Failing Schools: Not About Poverty, Parents

It boils down to one thing, says educator Steve Perry: teachers' unions.

Steve Perry (CNN)
Steve Perry (CNN)

Steve Perry thinks you’ve been lied to. The CNN education contributor says that nearly every common premise used to explain underperforming schools — the challenges of poverty, a lack of parental involvement, an underfunded public system — is false.

As the principal of the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., which sends 100 percent of its mostly black and Latino students to four-year colleges, Perry argues that every American child can have those same chances. We know what works. The only thing standing in the way of progress, he says, is the control that teachers’ unions wield over the entire system. In his new book, Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve — Even If It Means Picking a Fight, Perry pulls no punches in showing the problems and makes his case for the solutions.

The Root spoke with Perry about fighting for school choice, his disappointment in President Obama’s reform efforts and why he doesn’t care about hurting teachers’ feelings.

The Root: What does the subtitle of your book, “Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve — Even If It Means Picking a Fight,” refer to? What are you calling readers to do exactly?

Steve Perry: To do something. Those people who say that they care about kids have become more concerned about hurting adults’ feelings — hurting the feelings of teachers, principals and the people at the Board of Education — and not wanting to blame anyone. That’s crap. Power is not conceded without a fight, and there’s a lot of power on the line here.

There’s the absolute control of our children’s education by a privately run organization, which is the teachers’ union. They control American public education. They control the length of the school year and school days, how much people get paid, when they get vacation days and how we can evaluate them. They control the entire industry.

TR: But many teachers feel like they’re unfairly blamed for all the failings of our education system, and that we should consider multiple factors such as poverty and parental involvement. You call these excuses. Why?

SP: Because there’s no evidence to prove that a child who’s poor can’t be educated at the same level as someone else. There’s no proof that any family factors make a child harder to educate. As I look out the window of my school and see a liquor store and a thrift store, we know that we don’t get to pick from where the children come. We just have to focus on getting them to where they need to be.

Education is the single most effective method of removing poverty from the family experience. Education is the antidote, and great teachers are the syringe through which the antidote is delivered.

TR: Another idea that you challenge is the belief that inner-city schools get less money than those in more affluent neighborhoods. How is it that inequitable resources for school infrastructure and new technology are less of a problem than we think?

SP: Simply because someone doesn’t take care of the school doesn’t mean they don’t have the money to do so. In Hartford, one of the lowest-performing school systems in the state, we spend $14,000 per pupil. Greenwich, Conn., one of the wealthiest and best-performing public school systems in America, spends $14,000 per pupil. [Editor’s note: According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, net expenditures per pupil were $17,525 for Hartford and $17,675 for Greenwich for 2009-2010.]

 Some schools have so many other people there to mitigate the failures of what’s happening in the classroom. They may hire more security officers and create a full-on security force in the building. But when kids are in the classroom learning, they’re not acting up.