Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Dr. Ben Chavis, School Reform, and the Pedestals We Stand On

There's a fellow by the name of Dr. Ben Chavis who has had some remarkable success running charter schools in Oakland. By one measure, his American Indian Charter School II is the second best school in all of California. It's the kind of story that catches the eye of those interested in school reform, like the Freedom Foundation doing a 12-part vidcast with him in the summer of 2009, or Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center calling Dr. Chavis the kind of principal we need, or the conservative State Policy Network inviting him to be their luncheon keynote in 2007.

So why is he in the news today?
Oakland school district staff has recommended the Board of Education deny the renewal application of American Indian Charter School II based on preliminary findings of a state audit. If denied, the public school would close after this academic year.

The financial allegations involve more than $1 million in public funds funneled to the school's founder, Ben Chavis, and his wife, Marsha Amador, for rent, consulting, construction projects and other questionable payments with little to no oversight by the school's own board.
If only we had more Ben Chavises in the world. If only we had more leaders with the vision and the courage to pay themselves $280,000 a year to allow the school they founded to lease the building they own. If only.

It's stories like these that set school reform way back. Any time a Ben Chavis flames out spectacularly and unapologetically ("Chavis said Monday that everything he did was for the students, and said that he only conducts business "differently."), when that narrative of folks like Eva Moskowitz being in the game mainly for the money they can make takes hold, school reform loses. Rod Paige rose to be Secretary of Education on the basis of a Houston Miracle that never happened, and that's pretty much the story of Secretary Duncan as well.

I've been told that I've become much more of a shill for the teacher's union in recent years, and that's likely true. Before I became president of my local, in those happy, heady days when I was "just" a classroom teacher, it was very easy to look at ed reform in the abstract and say, "You know, that sounds like a great idea!"

In the years since, though, I have been exposed to some of the absolute worst abuses in the system. I have seen principals act capriciously, stupidly, and vindictively to ruin a really good teacher who ended up leaving the system entirely because they broke her spirit. I've seen groups like the League of Education Voters decide that teachers really are to blame, and that if we link a test testing built on a foundation of sand to their evaluations that will make things better. Stand for Children and certain members of the legislature (I'm going to call you out by name on this one, Rep. Dahlquist) want me to demand the best and push for excellence, then have 5th grade students weigh in on what my evaluation should be. I didn't move away from ed reform, ed reform moved away from me and other classroom teachers at a breathtaking pace, and I don't know if the pendulum is ever going to swing back.

When we stop looking for 1 or 2 big miracles and start focusing on the million little miracles that happen in our schools every day, we'll all be better for it.

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