Tag Archives: diversity

On Diversity

9 Apr

At times, I’ve complained that words like “liberal” and “conservative” have been so overused to mean so many different things that they’ve been drained of all meaning. Another such word is, without a doubt, diversity. It’s a very delicate topic, as it addresses identities that people sometimes take to be the core of their very existence, and is broad enough to encompass so many different spheres of life. Race is the most commonly mentioned aspect of diversity, but faith, regional identities, socioeconomics, and sexual orientation all come into play.

Just in the past week and a half, it’s been everywhere. From Stephen Colbert to Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, from the grandiose debates of bloggers like Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates to a scuffle over the owners of a market in Portland, all the way down to anti-bullying legislation and a Condoleeza Rice speech here in Minnesota, this sort of thing fascinates a segment of our population. (Another, probably larger segment could care less, though those who care will point out, not without some reason, that this is a large part of the issue.)

The debate is especially ubiquitous in the academy, and from there, it tends to flow easily into journalism and the arts. There are endless debates about affirmative action, of course, and questions about the diversity being brought in. Most every university has what might be called a diversity lobby, constantly pressuring the administration to recognize the unique plight of groups that do not constitute the majority. Core curricula have collapsed under the push to recognize voices from every corner, and the humanities are now filled with a vast array of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-focused departments. For the voices within those departments, it’s a golden age of recognition; the trade-offs come in the cacophony of voices from different corners that are now fighting for attention, and in the struggles faced by those who do not fall easily into one of those categories, or who would prefer to transcend it all.

This much is true: diversity does not yield harmony. Social science even backs this up: much to his displeasure, Harvard Scholar Robert Putnam found a correlation between diversity and lower levels of social trust and civic participation. Diversity is challenging. Frankly, it should be, if we’re going to give different backgrounds in life the respect they deserve. Diversity makes the world rich and interesting, but it is also at the root of so many conflicts.

Diversity should also not be confused with tolerance. Consider this paradox: “to have a tolerant society, we cannot tolerate racism.” I’m not saying that’s wrong; extreme tolerance leads itself to an empty form of moral relativism, and moral standards are probably necessary to protect diversity.  But in setting up those standards, we do need to recognize that we are indeed abandoning some measure of tolerance. Liberalism (in the broad sense of the word) aspires to neutrality because its adherents recognize it’s the most sensible way to live in a diverse world, but it is not perfect, and it is not and never will be fully neutral. Liberals are often guilty of failing to make that distinction, and their commitment to diversity and their commitment to freedom of speech and expression is in ongoing tension. Some of the least tolerant people I have ever met, people who wage eternal war against anything and anyone who disagrees with them, are self-professed fighters for equality and inclusion. It’s almost funny. Almost.

This is all compounded by modern discourse, which is filled with what I rather inelegantly like to call “outrage porn.” You can find this on any issue, of course, and every cause has its provocative radicals, but it is especially ironic when the anger is brought on by proponents of “diversity.” Social media gets much of the blame for its trolling, inane debates, and like-minded echo chambers of affirmation, though in many respects the traditional media, trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle with lots of things that are not newsworthy, is by far the biggest culprit. The emphasis is on calling out the offender, and rarely on actually doing anything to rectify the problem (if it is indeed a problem), save maybe a vague call for “dialogue” on one’s own terms. Everyone yells about what a horrible or misguided person so-and-so (whom they have probably never met, and never will) must be, complaining on and on until they reach the climax, go through a bit of catharsis, feel the pleasure of release, and then it’s over. Vicarious righteousness. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.

It’s tiresome, and it strains people and relationships without ever attacking the roots of whatever malaise might be at play. I’m not saying there aren’t some things worth decrying at the top of our lungs, but the amount of noise makes it nearly impossible to separate the worthwhile causes from the rest of the din. Not only that, the emphasis on hearing many different voices means that no one really agrees on the things that are worth decrying. The trouble is not the sentiment but the instrument used to achieve it, and too often that instrument is a crude bludgeon that just leaves destruction and deeper misunderstanding in its wake.

