Thursday, January 5, 2012

Charity from Crisis

"Beggars can't be choosy."

Whether it is a moral truism or not, it certainly plays out as a practical truth.

Who are you, the recipient, to judge what I, the giver, have so generously given to you.  This is why we scrutinize the items of the customer in front of us when we see them pay with food stamps.  If they're using my dime to feed their family then they have no business buying some of the "luxury" items in that cart.

Many institutions from fire departments to universities rely on funding from donors to supplement the public funds on which they operate.  We tend to support these organizations because we a)see the value in the service they provide or b)benefit from their services (past, present, or future).  Other charities don't usually get the benefit of our intentional and direct investment, we're happy giving them our leftovers.  Whether it's end of year unloading, spring cleaning, or emptying our change on the way out of the store for the Salvation Army ringer, many times our contributions to charities that serve the poor are out of guilt or convenience.

Our current narrative casts public education into the second group for many Americans.  The current story says that public education is an institution not just failing to meet an overwhelming need, but indirectly responsible for social ills for which the public should take responsibility.  Groups with virtuous goals such as "Teach for America" sell a PR package that our consumer society gladly buys.  Lack of education leads to poverty and a poor system of education has led to economic crisis.

The current story of public education tells that millions of children are being failed by a poorly functioning system hindered by low expectations, stifling unions, and incompetent teachers.  Millions of children are "academically starving" and the public institutions created to feed them are failing to do their job.

The system of accountability created in Virginia with Standards of Learning testing in the 1990's and with NCLB at the federal level have lended credibility to this story.  Accountability has created the context for a national dialogue which highlights failures and dismisses success.  In our current popular story, we are in crisis.

Crises can bring out the best... and the worst.  A crisis presents an opportunity to try things a little differently, perhaps even a little dangerous or reckless that we wouldn't normally accept.  After a natural disaster, building codes which were meant to protect citizens could become obstacles for immediate shelter.  Terminal patients, having little to lose may often opt for the unproven treatment.  We also find opportunists in the midst of crises, standing to gain from the desperation of another.

This popular narrative of crisis would have us believe that the children of America are being failed academically by its system of public education.  Instead of addressing the impact of poverty and social context, the government and "no-excuse" reformers lay the blame on schools.  This story places the academic plight of American children in the same realm as poverty, hunger, homelessness-- issues of charity rather than public responsibility.

Education is not charity, it is a public responsibility.


  1. Corporate ed reformers - aka privateers - want nothing more than ongoing crises. It gives them the pretext for imposing their policies. New Orleans, where the teaching force was summarily fired and the school system largely privatized in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, is a case study. It was neither an accident nor a surprise that Arne Duncan said that Katrina was "the best thing" that ever happened to the schools there.

  2. You're exactly right. And just like the "charity" attitude of if you're down and out then take what I'm offering and don't ask questions prevail.

    We certainly have problems and need to fix them, but I just don't believe that we're close to "terminal."