I’m supporting Mayor Funkhouser’s Education Summit, but I feel I ought to explain myself. Really, after dozens of blue-ribbon panels, grass-roots movements, concerned citizen gatherings, neighborhood committees, business roundtables, and academic colloquia, what possible good can yet another gathering of people talking accomplish? What new thoughts, what new programs, what new ideas?
Haven’t we talked things to death, while flaws in our education system continue to breed crime, dampen economic development, and divide our community? Didn’t the KCMSD just hire a new Superintendent to come in and make his own changes? At first blush, it is an insulting and arrogant waste of time for a bunch of well-meaning people to meet in a room somewhere, wring their hands and produce a vision of what “we” (meaning “they”, of course) ought to be doing.
At first blush, perhaps, but the state of education in Kansas City ought to provoke more than one blush. We all ought to be blushing.
Simply stated, the hope I have for the Summit is that it could get our community to agree on a few ideals related to education, and foster a dialog across the dividing lines we have built up.
Is that hope too modest? Is it simply a waste of time that our community might gather, at considerable expense, and agree on some ridiculously obvious sentiment like “K-8 education in Kansas City should provide the tools for additional learning” or “High Schools in Kansas City should be free of crime and violence”? (I’m just tossing those out there – I have no idea what a Summit might come up with.)
Or is it too audacious? Can one event really break down the “us vs. them, I’ve got mine” attitude that seems to permeate our “system” of education here? Each of us raising children comes up with our own solution to the problem of how to get the education we feel is best for our circumstances, and doing so requires decisions and actions we might not otherwise undertake.
And then, we are forced to defend our choices. We become an interest group. Support Charter Schools. Support Catholic Schools. Support Home-Schooling. Move to the suburbs. Raid the savings for Pembroke or St. Paul’s. Support Afro-centric schools in the District. Insist on bi-lingual education for children of immigrants. We all love our children, so we decide what is best for them under our circumstances, and we make the best of it.
It’s like we’re all forced to find our ways through an incredibly complex obstacle course, where we have to make trade-offs based upon our own values and circumstances. We all find our own individual paths through the thicket of options, like a corn maze.
What if we, together, lowered the walls of the maze? What if we could acknowledge that the people who send their kids to Charter schools share values with the people whose children attend private schools, and that those of us whose children went to KCMSD schools are not guilty of intellectual child abuse? What if we focused on some commonalities instead of distinctions? What if we walked away from a day together and understood each other better, and even respected the interests and perspectives of “those people”?
Is that even possible? And, if it is possible, what meaningful good could come from it?
By my support of the Summit, I’m saying that I believe it is possible. I think (I know) that the vast majority of people in each camp are good, sincere people wanting what is best for children. And I believe in my core that good builds upon good, just as bad brings more bad.
How does that translate into meaningful good? I have no idea, other than to reduce hostility between the camps (which, in itself, would be an achievement). But maybe someday homeschoolers gete invited to participate in Lincoln’s Science Fair. Or a suburban district supports a bond issue for the KCMSD. Or district kids are welcomed to one of Pembroke’s dramatic productions of a play they are studying.
I don’t know exactly what good could come from increased ownership and caring about the education being received by others in our community, but I feel certain that some good would come from it – perhaps the beginnings of something transformative.
Ironically, I recently participated in an email exchange with a group of people concerned about education, and one of the participants asserted as a fact that charter schools perform significantly better than traditional public schools. I pointed out that the data are conflicting on that point, and he, in turn, directed me to a summary of about a hundred studies on the issue, with conflicting results that shockingly corresponded to who was paying for the study. The undeniable truth is that Charter school advocates will cherry-pick whatever data will generate more support for Charter schools, and traditional school districts will find data that shows the Charter schools are resource-robbing underachievers.
That right there is the problem. Seeing such bought and paid for spinning leads to cynicism, and a lack of trust. My inherent lack of trust is the currency I use to purchase my absolution from caring or getting involved. If the problem is hopeless, and the data are all unreliable, then I am justified in my refusal to work toward solutions or change.
I believe that a forum can break down that inherent lack of trust. Yes, we will definitely have intellectually dishonest partisans who will try to skew things to support their predetermined positions. But I share the faith that the VAST majority of parents and citizens are like me – we may have our biases and our cynicism, but we fundamentally want what is best for the children in our community. If we come together and have a frank and honest dialog, we may or may not agree on everything, but we can begin to destroy that inherent lack of trust that absolves us from thinking that the “other side” is working in good faith, and absolves us from working toward solutions.
Experts have had their say. We’ve had those seminars, colloquia, roundtables and committees. I think Funkhouser’s Summit can do something different than what we’ve done in the past. I might be wrong, but I think it’s worth a try.