Parents Don't Have a Lot of Patience for Theory

Today on the blog I interview Chris Stewart. Chris is a father whose work as an education advocate was spurred by his frustration with the quality of middle schools in his neighborhood. I met Chris a few years ago through his work as a community organizer, while he was executive director of the African-American Leadership Forum in Minnesota. He now works on outreach at Education Post, and we serve on a board together. He tweets @citizenstewart and has a great blog and podcast. In other words, the man has a versatile social media platform game.

Me: How did you become an education advocate?

Chris: Personal experience. It was more emotional for me than anything else. I didn’t really understand how bad my own education was until my twenties. I became a dad at twenty-two. Everything I figured out then about opportunities for my own kid made me realize that I needed to do a better job than anyone had done for me. I was working in the service industry at the time, hotels mostly. When I had a kid, I thought, “Man I gotta figure this thing out.” I didn’t even know a thumbnail sketch of what I know now.  I’m a guy who got a crappy education and I knew I had to do better with my own kid, that’s it.

It didn’t become a big deal until my first son was in 6th grade, because in 7th grade, the options ran out. For kindergarten I got him into a public school in a different part of town that was way better than the one in our neighborhood. Once he got to middle school, the choices ran out. His wealthier friends got into a magnet school. When he didn’t get in, I had a moment of panic.

“I’m gonna ruin my kid.”

“I’m a lousy dad.”

“Why don’t I have money?”

Me: You start to blame yourself for the lack of a good school in your neighborhood.

Chris: Right. I tried to get him into a private school, but that would have doubled my monthly expenses and that’s with the “poor people’s discount” they offered me. They told me “We value diversity, we will totally make it work for you financially.”

I was like, “That’s the POOR people package?” I basically would have had two rent payments all of a sudden.

Me: You felt stuck.

Chris: Yeah, until someone took me to visit a particular charter school that was so much like the private schools I had seen, which was right for me. Not necessarily right for everyone, but right for me and my kid. I enrolled him immediately. I really didn’t know what a charter school was, and I thought they were eventually going to send me a bill. I had no idea it was free, and I was really worried there was a catch.

But there wasn’t. And my own kid’s experience started everything for me. I brought six other parents with me to that school, because I realized how difficult it was for me to find this option, and I didn’t want other parents to have to try that hard. I found this school through some serious gymnastics, and I kept thinking, “Why is it this crazy? Why is it a secret?”

Me: It seems like your experience with education policy has very little to do with any “theory of change” or academic take of the subject and everything to do with your own experience in the world. How does that make you approach problems differently?

Chris: Part of the problem with policy debates is the idea that I would choose a school on average versus an actual school. I got what I wanted for my kid, which was like the private schools I wanted but could not afford. When I did that, I had a lot of people tell me that my choice was hurting the system as a whole. That I shouldn’t do that because it affects the big picture. That’s unrealistic. When you’re living hand to mouth, and you’re working for rich people in the service industry like I was, the idea that I should “take one for the team” by keeping my kid in a weak school to help the whole system, that was ridiculous.

Me: I wrote about New Orleans earlier this week. You went to public schools in New Orleans and have been spending a lot of time there recently. Howard Fuller, who has been a formative influence on my own thinking, tells me he’s never seen anything more complicated. What do you see going on there?

Chris: The majority of schools in New Orleans are currently C- or D-rated schools. (Note: on a scale of “A” through “F.”) You would never put your kid in a D-rated school.

If only I could get complimentary shots while dining with everyone I profile on this blog ... Photo Credit: April Chou

If only I could get complimentary shots while dining with everyone I profile on this blog ... Photo Credit: April Chou

Me: I think some people would be confused at your full throated support for school choice in Minnesota and your problems with what’s going on in New Orleans.

Chris: That’s because we’re talking about theory versus reality again. I had a crappy education in New Orleans when I was a kid. The best part was the two years I did in Catholic school. I made an amazing amount of progress, then I went back to public schools. The schools are mostly charters now, but they still don’t pass the “would you put your own kids in these schools” test. The data speaks for itself. The reformers will say, “Well, they’re better than they used to be.” I don’t put my kids in a school that’s “better than it used to be.” These questions aren’t helping me as a parent. Is it a good school?

Me: Besides a school that’s not just “better” but actually “good,” what are parents in New Orleans looking for that they’re not getting now?

Chris: We have a rhythm to how we work with our kids in my house. So much of having kids is a planning nightmare. I have a college educated wife who helps me makes those rhythms work. In New Orleans you used to go to school down the street or across the street. It was a consistent product in terms of how you ordered your life, if not in terms of the quality of the education. Now kids are getting on buses in the dark, coming home in the dark.

Me: It’s inconvenient. Parents in wealthier suburbs get both quality and predictability.

Chris: Right. One father talked to me about trying to enroll his kid in a school across town that was a B-rated school. He waited in line for three hours. He ended up getting in the B-rated school across town versus the C-rated school across the street. We ask people to go above and beyond to get their kids into schools in low-income communities.

And that father stood in line with 40,000 other people in the middle of the day to exercise school choice. They couldn’t handle the response. That’s his experience now with school choice. Waiting in line with 40,000 people. When I shared with folks that I thought this was problematic, the response I got from some reformers was “that happened one day, and we fixed it.”

Me: That one day is all that matters for that father.

Chris: And the 40,000 other parents that showed up that same day.

Me: Right, the theory of change makes sense until those 40,000 parents show up on that day.

Chris: The interesting thing about New Orleans is that the “alternative” to the old system is already the whole system. There needs to be more critical analysis of whether this new thing is enough. After ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars and reform, would we have thought D-rated schools would be close to the majority? Is that our metric? If that’s our metric, we need another ten years to get to C-rated schools. That’s another ten years and a couple of hundred million dollars. Is that really our goal, to fix the schools of NOLA in a half century with hundreds of millions of dollars for every letter grade? If you add up the philanthropy, we’re now spending thousands more per pupil against what was spent before the storm. And that gets you to D-rated schools. I’m not saying that it’s not better. I just hope that everyone, including the philanthropists and political supporters, have the will and patience to make sure it’s “good” and not just “better.”

Note: an earlier version of this interview contained the comment that the "majority" of New Orleans schools are rated a "D." The majority of schools are C- or D-rated based on recent data.