like another game of chance—three-card monte—in that it relies far too much on skillful sleight of hand and misdirection. While there is much that is very real and poignant about this film, it fundamentally misdirects viewers away from the actual evidence about the results achieved by charter schools.
A large part of this misdirection is achieved by placing real families and children at the center of the films, by putting human faces on the complex issues of education and using their stories to make things appear simple. The families plights are employed in the service of advancing the cause of market-based educational “choice” policies. The whole enterprise is exploitive, but some aspects are worse than others.
The iconic images of both films are the contrasting joy and pain of the respective lottery winners and losers; the smiles and hugs contrasted with the tears and hugs. Among the things kept hidden in the films is the extensive and expensive marketing campaign that produced those images. Juan Gonzalez reported:
In the two-year period between July 2007 and June 2009, Harlem Success spent $1.3 million to market itself to the Harlem community, the group’s most recent financial filings show.
Of that total, more than $1 million was spent directly on student recruitment. The campaign included posters at bus stops, Internet and radio ads, mass mailings of glossy brochures to tens of thousands of public school parents in upper Manhattan and the Bronx and the hiring of up to 50 community residents part-time to go door-to-door in Harlem soliciting applicants.
All of this was done to fill a mere 900 seats.
I fail to see how spending $1.3 million to market 900 slots can be in the interests of the kids.
But it is the exploitation of the pain and tears that I find most disturbing. It is the exploitation of the pain and tears that makes me question if it is “all about the kids” because I can see no way that the cause of those particular lottery-losing families quest for a quality education is served by having their moments of disappointment made a public spectacle.
I’m sure choice advocates would argue that the larger cause is being advanced and that in the name of that cause some sacrifices must be made. As I detailed in a previous post, the idea of the larger cause of “school choice” being worthy of such a sacrifice in the name of “the kids” does not stand up to scrutiny. In the aggregate, neither those who enroll in “choice schools” nor those who remain in public schools have experienced a net benefit from this government-funded free-market experiment. Exploiting some families for the benefit of other families is bad enough, exploiting them for purely ideological reasons is indefensible.
Indefensible, but common. A search of news sites reveals countless media events staged around charter school lotteries and each one features a mini-version of the Lottery and Waiting for Superman narrative: desperate families, exultant winners, and defeated losers. In each case the take away is that — despite all evidence to the contrary — attending public schools instead of a charter school dooms children to brutal and hopeless future. With each media event that narrative becomes stronger and the evidence recedes more from the public consciousness. The kids, like everyone else, would be best served by full and honest portrayals of educational options.
This event presents a wonderful opportunity to:
• draw media attention to the demand for high-quality charters,
• grow awareness among families of the availability of quality schools of choice, and
• create an opportunity for charters to communicate their quality and
All about the kids? The most extensive section of kit concerns attracting and communicating with the media. The families of applicants are treated as little more than props. In fairness, the kit does suggest that school officials:
Write thank-you notes to parents and students who were not selected. You appreciate the time and effort and know they are disappointed. You are disappointed too, hope that they will apply again, and wish them the very best.
I like the “apply again.” The media event will need props again next year.
It isn’t surprising that Madison Prep is planning on following this script. In response to questions from the Madison Metropolitan School District on admissions , the Urban League of Greater Madison wrote:
If the school receives more than 45 enrollment forms for either grade level in the first year, or enrollment forms exceed the seats available in subsequent years, Madison Prep will hold a public random lottery at a location that provides enough space for applicant students and families. (emphasis added)
What possible good would a public lottery do the winners? Has anyone considered the harm a public lottery could do the losers?
This lack of attention given to vulnerable lottery losers stands in contrast to the supposed concern the Urban League paid to the confidentiality of parents in their recent “no media (except those friendly to Madison Prep)” media event. Here is how Madison.Com reported Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire’s reasoning prior to the meeting:
“This is about the parents first,” he said. “Oftentimes we don’t put them first. And we have to do that this time.
I guess after losing a lottery isn’t one of the times you “have to” put parents or children first.
By-the way, I’m still waiting for the promised joint statement from Superintendent Dan Nerad and Kaleem Caire “about the meeting.” If it ever comes (don’t hold your breathe), maybe that will help me understand. I’m sure that in some fashion they will say “it is all about the kids.” Forgive me if I don’t believe them.
For further reading (in addition to things linked in the text):
Thomas J. Mertz