The Divisive Language of School Reform

18 Jan

You’ve Got To Be Kidding

Submitted by Frank Murphy, January 18.2011

When talking to reporters, people sure can say the strangest things.  Both Veronica Joyner, the Chief Administrative Officer of Mathematics, Civics and Science Charter School and State Senator Anthony Williams recently uttered questionable quotes.

Ms Joyner was cited in the Philadelphia Daily News as saying:

“I’m noticing a trend over the years that a lot of the charter school students are being attacked because they’re wearing uniforms. They’re being seen as nerds, and they [other students] resent the fact they’re getting a better education. They’re getting attacked by kids in the neighborhoods.”

The news article quoted was written as a follow-up to an earlier story describing a brawl between a group of students from West Catholic High School and Boys Latin Charter School.  During this mêlée, several students suffered stab wounds that required treatment at area hospitals.

This chaotic altercation took place on the street near the exit to the 46th Street station of the Market Frankford line.  A few days before this incident, another fight between groups of students from the same schools broke out on the platform of a busy center city subway station.  Apparently the tension between these two groups began in a dispute over a girl.

This Romeo and Juliet-like adolescent drama is sadly not an uncommon occurrence in our society.  I have described similar incidents in recent installments of Confessions of an Urban Principal.  Adolescent volatility and poor judgment can escalate quickly into tragedy, an all too familiar scenario with school leaders.  In recognition of this fact, the administrators of the two schools in question acted quickly in addressing this incident.  They met with their student bodies and outlined the consequences that would befall any student who persisted in pursuing further action in this matter.

The steps taken by the leaders of these two schools in response to this situation appear to be forthright and sensible.  However Ms. Joyner’s perspective on this event leaves one to wonder whether she is talking about the same story.  Nowhere in the press accounts of this incident is any reference made to children being harassed for wearing school uniforms. In fact, both schools require their students to wear uniforms, so it would be a moot point.  There isn’t any mention of any involvement of local neighborhood youth in this fight, either.   Joyner’s suggestion that these two factors contributed to this public outbreak of violent behavior is inaccurate and off base.  Her inference that  “local neighborhood kids” (i.e. public school students) are attacking nerdy charter school students is also downright inflammatory.

But in comparison to the accusations of Senator Anthony Williams, Ms Joyner’s comments are almost benign.  In a recent article published in The Public Record Senator Williams was quoted as saying: “Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ’60s.”

Williams added, “Why would we block access to great schools for children in need? All kids deserve access to a great education – regardless of race, income or zip code. Let’s open the doors to freedom and opportunity.”

Mr. Williams, a staunch supporter of the use of school vouchers, made this remark as he continued to counter the opposition of those who do not support the idea of using public funds to pay for tuition at private schools.

This has been a long simmering dispute in the state of Pennsylvania.  During the state’s recent gubernatorial election, the use of vouchers as a means to promote school choice leaped to the forefront of the candidates’ political agendas.  In fact, State Senator Jeffrey Piccola, a Republican from Dauphin County, plans to soon introduce legislation that will create a state-funded voucher system in the next legislative session of the Pennsylvania State Senate.

Pennsylvanians who oppose the creation of a law that will fund a voucher program have raised the following objections:

•Vouchers will siphon money from public schools while doing little to improve public education.

•It is unconstitutional to send public money to religious schools.

•Private schools will not be held to the same level of accountability as public schools under the conditions described in the legislation sponsored by Senator Piccola.

•The administrators and leaders of private and parochial schools will select the students that they want to attend their schools.  Parents will not have a guarantee that a non-public school will admit their child.

•Funding this new program will be expensive.

All of these reasonable objections are sure to arise in the debate that ensues as Senator Piccola’s bill is introduced in our state legislature.  If such concerns are ill- founded, than let voucher proponents like Senator Williams refute them through the demonstration of a factual argument.  To try and stifle those who raise legitimate questions by inferring that they hold evil intentions towards others is not a course of action that is supported by the principles of our democratic society.

In both of these cases we see examples of public figures promoting the value of their ideas by diminishing and demonizing people whose opinions differ with theirs.

Considering that Ms. Joyner and Senator Williams have distinguished themselves as respected leaders within the Philadelphia community, it would be expected that they would not engage in the use of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric in public discourse.

I believe that they do know better.  This is why I think that they’ve got to be kidding.

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  3. Mellie Audia

    March 27, 2011 at 1:30 am

    great site, i really enjoyed reading this article. will come back again for more.