I’m a public school teacher and frequently find myself in discussions regarding the pros and cons of public vs. charter schools. What’s hard to communicate is the larger impact these choice schools have on our communities. This is a much larger argument than just where you send your kids this year. This is about the changing of a system and the lasting impact of this change. What we are seeing is charter schools providing as an opportunity to segregate ourselves, avoid each other and completely ignore the poverty crisis in this country.
To better explain myself, let me to offer you this metaphor.
You’re going to have to imagine yourself as a gardener. A rose gardener, to be specific. You’re going to have to imagine that you love your roses dearly. In fact, you are growing a direct descendant of the very same roses your grandparents’ grew and their grandparents as well. Your roses are more than just flowers to you, they are family, tradition, and history.
Now let’s talk about one of these rose bushes. It grows and thrives and offers beauty and diversity to your garden. It provides nectar for bees and butterflies and they, in turn carry the rose’s pollen into the world allowing new, beautiful second and third generations of roses to grow. You provide your roses with food and water and appropriate shelter and
shade. You trim the roses as needed and they flourish. This one bush connects you to family and community as you bring cuttings to neighbors and family members. Over time, however, you begin to take the rose bush’s beauty for granted. You notice tiny flaws and you lose touch with its contribution to the local ecosystem. You water it intermittently. You provide food only occasionally. The bush remains alive, but its vibrancy has faded. It becomes a shell of what it once was.
One day you notice this and, while remembering what once was, you blame the soil, the weather, the neighbor’s dog. You blame changes in the neighborhood, pollution, pesticides, and new development. After all, you’ve provided it some food and water for the most part. Why can’t it grow as it once did? Repairing the damaged plant feels overwhelming. Where do you start? It may take years, generations, for the rose bush to be restored to its once great beauty.
Finally you decide on a completely different approach. Sure you’ll feed and water your rose from time to time, but you’ve decided to purchase a new rose bush, a potted one. This one will be kept in a greenhouse. This will eliminate its exposure to poor soil, the elements, and the neighbor’s dog. This rose bush will prosper.
And it does because you dutifully feed and water it. And this rose bush is beautiful. From time to time you look outside at your old rose bush and wish it could be better, like it once was, but you don’t know how to repair it, and the new one, after all, is right here and you do unwittingly enjoy its novelty. Maintaining something new feels easier than fixing that which is broken. This goes on for a while and is working out just fine. The new rose looks even more brilliant in comparison to the old bush outside.
However, there are problems. At first these are unseen. What you don’t see is that your new plant is isolated from nature and, therefore, is making no contribution to new generations. There is a lasting impact on the local ecosystem because pollinators have fewer options for nectar. The rose bush itself is suffering, though you can’t see it. What you don’t see is that, while this bush looks strong and vibrant, it is actually weak. Its stalk never has to toughen and thicken to keep it up in a stiff wind. Its leaves and petals have never known the feel of insect legs, seeking refuge from a sudden rain. It looks perfect, and yet, it is lacking. The rose bush outside is weather worn, and yet, it has survived.
You find, however, that most people can’t tell the difference and so you continue to purchase and grow your roses inside. You find that you are able to make a pretty good deal of money off these bushes, as they look flawless. The casual observer doesn’t recognize the weak stem or the lack of genetic diversity in your stock. It won’t matter anyway since the casual consumer is only interested in the plant short term. You’ll win flower shows and admiration from your peers because their roses, while beautiful, are grown outside and so their exposure to the elements has left them lacking in comparison to yours.
Many, many years pass and word begins to spread about the longterm impact of your plants. Consumers are upset that the once beautiful roses you sold them are not able to stand up to the outside conditions to which they are exposed. Sure these consumers are able to supplement their bushes with stakes and feed and extra care. And yet, that original bush, while haggard and worn and old, is still standing. You look at what’s left and tell yourself, “it doesn’t matter. What I did was beautiful and right and if people didn’t like, then they wouldn’t have bought my roses.” and you decide you’re more interested in vegetable gardening these days anyway, so you abandon your rose busy venture.
Your friends, your family, your neighbors are left to pick up the pieces. They realize now that you did not sell them rose bushes that could last for generations. Their bushes were unable to sustain transplanting. Overtime, the weaknesses of your greenhouse bushes were finally recognized.
Some people remember the past, however. There were members of the community, now old, who remembered how strong and beautiful your original rose bushes once were and they rallied people to come together to restore the past. They found that the best place to start was with that original rose bush, now barely standing. It hung sadly, petals wilted, leaves dying. They knew the process to restore this plant would be long and arduous. They knew they would have to rely on many different types of people: soil scientists, biologists, botanists, entomologists, and gardeners. They knew they would have to listen to the voices of the past and they would have to confront the choices they had made.
They learned amazing things. They came to realize that a rose bush is so much more than one can see with their naked eye. They came to realize that that original rose bush had evolved from years of change and struggle and it had been made stronger for it. They came to realize that that bush played such an integral role in the garden that all other plants and insects flourished because it was there. The people realized that that one bush had impact much greater than anyone could imagine.
It was a long and tedious process to restore that rose bush and throughout the people said, “Why did we let this fall into such disrepair? Who let this happen and why?” And there were many people to blame, but in the end, each person realized they played a role. They allowed for those greenhouse rose bushes to flourish. They purchased them themselves or sat back and said, “I’d never purchase one of those,” but did nothing to stop their spread. They hoped they were not too late, but it may have been that they were.
So this week, in honor of charter school-supporter Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education, I ask you to consider the impact of community schools. I ask you take in their crumbling facades and outdated color schemes and remember what’s happening inside those doors. I ask you to consider the fight this country had in order to ensure that everyone had equal access to a quality education. I’d ask you to consider those who are leftover when affluent parents cut and run and when schools are allowed to close or to fall into disrepair.
And then I’d urge you to get involved. I’d urge you to fight to keep your local schools open and thriving. I’d urge you to attend a board meeting, a parents group, or even a band concert. See with your own eyes the shoots that this school is sending into the community, into the future. I’d urge you to help fight to keep these opportunities available for all students, no matter their race or economic status. Let us not be a nation that follows the trend of the business insiders, but instead a nation that relishes in our history, learns from our past, and works together to forge a stronger, more equitable future for our children.
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