A recent graduate school application asked me to write an essay on how I might contribute to the diversity of the campus. Not necessarily the easiest task for a straight white guy with college-educated parents from the very white and comfortable side of a town in northern Minnesota. This essay was primarily for a series of diversity-based fellowships (none of which I qualified for, nor expected to), but I still had a point to make to the admissions committee. In short, diversity isn’t found by checking boxes. It’s found in observing life, and in living it. Go stand at the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth, the heart of this supposedly homogenous city, and try to wrap your head around the variety you see, and imagine what must lie behind it all. If you can, you’re probably cheating. It’s too complicated. And that complication deserves respect: recognition that there is a story behind everything, no matter how tortured the logic behind it may be, and while they may be important constituent parts, chopping those stories up and making them all about race or faith or a single key life event is an impoverished view of humanity.

I’m running the risk of turning this into a “we’re all special in our own little way” essay, which irks my inner cynic. Those stories mean we humans are never blank slates, and that will naturally include plenty of prejudices, along with a bunch of other things, good or bad or both or neither. Diversity is messy; diversity is hard. It takes time, and no one who believes in diversity for its own sake should be in any rush to impose a purity test. And then, when we do decide a battle is worth fighting, we might be able to generate a response worthy of the task at hand.

A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth

18 Oct

My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue.

First, I want to clear something up that I didn’t mean to suggest, especially with my overly vague title: I certainly wasn’t trying to throw all charter schools in one big pot. In large urban areas, I can certainly see how charter schools can be and have already been helpful, though I also don’t pretend to understand the education debate in those cities well enough to come to a good conclusion. For my friends out there in Teach for America who are employed in charter schools, keep doing what you’re doing. I just hope you can see the nuance in this debate, which I think reveals the dangers of abstraction in education. Whenever someone says a certain type of school—public, private, charter, whatever—is the problem or the solution, you should be suspicious. This is a complicated debate, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and little reason to believe that what works in New York is the same thing that works in Memphis or Muncie or a small town in Kansas.

My intent was to address Duluth, Minnesota in 2013, and nothing else. Perspective is in order, and an understanding of the diversity of experiences is in order. That’s what set me off about the original “Dish with Trish” piece (since removed from the Reader website, I now see) more than anything: her own perspective was the only one that mattered, and she declared that ISD 709 “sucked” for her, and therefore must suck for everyone else, even though this is (a) patently untrue and (b) is of absolutely no constructive use for figuring out the future of education in Duluth.

With that in mind, I got three good responses from people with unique insights into the situation here.

My first correspondent was a fellow Duluth East alumnus who went to Edison schools through 8th grade. He had a very fair beef with my insinuation that Edison would hurt diversity (broadly defined) in Duluth schools. I did know that Edison has a fairly high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, but at such a small school, I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily a good proxy for diverse family backgrounds: after all, there are plenty of engaged and well-educated parents who just don’t make a lot of money. (Maybe they’re single-income families, maybe they’ve chosen fulfilling jobs that don’t pay much, maybe they were English majors, etc. I’m a living example here: I got a Pell Grant, but my parents both have advanced degrees, and it would be laughable to call my childhood “working class” or something along those lines.) My correspondent, however, assured me that the kids at Edison during his days there ran the gamut of possible backgrounds; most went on to Duluth Central, he said, and he could name plenty of former classmates who went on to become teenage parents or even went to prison.

My friend had plenty good things to say about Edison, and thought the school did pretty well for what it had to work with. He didn’t particularly want to be at Edison and was happy to head to East for high school, though as a hockey player, he already had friends at East who helped make his transition easy. He said he wouldn’t send his own kids there unless there was a substantial gulf between it and the public schools, and didn’t appear to think the schools are at that point right now. He also agreed that an Edison High was not in the best interests of Duluth as a whole.

He also raised a good point that seems to have been forgotten in all of this: Duluth already has a charter high school! Harbor City has been up and running for a while now. I guess my question to the Edison people is, what would an Edison High offer that Harbor City doesn’t? Is there simply not enough room at Harbor City, or is there something deeper at work here?

