Let's Be Grown Ups When We Talk About Education

Education is one of the toughest issues facing our city and our region so it's critical we engage in an honest conversation about it as we move forward. A new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma, may seek to further that discussion and ask some tough questions. I don't know, I haven't read it yet, but I look forward to doing so. But a recent Washington Post article about this book relied upon tired stereotypes and sloppy labeling.

The title, "Schools dilemma for urban gentrifiers: Keep their kid's urban, or move to suburbia?" starts it off with the overworn "gentrifiers" label. It's a loaded, value-laden label that lacks specificity and is way too often used as sloppy shorthand for "white people." At it's most basic, it implies a wealthier class of people displacing a poorer class, and in D.C. that invariably gets tied into questions of race. It evokes strong feelings in people, both those moving in and those who have been here for some time. It's a provocative title, and from the substance of the article I can't tell if it is used by design or carelessness.

But for now, strip away that loaded "gentrifier" label and move to the article itself. We're looking at the concept of the author of the upcoming book, Michael Pitrelli, facing a dilemma: Does he keep his children in the diverse but academically challenged urban school or does he move to a better, albeit less diverse, suburban school? It's a quandary that I, as parent who sends his children to urban public schools, can relate to. Or I would, if my daughter's urban DCPS school wasn't excellent.

But that's me; I'm lucky in finding a stellar, diverse public school. Many of my close friends and neighbors haven't been, and it's clear Mr. Pitrelli also hasn't found the same experience my family has. I'm eager to hear how what his situation is. Which urban school does he send his kid to? Perhaps it's one I know? D.C. is a small town, in many ways, and by word of mouth and the magic of social media it's possible we "know" each other.

Takoma Park. Oh. So the Post doesn't really mean "urban" than, does it? It means poor and brown. Which is fine, and I suspect handling issues of balancing diversity with issues of race and income IS a topic that should be explored in book-length format. But that's not what the Post said. They said "urban."

Takoma Park is a historic and diverse suburb. It is, in fact, one of Washington's oldest suburbs. Anyone interested in learning more about it's history should read Takoma Park: Portrait of a Victorian Suburb 1883-1983. As a historic suburb, it has more walkability than car driven post World War II suburbs do. And, I gather, it has issues of poverty. But that doesn't make it "urban."

Let's get our terms correct here. Are we talking about race? Are we talking about poverty? Urbanization? Gentrification? We should talk about all of them, but these are not interchangeable terms. Before we can have a conversation, we have have to agree, within reason, on the vocabulary we are using. And calling Takoma Park "urban" isn't a usage of that term I think most Washington Post users would recognize. It certainly caused much mirth with my friends and neighbors, but I suspect it's a way to talk about race without talking about race.

Then we come to the charter schools issue. Another complex issue, with a diversity of strong opinions. Why doesn't Mr. Pitrelli consider a charter school? Well, he really can't. There's only one in all of Montgomery County, some distance away in Kensington.

But again, that's not what the article says. Instead, it goes off into an unchallenged discourse about the culture of charter schools. Which makes about as much sense as discussing the cuisine of restaurants. Charter schools educate a substantial minority of children, but they are not a monolithic organization. In fact, they're not really any sort of organization. By definition, they operate under independent charters and often have little in common with each other.

Mr. Pitrelli is presumably drawing upon his professional expertise and not his personal experience in Takoma Park at this point, but he makes a few overarching comments about charter schools in D.C.:

Many of the charters have uniforms and a rigid discipline code. It's not a culture that celebrates a lot of individualism, personal style or autonomy, the kinds of things that middle-class parents may want. So there are significant differences and cultural clashes that take place.

He's not entirely wrong, by the way. Many of my neighbors, specifically many of my African-American neighbors, seek a more disciplined style of learning than I'd prefer. They seek out charter schools with rigid discipline codes (DCPS already have uniforms, by the way). There are differences of expectations along racial lines, there are culture clashes, and to deny it is intellectually dishonest.

But to say this is the comprehensive charter school experience is disingenuous. Many charter schools are nothing like this. To push my restaurant analogy further, it would be like saying because most restaurants serve meat, vegetarians are not comfortable eating out. Well, there are vegetarian restaurants and there are charter schools that celebrate individualism. Are there enough? Judging from the waitlists, probably not.

Nor is it a truism that suburban schools are less rigid that D.C. charter schools. I reached out to a friend, Sue Hendrickson, who recently moved from Capitol Hill to Bethesda. She found his characterization of Bethesda schools off. As she puts it:

Our kids are under so much pressure to conform, to not draw outside the lines and show how smart they are and work, work work! And as they get older and move on to middle school and high school the pressure increases -- not just from their parents, but also from their peers.

In fact, the thing she misses MOST from D.C. charter schools, was the creativity. "Traditional education just seems to lack the passion, creativity and flexibility that you will find in private schools or public charters. Ideally, I want the creative model we had in our D.C. charter school with the stability and resources Montgomery county provides its teachers and students."

This is not to pick on Mr. Pitrelli's book or his decision to move his family. I look forward to reading his book and we all make choices with our children. I respect his views and from what I've seen he doesn't question mine. He closes the article with a line, "I hope writing about it honestly can help people make their own decision." Indeed. And a good first step to writing about it honestly is being careful with the labels we throw around. Let's try think before we say "urban," "gentrifier," "homogenous," and so on.

And before anyone gives me the tired "D.C. schools suck, everyone's leaving them" argument, please be quiet. The grown ups are talking.