Monday, December 12, 2011

Rock, Voucher, Scissors: Saving Carl Won't Be that Easy

RECENTLY, I HAD A CHANCE TO TALK to a former student, now teaching first grade in a Southeast Ohio school district. She works diligently at her craft and tries in every way she can to help her young charges.

She’s a little testy when she hears another story about “what’s wrong with America’s teachers.” She knows there are bad teachers. She’s not blind. I taught 33 years, myself. I’m not blind to that reality either. 

Still, when you hear Governor John Kasich in Ohio or some leading school reformer talking about how more vouchers and more charter schools will cure all problems in education, well, if you’re a teacher, it starts to grate on your nerves. 

Here’s a situation my former student currently faces. In her class she has a boy who doesn’t talk. To be exact:  he doesn’t talk much to peers, to adults normally not at all. One of his classmates comes up to her (we’ll call her Ms. Smith) occasionally, and says, “Miss Smith, Carl talks to me.”  

Otherwise, the six-year-old is a selective mute. He could talk but chooses not to. 

At first, Smith and various therapists assumed Carl had an anxiety disorder. If they could help him relax he might improve. Smith provides a nurturing classroom environment and has been breaking through on rare occasions. There’s a long road ahead and the journey is painful and slow.

A few days ago the boy’s great uncle stopped by to speak to her. “I don’t want to talk behind my niece’s back,” he began, “but I need to explain the situation at home. Carl was born with cocaine in his system and his mom has been an addict most of her life.” 

Miss Smith has been teaching for eight years, in a poor district, and though every suffering family suffers in its own unique way, she’s heard this kind of story before. She listens while the uncle continues:  “Mom has had one child taken away by Children’s Services. [Like Carl, his sibling was born with drugs in his system had to suffer withdrawal pains while in the crib.] We’re trying to help her keep Carl, but the drugs have damaged her thinking. She’s like a child and we have to watch her all the time. Until recently, my niece was broke and she and the boy were living out of a cheap motel.”  

“It’s been a struggle,” the uncle admitted. At that point, he began crying. 

Ms. Smith is a good teacher—the vast majority of the people who staff our classrooms are. So she’s not giving up and does everything in her power to help. 

It’s kind of disheartening, though, for her to keep reading about how vouchers and charter schools will solve all the problems in America’s schools. 

I'm ready to make
the bet.
Ms. Smith is too busy trying to help real kids to make this kind of promise. But I’m a retired teacher and willing to make a bet. I don’t believe anyone out there, not even U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, can explain how a school voucher, a single sheet of paper, allowing Carl to change schools, or a charter school, itself, is going to shield this poor boy from more of the same kind of cruel vicissitudes he has so far met with in a very short life. 

A “parent voucher” might help, instead. Carl often begs his uncle to adopt him, but his uncle is poor, and too old to start over raising a six-year-old. Even a “housing voucher” might help.

A school voucher?

If you can show me how a chance to change schools is going to solve this child’s problems, I’ll eat a school voucher and won’t even bother to wash it down with beer. 

P. S. This sort of situation is far from rare and in the end there’s not a syllable of humor in it. If you’re Ms. Smith or any other dedicated teacher you want to hear experts in education outline a plan to really help these kids.

According to the New York Times, nearly 1 in 10 babies born in Scioto County, in Southern Ohio, last year tested positive for illegal drugs in their blood. 

In 2008-2009, the U. S. Department of Education estimated that there were 954,917 homeless children in this country.  

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg, the billionaire school reformer, says the real problem in education is that teachers are culled from the bottom 20% of college graduates, and not from the best schools. Bloomberg, a Harvard graduate himself, and therefore an expert in helping poor children, is thinking about buying a modest home in Southampton, a 22,000 square foot place nestled on 35 acres.  

Maybe the mayor could find room in his “cottage” for a couple of homeless kids.


  1. OK, so vouchers won't help Carl, but they might harm teachers unions and impoverish teachers, so...

  2. The word "union" does not appear in this post. The idea that unions are the problem in American education is shaky on all kinds of levels. Miss Smith's union membership is not a hinderance in her dealings with this little boy. Carl doesn't need a voucher--or a non-union teacher. He has no father in his life, and his mother is a mess. What he needs most is help outside of school.

    John J. Viall

    John J. Viall

  3. Hmmm I noticed on this post you posted a photo of Budweiser beer.

    They are union and they have a large brewery in Columbus, Ohio.

    Back in 1979 I had a awesome American History teacher who taught us students to think outside the box.

    I remember this teacher telling us a story of a person who was killed by having stones placed on him. (I don't remember the gentleman's name) but while the AWESOME HISTORY teacher was telling the story the man before dying was asked "Do you have anything else to say" He said "Add more weight".

    Anyhoot this teacher constantly talked about thinking outside the box and making your own mark in this world.

    Skip forward I start working for Miller Brewing in 1991 (Now MillerCoors) and for years I had this idea to do what I could to help save this awesome planet that folks like to bike, hike, camp, bird watch, etc. a better place.

    So at the end of 2007 I thought outside the box and wrote a 5 year business plan to make the Ohio Trenton brewery 100% UAW union the first major brewery 10 million barrels in the world to become 100% Landfill free. In 2007 we sent 56 tons per month to the Rumpke Landfill in Cincinnati.

    In 23 months and 17 days we achieved our 60 month business plan and became the 1st major brewery in the world to be landfill free.

    So those American teachers who can grab the kids who are shy and afraid to speak their mind and help mold them to become extraverts and speak up with new ideas I thank you!!!! (Especially those three teachers and one principle that helped me in my developmental years (Mr. Viall, Mr. Huasterman, Mr Poe, and Mr. Lenny) THANK YOU!!!!!

    Kelly Harris

  4. Thanks, Kelly, what a great comment.