I can’t shake the feeling that something important was going on at our School Board meeting last Monday night to consider the Madison Prep charter school proposal, and that the actual School Board vote wasn’t it.
The bare-bone facts are that, after about 90 public speakers, the Board voted 2-5 to reject the Madison Prep proposal. I reluctantly voted against the motion because I was unwilling to violate the terms of our collective bargaining agreement with our teachers.
After the motion failed, I moved that the Board approve Madison Prep, but delay its opening until the fall of 2013. My motion failed for lack of a second. (And no, I don’t have an explanation for why neither James Howard nor Lucy Mathiak, who voted in favor of the first motion, was willing to second my motion.)
Probably like most who attended Monday night’s meeting, I have thought a lot about it since. People who know I voted against the proposal have come up to me and congratulated me for what they say was the right decision. I have felt like shaking them and saying, “No, you don’t understand. We blew it Monday night, we blew it big time. I just hope that we only crippled Madison Prep and didn’t kill it.”
I appreciate that that’s an odd and surprising place for me to have ended up. To echo the Talking Heads, “Well, how did I get here?” I’ll try to explain.
Like most white Madisonians, I can’t claim to have much of a clue about the actual lives of African-Americans in our community. For me, one of the benefits of working on Madison Prep is that it parted the curtains a bit and allowed me glimpses of African-American experiences in Madison. I’m grateful that the passionate, opinionated and articulate speakers at Monday’s meeting bared a bit of their world for our view.
It struck me when listening to Monday’s speakers and others who have previously addressed the Board that we were visiting another land.
It’s a stressful and dangerous place:
- Where parents with older children mourn their losses and struggle with where the blame should lie for their children falling so far short of their potential.
- Where mothers are frightened to their core about what the future might hold for their young sons.
- Where a grandmother yearns to see her distant grandchildren but still urges her daughter to stay in Houston for her grandchildren’s sake rather than risk bringing them back to Madison.
- Where a wife demands of her husband that they uproot their family and leave Madison for somewhere on the east coast, where their children will have a better shot at success.
People like me don’t want to hear these stories. They clash with our comfortable images of idyllic Madison. And so we usually don’t. And when we hear them in isolation, we tend to resist them, or rationalize them away. I do, anyway.
People aren’t making this stuff up. At some point, when you hear the same basic point conveyed over and over in different shapes and forms, you are obligated to hear it, absorb it, and take it into account.
So this is the problem as I have come to understand it. Many African-Americans who are not newcomers to Madison perceive a pandemic of poisonous social forces pulling their children down, particularly their boys, and, despite best intentions, our Madison public schools have been virtually powerless to stop it.
With Madison Prep, some leaders from the African-American community propose that their community step up and take on part of the responsibility of schooling their children themselves.
Much has been written about Madison Prep, but relatively little about how old-school conservative the plan for the school is. It’s a pull-up-your-pants, take-off-your-hat, sit-yourself-down, and get-to-work sort of approach that someone like me, from outside the African-American community, would completely lack the standing to impose. There’s to be no-excuse learning, a challenging curriculum, mandatory sports and activities, longer school days and school years, uniforms, single-sex classrooms, parental responsibility and obligations.
There’s that fog of evil out there waiting to envelop Madison’s African-American children, and the design of the school is to erect as many bulwarks as possible to keep that fog at bay. I almost think that if they could pull it off, the Madison Prep supporters might prefer a boarding school so they could keep an eye on their students 24 hours a day.
Viewed through the lens of the perceived urgent need that called it forth, many of the criticisms of the Madison Prep proposal seem vacuous and condescending.
We couldn’t approve the school because it would be exploitive to allow African-American teachers to work for less than union wages, as if the teachers at Madison Prep would be incapable of making their own choices about where they are willing to work.
We couldn’t approve the school because it would be unfair to hold parents accountable for their level of involvement in the education of their children, as if opponents of the proposal weren’t complaining that the Urban League’s criticisms of the school district unfairly ignore the roles of parents in students’ learning.
We couldn’t approve the school because it would lead to segregation, as if white folks are always complaining that they don’t have enough Blacks around.
Uniforms would be too expensive for the families sought to be served. The school would have too many administrators. Classes would be too hard. The ACLU is frowning. The school district couldn’t spend money on this because we might need it for, well, I don’t know, for something. Blah, blah, blah.
After all that, the “couldn’ts” prevailed. I can’t help feeling that the vote came out the way it did not because of faulty analysis, but because of too much emphasis on analysis. The proposal certainly raised a host of issues, but too often we viewed those issues as excuses for saying no rather than as challenges to be solved. More, we saw the notes but missed the music. We simply weren’t able to appreciate and appropriately value all the emotional capital arrayed in the school’s support.
Lots of members of our African-American community forced us to confront how our schools are failing their children. They asked – sometimes not so politely – for our approval to try something new that might help, to endorse a proposal that had garnered unprecedented offers of assistance from the community. We said no.
We should have found a way to make it work. We should have found a way to make it work and we just didn’t.
So, the plan to redirect the wave of support towards opening a smaller-scale, privately-funded Madison Prep next fall seems like a logical next step. I hope the school succeeds; as should we all. I wasn’t able to vote in favor of sending public money to the school for the first year, but I’ll donate some of my own now.
The ultimate goal has to be the conversion of the school from private status to an MMSD charter school. It is conceivable that this could happen for the school year beginning September, 2013, which would be consistent with my un-seconded motion. Whether that’s in the cards will depend in significant part on the outcome of the School Board elections this April.