It’s also worth noting the time he was at Edison: the early 00s, long before the Red Plan debates began. When I mentioned that, he said he did think there has, perhaps, been a change in Edison’s mission in recent years, whether the people who are running the school realize it or not. On a similar note, Harry Welty noted that the situation currently confronting Duluth schools was “unimaginable” when Edison was first set up. My friend’s comments invite a lot of questions over the Edison mission, and I’m genuinely curious to know the answers. The school may have been diverse in 2003, but how have things changed since the Red Plan flights began, and how will it look in 2023? Perhaps Edison may not want to think of itself as being in direct competition with ISD 709, but in a city of this size, it’s inevitable. How does Edison choose which applicants get in, and does it just shrug its shoulders at the kids who don’t end up there? If more families try to “flee” the “issues” in ISD 709, who gets let in? Considering that one of these two districts gets public funding without needing to endure levies or contentious school board meetings or Keith Dixon or Art Johnston, how does the endgame possibly look good for ISD 709? I can imagine a few answers to that question, but I want to hear them from other people, too.

While it obviously isn’t Edison’s fault that ISD 709 has some issues, it does share a community with that District, and it has some responsibility to work with the District, not against it. I think school choice is great when it meets needs that public schools do not, and I’m glad people are happy at the K-8 Edison schools. (See an older post of mine on publics versus privates here.) Edison can be great for this city if it is a complement; the troubles will begin if it comes to be seen as a substitute. As I said at the end of the last post, we’re all in this together.

Harry Welty followed up on the Dish with Trish on his blog, and adds some kind words about me on the end. His perspective on white flight into charter schools is an interesting addition to the conversation, and it will be interesting to see if Edison—which is fairly racially diverse (by Duluth standards) right now—remains that way. And while the racial element is important, I also think Duluth’s racial homogeneity can hide other divisions within the community.

Finally, I heard from someone who has more knowledge of the financial details of a possible sale of the old Duluth Central to Edison than I do. Here are my informant’s thoughts, with this person’s permission:

[T]he idea that Edison will get a high school may be an inevitability, but who is to say that they will get off the ground in the near future?  As far as I can tell, there is no building around here suitable for a high school outside of the property that our district owns. It would take Edison at least 4 years, maybe up to 6, to build a building from the ground up. They need to find land, purchase it, develop plans, get bids, get permits, etc, etc, etc. We currently send 1.4 million of public school funding to Edison every year. In the event they purchase Central, it’s conceivable that they could be off and running by September 2015. If they have to do it on their own, it’s likely they won’t have a school till at least 2018, maybe 2019. Assuming they have around the same number of students, that’s an additional 1.4 million for 4 years that would be sent to Edison that otherwise would have stayed in our schools. That 12 million we get from them for Central won’t look nearly as good if you have to subtract 5.6 million of lost revenue over that span of time when they otherwise wouldn’t have had a high school. 

Of course, that isn’t going to satisfy the people who are upset that they’re being taxed to maintain Central and just want that off the books as soon as possible, but if these people take the long view, selling for minimal profit now will only exacerbate financial problems later on, and we’ll be having a war just like this one a few years down the line. From the District’s financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to wait for another buyer; the question is, how quickly do they think that buyer can come along, and how much longer will this process drag on?

It’s hard for the District to win here, but this city has to come up with a coherent vision for the future of its public schools. Sorry, Marcia Stromgren: public education isn’t going away anytime soon, and even with an Edison High, the public schools will be inextricably bound up in the city’s fate. We can fund them with the levies, vote for dedicated candidates who will dialogue with us citizens, and watch the Board to make sure the money ends up in the right places. Or we can vote them down and somehow pretend that 50 kids in a classroom is “justice,” or that this will teach a school board full of people who were not around when the Red Plan was implemented a lesson about having implemented the Red Plan. It’s your choice, Duluth.

Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind

12 Oct

My dad and I are in southern Wisconsin this weekend, visiting my grandmother for her 87th birthday. The impromptu family reunion has been a rewarding one, as I’ve been reunited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. My dad was the only one of my grandmother’s children to go to college, and without belaboring the details, let’s just say I grew up in an entirely different world from my cousin. It wasn’t the smoothest of meetings, especially since neither of us is all that extroverted, but we shared some laughs and found some common ground. I’m damn proud of that, and I wish I’d found a way to say more.

