Things We Read Today (33), Friday

Here a Charter, There A Charter, Everywhere a Charter Charter

Linda Borg reports in the Providence Journal that at least one Providence public school will make the leap to becoming a district-run charter school, and I’m still not entirely sure what that means.  According to Borg:

The charters will help the school figure out how to raise money and create a board of directors. The district, however, will continue to provide oversight, although it’s not yet clear how Spaziano will answer to the district and its own board.

Although many questions remain, existing teachers will not be replaced and they will remain in the union. Faculty will remain in the state’s retirement system and their years with the charter will be counted toward their retirement.

As I suggested in September, it looks like the move mainly allows the school to bring in additional money.  If freedom to experiment is the objective — or, as Borg paraphrased Superintendent Susan Lusi at that time, “a school culture that is warm and welcoming” — then that suggests changes that really ought to be possible within the existing district structure.  (Meaning that, if they’re not possible, administrators have a moral obligation to push for changes in state law.)

Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder if one underlying objective of Lusi’s push for charterizing, alongside the city’s teacher union, isn’t to fill the list of RI charters up to the cap, which the General Assembly and Governor Carcieri raised from 20 to 35 in 2010, in a union-friendly way.  There are currently between 16 and 19 schools listed on the Department of Education’s Web site (depending on whether multiple schools under the same charter organization count separately for the purposes of the cap).

So What Affects the Cultural Warmth of Public Schools?

A study of teacher absence rates (PDF) by the Center for American Progress caused a bit of a stir, in the Ocean State, because it ranked us as having the most chronically absent teachers. Rhode Island achieved that rank by being the only state that crossed the 50% line for “percentage of teachers absent more than 10 days.”  (That, keep in mind, is on a baseline of a career with a 180-day work year.)

In a letter to the editor, retired South Kingstown French and Spanish teacher Catherine Pastore explains the problem as follows:

Charter-school teachers are on the job more days a year because they know they are working in an environment where their performance is valued. They participate in a system of mutual support and high expectations. My own experience tells me that in systems such as Scituate’s, with low teacher-absence rates, that same culture prevails.

Teachers working in such an environment object to being out of their classrooms for whatever reason — sickness, training, meetings — because of the deleterious effects you cite. They are present, even when they are not feeling so well, because they are committed to being there, not because they are afraid of the administration.

What, I wonder, gives Rhode Island its egregiously difficult work environment for teachers?  Is it the state’s ultra-strong free-market movement?  (Stop laughing.)

An essay that I read the other day, titled “Private (Union) Takeover of Public Schools,” comes to mind:

Gary Wolfram, author of A Capitalist Manifesto: Understanding the Market Economy and Defending Liberty, explained the power of teachers unions in public schools.

“The system is designed for you as a teachers union to elect the people you are going to bargain with, at a local level,” Wolfram said. “You have an incentive to elect state representatives who provide high spending so you can keep salaries high.”

“They are a lobbying firm,” he said. “The Michigan Education Association is one of the larger political action committees.”

Of course, it isn’t just state representatives; it’s school committee members, as well, as East Providence learned quite jarringly when its school committee began challenging union entrenchment and was subsequently pulled up by the roots.  Consider National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Robert Walsh’s Twitter boast on election night, this year, that “we won over 90% of our races.”

Progressive Destruction: It Isn’t Just Education

Of course, it wasn’t clear in the context of our Twitter conversation whether Bob was talking about “we” in terms of the union, the Democrat Party, or the progressive movement, all of which he represents in different contexts.  In any case, the overlap is pretty broad institutionally, as well as in the person of Mr. Walsh.  And among the coalition’s achievements, alongside a culture of failing schools and absentee teachers, is an economic recovery that Washington Post blogger Neil Irwin calls “a big disappointment.”

Not surprisingly, my reaction is like Veronique de Rugy’s:

The economy has not recovered its lost output from the recession, and the economy seems to have settled in a pattern of lower growth (certainly lower than this country has experienced in the past). How long will that last? Unfortunately, I am worried that this slow growth — which is the product of the joint legacy of big-government policies of the Bush and Obama administrations – is here to stay until we finally reduce the size of government.

I’m worried that the national electorate is moving toward Rhode Island’s electorate, which is about as likely to do what de Rugy and I suggest as the state’s public school teachers are to admit that their union isn’t protecting them from a deeply entrenched anti-union culture, but is in fact the problem.

The Grounds of Our Knowledge

To end on a lighter (if deeper) note, I’ll offer a curious bit of news across which I came today that has much more profound application to the above sections than I’ll bother to explore.  It turns out that Sandy Island, which maps (including Google’s) show to be roughly the size of Manhattan and to the east of Australia, doesn’t actually exist:

“We were out in the Eastern Coral Sea, conducting a scientific research expedition, and when we were approaching the area of this supposed island,” [Dr. Maria] Seton told the BBC. “We saw that our scientific maps showed there was an island there and yet the navigation charts on board the vessel showed that we had a water depth of 1,400 metres. That’s when we started getting suspicious.”

Seton says that it would be basically impossible for the island to have been washed away. She says that there’s no way it could have ever existed.

Like most readers (I’m sure) the first thing to come to my mind was Grammar of Assent by Cardinal John Henry Newman.  In that work, Newman explores the epistemological question of how we come to believe things, or to assent to the proposition that a particular statement is true, including the following:

Acts of Inference are both the antecedents of assent before assenting, and its usual concomitants after assenting. For instance, I hold absolutely that the country which we call India exists, upon trustworthy testimony; and next, I may continue to believe it on the same testimony. In like manner, I have ever believed that Great Britain is an island, for certain sufficient reasons; and on the same reasons I may persist in the belief. But it may happen that I forget my reasons for what I believe to be so absolutely true; or I may never have asked myself about them, or formally marshalled them in order, and have been accustomed to assent without a recognition of my assent or of its grounds, and then perhaps something occurs which leads to my reviewing and completing those grounds, analyzing and arranging them, yet without on that account implying of necessity any suspense, ever so slight, of assent, to the proposition that India is in a certain part of the earth, and that Great Britain is an island.

Newman was not, it is clear, claiming that he had walked or sailed all the way around Great Britain, but everybody with need of an opinion asserted it to be an island, and the maps confirmed it, presumably because some cartographer performed the circumnavigation so that the rest of the world wouldn’t have to.

When I first came across the Great-Britain-is-an-island example, I thought it an insightful way to place knowledge on a continuum that can span from the theological to the physical.  With Sandy Island, we have a physical place that actually isn’t.  What policy-related truths, I wonder, do people hold based on even more illusory testimony?

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