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Failing Schools: Not About Poverty, Parents

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.

TR: That said, you're an advocate for school vouchers, which President Obama opposes. He and many other Democrats argue that we should focus resources on fixing public education for all students instead of allowing only some students to attend private schools. What's your take on that perspective?


SP: Meanwhile, he and all those other Democrats don't send their kids to those same schools that they want to be patient about. The way I look at it is, at the end of the day, I'm a father. And if it's not good enough for my two sons, then it's not good enough for anybody's son.

It would be really hypocritical for me to stand in front of my community and extol the virtues of local neighborhood schools as I put mine in a car and send them the other way. The president hasn't always been president — and from the day he became a dad, he damn sure didn't send his kids to a local public school. How do you stand up for something that you don't even use?


The other thing is this. None of us advocating vouchers are saying that you make them available to some kids and not others. The only reason [vouchers are] available to some kids is because the teachers' unions, by virtue of their political clout, limit the number of seats. A school like ours has almost 2,000 kids on the waiting list. The parents have already said, "We want out of these schools," but we can't give them choices because [the unions] won't allow us to get more schools. They are in opposition to any form of choice.

TR: So instead of trying to improve public schools, are you saying we should abandon them?


SP: It's about going to the best school — it's not about public or private. I don't care about the designation of a school, whether it's charter, magnet, public, private. To me that's inconsequential. It's about what's the best school for that particular family.

Nobody asks a child, "Are you going to go to a public college or a private college? Are you going to go to the college that's closest to your house, or the one that's best for you?" We have a voucher program in education that has been in place for some time now — it's called student loans. It's called federal grants.


It's a voucher program that says you can take that voucher and go to any college that you can get into. And nobody says the college system is a failed system; it's still the best college system in the world. It's the reason why, no matter how bad our pre-K to 12 is, all over the world people are vying to get access to our colleges.

I want children to go to the best school — not keep a school open simply because it employs people. Closing failing schools is the best thing we can do. Children are not learning in them. Would you keep a hospital open that had a 29 percent mortality rate? No. But we keep schools open that have a 29 percent graduation rate.


TR: President Obama has encouraged other education reform ideas, such as expanding charter schools and tying teacher evaluation to student performance, through his signature Race to the Top program. What do you think of this approach?

SP: I think that the president is trying to change the flavor of the pizza by cutting off the crust. He has not taken up the fundamental change that needs to occur in public education. I say this sadly, as someone who wants him to do well. He has taken the traditional Democratic route, which is to focus on the teachers. For instance, just last week he announced that he wants to improve schools by stopping teacher layoffs. One doesn't equal the other. His focus is still on the adults.


In the lion's share, he's not publicly chastising the teachers' unions for what they have done to create a failed school system. He won't acknowledge that they protect teachers who haven't been educating for generations, and blame poor communities for being poor. So his policies fall flat.

TR: One thing that most people will agree on is the importance of parental involvement. Beyond standard tips like communicating with teachers and checking homework at night, is there something else parents should be doing to help their children succeed?


SP: Yeah, they should challenge the system that keeps holding them responsible for the failures of the system. I think they should stop allowing themselves to be the scapegoats for educators who have not done a good job of educating. Very often the argument is, "Well, we get kids who are so far behind." They're freaking 3 years old — are you serious?

At the latest, we get the kids at 5 years old. You have 6 1/2 hours, five days a week, for at least 187 days to teach them how to write their name and phonetically sound out words. The alphabet's only got 26 characters. It's not going to take an entire year to teach a child that.


They say that black parents don't care. I did the Steve Harvey Morning Show the other day, and I got 100 emails from those same black people that supposedly don't care. I have an email from a parent who said, "I've been made to feel like it's my fault that my kid's failing, but I'm doing everything that I know how to do. I do sit down with my kid and go over homework, but I don't know how to do chemistry any more than he does. So when it's wrong, it's wrong. But you're going to blame both of us for not knowing how to do chemistry?"

Parents need to make sure they communicate their concerns to their teachers when they feel like their child's needs are not being met. From a systemic approach, they need to attack the limitations of the radius-based school placement. This is 2011. There's no reason why a child should be forced to go to the school closest to their house.


TR: Do you feel optimistic that these big systemic changes will happen?

SP: I know it's going to change. Dr. King said it: No lie can live forever. I am so optimistic because once upon a time, there were only a few successful schools. But that's not always the case. We have generations of successful schools now, both that serve the wealthy and the poor. By the way, those schools that traditionally serve the wealthy have taken poor students in, and those same students are no longer poor. The only difference between those poor children and others is where they went to school.


Are we going to say that the imaginary line that separates a suburban school from an urban school is a real line, that it's like the Berlin Wall to education? That if you can't afford to live in this neighborhood, then your kid is damned to poverty? It just can't be. But I promise you, we'll win. In our lifetime we will see this change.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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