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A Call for Rescuing our Kids & Schools

In his upcoming book, Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education" (Palgrave Macmillan Books), Daily News staff writer Joe Williams shows how parents can put children first and shine light on the special interests controlling our schools, where politics and pork infuse everything and our children's education is compromised.

He argues that increased accountability and choice are necessary and shows how the people can take back the education system. The solution is a new brand of hardball politics that demands competence from school leaders and shifts the power away from bureaucrats and union leaders to the people who have the greatest reason to put kids first: concerned parents.

In March 2000, a suburban Florida woman named Carol Goings complained to Seminole County school officials that a special education teacher had walloped her disabled daughter on the head. The mom sent a four-page letter detailing her complaints of child abuse to the school principal and began discussing her concerns with other parents and administrators.

Faster than you can say "cease and desist," Goings was forced to back off after she was threatened with legal action by the state teachers union, which decided the mother was out of bounds. Union lawyer Pamela Cooper fired off a letter to Goings threatening to take legal action for harming the teacher's reputation. The letter ended with a stern warning in all capital letters: "PLEASE GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY."

Goings quietly withdrew her allegations because she wasn't prepared to wage a legal battle with one of the most powerful special interests in the state. The world likely would have never learned about the allegations had the teacher not landed on the front pages of Florida's newspapers four years later, accused by authorities of beating and humiliating other autistic students. Authorities accused the teacher of sitting on some students, knocking out one child's teeth by smashing his head into a desk, and pushing another's face into vomit.

The case, and the attention it gathered, brought out of the woodwork a long list of parents and students who had quietly complained to school officials over the years of the teacher's actions. It also shed light on one of the dirtiest little secrets in public education today: Parents who assert themselves in order to protect the interests of their children often are treated like the ones who are doing something wrong.

The expectations of parents are often sharply defined within the school system: Buy supplies for your child's class, raise money, bake cookies for fund-raisers and keep your mouth shut - unless, of course, we need you to pressure elected officials to give us more money, at which time we'll tell you where to send your letters and what telephone number to call.

As longtime Harlem school activist Babette Edwards told me, "They make you feel like you are the problem. It's all right if you have cake sales and all that, but when you ask why the reading scores haven't gone up in three years, or God forbid about something even more serious, then you have to be shut up."

Our once-heralded system of education in America has lost its way. Almost everyone agrees that the education system should exist to help children, but it has been captured by groups - teachers and other employees, politicians, philanthropists, higher education institutions, vendors, consultants, etc. - whose interests are protected and advanced through competent and powerful organizations, including unions, lobbying firms and even the major political parties themselves.

The public has just about exhausted its patience with school reform efforts that never seem to bear fruit, while the adults who feed off the system continue to make better lives for themselves along the way. Far more radical changes are needed to put real power in the hands of parent-consumers than most modern Democrats and Republicans have the guts to support.

The public can take back its runaway public school systems, but only if it is willing to help parents wrestle power away from the special interests. The system itself has proved that as long as it has no reason to put kids first, it will never, ever do so.

Parents, with help from the public, must provide a reason for the system to change, even if it involves scaring the daylights out of those with power. Unfortunately, nice parents usually play by a more genteel set of rules than the special interest groups inside the system, and their children pay the price.

This disconnect between the political parties and parents, particularly low-income and minority parents who, unlike many elected officials, can't send their kids to private schools, is a political time bomb waiting to explode.

Public education is either going to be about serving children or continuing to serve grownups. It is only a matter of time before frustrated parents start asking politicians and school leaders the question posed in the old labor song: Which side are you on?

Copyright Joe Williams, Daily News Staff Writer. Reprinted with permission.

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