Let's pretend you own and operate a small dry cleaning store on the outskirts of Center City. One day your business school nephew comes to you with a request: For a marketing course, he is supposed to do a study of a small business to test its strength and weaknesses.
He wants to do one about your establishment and for two weeks parks himself just behind the counter and asks customers to fill out a questionnaire. At the end of the fortnight, he compiles and analyzes the data and returns with a sad look on his face.
Uncle, he says, I have bad news. Your customers are not happy with your store or your service. Sixty two percent of those I questioned said they have actively looked for another store to go to.
You ask: Then why do they stay with me?
Your nephew replies: Proximity. You are the only dry cleaners within a 20-block radius and most people who live around here walk or ride public transit to work. They are stuck with you, but they are not satisfied.
By coincidence, a week later, you pass by an empty storefront just four blocks away, see workers busy inside and a banner outside that reads: Coming Soon. An Eco-Friendly Dry Cleaners!
When the new store opens, your business drops appreciably. Customers literally flock to the new cleaners. It irks you to stand in your store, looking at them pass by carrying packages of clean clothes and smiling.
Why is this happening to you?
You reach the obvious conclusion: you are the victim of a vast conspiracy led by right-wing organizations to force you out of business and deny you a living wage. These forces, which include some of the world's largest foundations, have it in for you and intend to destroy you.
It's as simple as that.
Come to think of it, that's the same argument made by opponents of the changes underway in Philadelphia's public schools to improve options for parents and cull out the poor performing schools. And, boy, is it comforting. A hermetically sealed, all encompassing, theory that is impermeable to fact. The fact that it is loony is irrelevant. It serves its purpose, which is to divert the conversation away from reality.
(By the way, I hear on the hush-hush that the City Paper is preparing a story where anonymous sources trace this whole thing back to the Illuminati. Stay tuned.)
I love conspiracy theories, but I have been condemned to live in the world of fact.
If that dry cleaner had asked me for the cause of his troubles I would have said: It's simple. Your customers are not satisfied, but they stuck with you because they had no choice. When a new store opened, they had a choice and they fled.
In brief, that is a short history of trends in the public schools for the last 12 years. The charter movement offered parents an alternative to the same old-same-old and they fled once a reasonable (free) alternative offered itself.
Opponents say they are worshipping false gods. That charters do not offer better academics than public schools. That they enjoy unfair advantages by having outside financial support from foundations and others (could it be the Illuminati?). And, in fact, charters are an instrument of the conspiracy.
The reality is much simpler. It can be obtained without resorting to Glenn Beckian charts. It can be found simply by talking to parents.
That's exactly what was done two years ago by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, which conducted a poll of 800-plus public, Catholic and charter school parents in Philadelphia to ask them what they thought about education. [Note: I was a member of the research team and principal author of the report. Note2: I am not a member of the Illuminati, but then they always deny it.]
According to the poll, 62 percent of public school parents said they had actively considered sending their children to charter, private or Catholic schools. The number was highest among African-Americans (68%) and parents under 30 (77%).
The reasons they did not change schools? The cited finances and unavailability of seats in the other schools (Charters, which are most favored because they are free, often have waiting lists)
When it came to satisfaction, public schools stood at 40%, while charters and Catholic schools were in the 70s overall - in some aspects in the mid 90s. You can read the complete report here.
When we talked to parents more in-depth in focus groups, we were surprised at how charter parents rarely mentioned the quality of education - unless prompted by the moderator. What they (and what Catholic parents) stressed was a caring school environment, a sense of purpose on the part of the staff, and the safety of the schools. Satisfaction with these elements ranked in the 90s for charter and Catholic parents.
The facts are: public schools did fine until they faced reasonable (free) competition, and the parents voted with their feet. Still, they did not think it was good enough. Seventy two percent of the parents polled said they wanted even more choices than currently available.
Underlying these conspiracy theories is an interesting notion - that is widespread in the district - that the public schools exist to provide good-paying jobs, especially for those with teaching certificates (average salary of a Philadelphia public school teacher is $73,000 for a 190-day work year.)
Therefore, any attempt to change the schools by offering non-public options is an act in violation of economic justice.
It should come as no surprise that most of the conspiracy rhetoric emanates from the teachers union and its allies, principally Diane Ravitch the nationally-known educator who was once a ferocious supporter of the charter school movement and is now a ferocious opponent of it. The operative word is ferocious. Ravitch does disdain for opponents better than almost anyone I know. She is right and you are wrong - even though what she is right about today is at complete odds with what she was right about yesterday. I can't wait until tomorrow!
I don't blame Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, for foisting this conspiracy theory. What else can he say? We are losing the competition to educational rivals and we better make real serious changes in how we operate! I think not. The PFT was built on the monopoly model. It does not do change.
(By the way, Jerry is definitely not a member of the Illuminati. I should know because I have never seen him at our meetings.)
This theory of district as jobs machine has an insidious aspect to it - that poor people exist to service the machine. That since they are poor - and probably don't care much about education or much about anything - they should at least serve the utilitarian purpose of going to public schools and providing good paying jobs for those employed there. And, of course, as educators - with advanced degrees -- we know what is best for them.
To use a technical term, that is a bunch of crap.
One thing I discovered working on the Pew report was that there is a vast aspiring class of parents in Philadelphia. Even if they are poor, they want their children to live better lives. In the poll, for instance, 80 percent of parents who earned under $40,000 a year said they wanted their children to go to college or get advanced degrees. The figure for parents who made over $40,000 was 92 percent.
Here is what the report said when discussing these parents:
"They aspire to a better life for their children and they believe education is the key to it. They want it delivered in a safe and caring environment. Most of them don't care much about who provides it, as long as the school is reasonably nearby and their out of pocket expenses are modest..."
In short, if another dry cleaner opens down the street, they will go down the street.
Finally, if we are talking about economic justice, let me sneak in one point: Why don't we talk about economic justice for the children?
If they end up going through 12 years of public school and emerge without a grasp of the basics of reading, writing and math (true of 62% of students in Philadelphia's neighborhood high schools) what chance do they have of making a decent wage at an honest job. Less than zero.
Seen this way, the move towards choice is not a conspiracy. It is a grassroots movement. Talk to parents and they will tell you the truth. And the truth shall set you free.
-- Tom Ferrick
Note: The data is from Pew, but the opinions are mine and mine alone.