The trouble with 'reimagining' schools
Some private interests wanted to ‘innovate’ all over Charleston County Schools. Not this year, y’all.
Today’s newsletter deals with a fight over the control of public schools in Charleston County, South Carolina. I previously covered the education beat while working as a reporter for the Charleston City Paper and The Post and Courier from 2011-2019. I am also a father of three children attending Charleston County public schools.
On Jan. 10, 2022, I attended a school board meeting to speak out against the “Reimagine Schools” proposal on behalf of the Charleston Democratic Socialists of America, where I serve as the unpaid communications secretary. Charleston DSA opposed the measure. You can read our full statement here.
My favorite professor in journalism school was Doug Fisher, a flinty AP veteran with a heart of gold. Students feared and respected him, and his copy editing class winnowed out the faint of heart.
One of Fisher’s pet peeves had to do with the word “reform.” It’s not a neutral term, and he argued that we should avoid using it to describe bills and public policies. The word choice is a subtle endorsement.
I would later learn that the word is especially loaded in the field of U.S. public education, where “education reform” often serves as shorthand for expansion of charter schools, post-No Child Left Behind test-and-punish regimes, and the neoliberal market-based education policies favored by the Bush II, Obama, and Trump education departments.
South Carolina schools consistently rank last or near-last in most measures of academic success, and they are often a laboratory for “reforms.” Rather than fully fund our schools by the state’s own funding formula (which the legislature hasn’t done since 2008), we have subjected schools in our poorest communities to a series of experiments including:
The proliferation of public charter schools, magnet schools, and partial-magnet programs in the name of “school choice,” which contributed directly to the re-segregation of Charleston County schools
An increasing reliance on foreign-exchange teachers on short-term J-1 visas to staff schools in the poorest rural counties, which led some districts to hire as many as one-third of their teachers from abroad on 3- to 5-year stints
A literacy law that required schools to hold children back in 3rd grade for failing a standardized test, which cost the state $214 million in the first 4 years while piling up more paperwork for teachers and, notably, did not improve literacy rates
Some school districts even jumped on the gender-segregation bandwagon when the concept became fashionable in the mid-2000s. South Carolina had 214 schools offering single-gender programs at the peak of the trend in 2008, just a few years before the American Psychological Association declared the benefits of separating boys from girls were “trivial and, in many cases, nonexistent."
All of these policies and proposed policies were sold as “reforms” but ended in failure. It can be difficult to prove the intent of the folks who enacted them, but on a practical level it doesn’t matter. Whether they were deliberately sabotaging public schools or sincerely trying to help, the outcome was the same.
On Monday afternoon, the Charleston County School Board tabled a vote on a proposal that a local nonprofit organization and some members of the local press had heralded as a “reform.” The other buzzword we heard, again and again, was “innovation.”
If adopted, the Reimagine Schools plan (full text here) would have created Innovation Commissions overseeing at least 23 public schools, mostly in low-income and majority-Black communities. Thanks to a recently expanded Schools of Innovation law favored by the billionaire financier and privatization advocate Ben Navarro, those schools could then be handed over to control by private Innovation Management Organizations. Further eroding public oversight, the Schools of Innovation law would allow up to 25% of teaching staff in core areas to consist of teachers without state certification.
I attended the Jan. 10 school board meeting expecting to hear a knock-down, drag-out debate about the Reimagine Schools proposal. But after a solid month of public outcry leading up to the vote, the school board members who were pushing hardest for the proposal retreated immediately. At the start of the committee meeting that preceded the full board meeting, board member Lauren Herterich made a motion to take the proposal off the agenda. The motion passed quickly, with board member Courtney Waters noting that “we really need to work hard to make sure that our word is out and not sort of hearsay."
The strongest opposition to Reimagine Schools came from the educators and parents who were supposed to benefit from all that innovation. Teachers, PTA boards, and School Improvement Councils at 3 of the 23 affected schools put out signed statements opposing the plan in the week leading up to the vote — a rare show of open dissent in a district where teachers have no union to defend them against retaliation.
Even after the board tabled the proposal on Monday, several of us stuck around to speak during the public comment period. The most memorable comment came from North Charleston High School Principal Henry Darby, whose school was hollowed out by school choice and is now being targeted for “innovation.”
Darby’s words carry some weight here. A native North Charlestonian, he famously took a second job stocking shelves at Walmart so he could help his students’ families pay their bills. In 2021 he received South Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Palmetto.
He only had 60 seconds to speak, but he made every second count (pardon any transcription errors; the boardroom audio quality was spotty):
Firstly, there has been no principals' input. We are adamantly opposed to this measure. Reimagine Schools has esoterically, assiduously, and surreptitiously sought to have this proposal expeditiously passed by the board without community support. Not only the African-American community but also the Hispanic community, they have no knowledge of this proposal. Should they not be included as well?
Secondly, there is no line of authority, no organizational chart. I thumbed through the proposal; the principal does not have the last word, the commission would, and as far as I understand, the state report card does not require the signature of a commission. It requires the signature of principals, as we should have the last word.
Thirdly, there is no regular research in terms of student achievement for Reimagine Schools. Hopefully this has been shot down, but let me get to my final point. I stand for 23 principals who are affected by Reimagine Schools. We are adamantly, ardently, and passionately against the Reimagine proposal and wish that the measure be eviscerated.
The one public comment in favor of Reimagine Schools came from Lisa Ruda, a former colleague of Washington D.C. Schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee, who now serves as executive director of the 50CAN-affiliated advocacy group Charleston RISE.
I am not writing neutrally about the news anymore, but I do try to be objective. I am a proud democratic socialist, and I recognize that the people I oppose have equally fervent beliefs. I also recognize that the nonprofit organization that proposed Reimagine Schools, the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, does good philanthropic work elsewhere in my community and state. This venture into politics appears to be an outlier for now.
This latest attempt at “reform” hits close to home. My children are zoned to attend North Charleston High School when they are older, and I want it to be a place where the teachers are supported and all of my children and my neighbors’ children can prosper. We aren’t there yet.
I saw some familiar faces in the line to speak at Monday night’s board meeting. They included two former school board candidates, Sarah Shad Johnson and Francis Beylotte, who lost their elections in 2018 after the dark-money group the Charleston Coalition for Kids dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising for their opponents.
Solidarity is born out of struggle. If there is one positive development from this episode, I think it’s that educators and parents showed how hard they would fight for one another. Standing in line outside the district office, huddled against the wind and waiting to speak, I met a middle school teacher who told me she’d never addressed the school board before. She was nervous.
But when she stepped up to the microphone, she spoke with authority. She spoke on behalf of her colleagues, who all told her they opposed Reimagine Schools.
“You cannot afford to make teachers feel insulted,” she said.
These are dire times and getting worse. We’ll need each other to make it through.
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