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Don’t Call Me Stupid! Underestimating Parental Choice

February 19, 2013

Apparently, all of the poor parents I’ve met all these years are actually stupid. I didn’t know this until I read yet another review of how people actually get into charter schools.

You probably didn’t know this but there’s a bunch of really smart poor folk who know that there are charter schools and school options, who can read and write and spell and who somehow show up to apply and file for school lotteries to get their kids into better schools than their neighborhood schools. They are apparently smarter than the other poor folk because they know that the assigned public school – the one that they are zoned to by zip code — is actually bad, and you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t smart, because you’d be so ill informed that you wouldn’t even know your child couldn’t read or write and you’d have no idea that there was a difference in schools anymore than you know there are nicer ones somewhere or better clothes, or televisions, or stereos or buildings or even jobs.

So these smarter poor folks, who are usually people of color (but not always, if you’re in Appalachia or West Virginia or even East Palo Alto, or Indianapolis) somehow know more than the other poor folks and they know their kids are smart so they get them into other schools.

They are the cream, according to some. And they make it bad for all the others. They take everything before other people can get there. They know to stand in line and wait for school lotteries, and they know about the lotteries, and they know who has the good teachers and who doesn’t and they live with the other poor folks but somehow they are apparently more advantaged because everyone keeps saying that’s who’s in schools of choice and they must be smart if they know how to choose.

Apparently “the others” are parents out there that are poor but ignorant and don’t know that their schools are bad or their children can’t read or that they are hungry and have no job and that matters. They can’t choose schools which means they can’t choose a great dinner over a bad one, or a shiny car over one that is broken down and maybe they don’t even know that they are in the U.S. for all I know because everyone says they don’t get into schools because they can’t make choices.

There must be a group of people like this, I’m told, because people keep saying that only the better parents know how to choose schools for their children and there is this group of other more advantaged parents who always know what to do for their kids and this group, the stupid group, I guess, just doesn’t know what to do (even though there are parents where I live that are very rich and very educated and they don’t know what to do either so their kids are messed up but I guess they knew enough to get them into good schools where they are still messed up? I just don’t know.)

So, if there is this group of people who are less advantaged poor and another that is more advantaged poor, why does the data show that the majority of students in charter schools and publicly funded scholarship programs are more poor, more likely to be at-risk and more likely to be minorities than other public schools? And since the lion’s share of charters are clustered in urban areas where the majority of households have only a single parent and tend to be less educated, that would suggest that these parents still know something about their children and schools and how to aspire to something better.

Indeed the composition of charters, the demographics and the fact that the thousands more on waiting lists could fill another 5,000 charters because parents are shopping for something better for their kids, would suggest that what makes people advantaged is being able to even have a choice, and that it’s the availability of choice that gives the advantage, not something in their DNA.

So when those who can’t quite believe that the poorest of the poor know their own children well enough to step out of their circumstances, take a bus, a train and the fortitude to find a new environment for their children, I want to tell them to come with me and we’ll go together to meet the people who I’ve been fortunate to learn from and help for 20 years. I’ve met them and those who spend time with the people who are making the choices for their children. I used to think I had to speak more slowly when I was with them, to dress down, perhaps not speak so many big words… that’s what I thought once, until I was dressed down for talking down… when a woman with nothing, who happened to come to a meeting across town in place of her daughter who was too stoned to come and help her son said to me,

“We may not come from where you come from, but we can get where you are, so just tell us what it is you came to tell us and we will be right behind you.”

It doesn’t take an education to know that education is important anymore than it takes being black to know that equality is a God given right. It doesn’t take knowing how to read to know that not knowing how to read is very bad. It doesn’t take being poor to know that being poor sucks, and it doesn’t take a researcher to understand what it is that happens every day in America when we provide choices.

When we provide choices, and choices of schooling for the purposes of this article, we immediately make people more advantaged, and they know something better exists that they now have access to.

The boy in the Indy charter who came to school with his shirt wet because he didn’t have a washer and dryer so he used the school sink everyday, wasn’t sleeping at home anyway because his mother was never home so he was usually in the street or at a friends — his family sounds poor but somehow they got him to that school and he knows to attend school. How do we know anything about his family, other than the obvious? Whatever it is that got him to a school where its leaders actually are paid to perform makes him more advantaged now, a byproduct of having a choice to start.

It’s not creaming, it’s not one person being smarter than another, it’s just freedom, and it’s what fueled our nation from its inception and what will fuel our education system — if some people can just take the time to truly understand what makes people tick and not make assumptions that they can’t prove and have never witnessed for themselves.

by Jeanne Allen


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