What on earth does this have to do with education? It’s simple. It made me wonder about her education, and even more importantly, about her 13-year-old son, whom she had while she was still in high school. I’ve never met the kid; he lives in Colorado, and my cousin doesn’t have custody over him. But I care about him. Who’s looking out for kids like him?

On the drive down, I found myself reading a Duluth Reader Weekly column under the tagline “Dish with Trish” advocating the selling of Duluth Central to the Edison charter school system for a new high school. Her experience in Duluth public schools was the polar opposite of mine, and she refuses to acknowledge them as a contributor to her education. She rushed her children out of ISD 709 and into Edison. Her argument is a sloppy one that relies on silly cherry-picked examples about kids holding open doors for her; it lacks anything resembling nuance. But that doesn’t take away from the sincerity of her perceptions. She clearly thinks Edison offers a better future for her kids, and for her, that is all that matters.

The argument in favor of charter schools is a pretty sound one. “Charter schools create competition, and competition is good.” That makes complete sense. Institutions that never face any competition can easily become stagnant or mediocre. But here’s the thing: charter school populations are entirely self-selected. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. No wonder people gush about the community and engaged families at charter schools: describing them that way is practically tautological. If you are an engaged parent, it also makes complete sense that you’d want your child in an environment entirely surrounded by other children of such parents. Add in the ugly class sizes in ISD 709, and it’s a slam dunk. What’s not to like?

However, this nation has made a commitment to universal public education. Unless you want to go and throw that out, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that there are quite a few people out there for whom education is not a priority. Perhaps their parents are unwilling or unable to support kids to the extent they need; perhaps it’s a conscious rejection, and most likely it’s a complex web of socioeconomic and family and psychological factors. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but that fact can’t be wished away. These kids are still going to go to school, and it’s going to fall upon the public schools to educate them. Because of that, public school test scores will always face some burdens, teachers will always be frustrated by certain kids, and while these kids are certainly not doomed to be disruptive or “bad,” they have an unfortunate tendency to become the face of public schools. Public schools will never be able to compete with charter schools on a level playing field. Ever.

If you pull the engaged families and students out of the public schools, it leaves the public schools in a downward spiral that’s hard to escape. If parents never think their kids are going to public schools, they don’t bother to support school levies, and the funding dries up. Parent volunteers disappear, and booster clubs that give private support to public school programs go the way of the dodo. Class sizes get even bigger, even more kids are pulled out, forcing even more cuts, leaving behind those kids who are all too often left behind by society. I’m not saying this is destiny; there are some exceptional individuals who come out of even the worst schools, and committed leadership can turn around struggling schools. But this is the exception, not the norm. Throwing up one’s hands and praying some good leaders will come along isn’t a winning strategy.

You would think that most liberal-leaning people respect the need to support the entire community, and to fight for public schools. (I won’t pretend to know Trish’s political allegiances, but aside from a few stray anarchists, social libertarians, and Harry Welty, I don’t think the Reader has ever run anything by anyone who isn’t somewhere on the leftward end of the political spectrum.) Duluth’s liberalism isn’t without its downsides (as with any political ideology), but it has allowed for relatively generous support for public institutions over the years. And yet, with our public schools going through a troubled time, the reaction of so many community-oriented people has not been to fight for that community, but to flee in search of something else.

I don’t say this in spite or judgment. It’s only human nature to care deeply about our children before anyone else, and I’m not among the cosmopolitan idealists who think we can or should get rid of that. When I try to weigh the moral implications of something, I often use my hypothetical future children as my test: would I let my children go here or do that? I certainly wouldn’t send them to one of the miserable inner-city schools I saw in Washington DC just to make a political point. (For new readers, I went to college in DC before coming home to the city I love most.) Duluth, however, isn’t there yet. Some perspective is in order: Duluth can still be rescued, if enough people pitch in and resist the atomizing tendencies that drive us all to pursue our own short-term personal interests at the expense of the communal good.

The problem with Duluth is that it’s small. Build a charter school and take 500 kids out of the Washington DC school district, and DCPS will keep on running (to the extent that it runs…) with fairly stable funding; there might be some ripple effects, but it isn’t going to reorder the entire situation. Take 500 kids out of a district that only has maybe 2800 high school students, and you have a potentially huge disruption. Duluth is small enough that the old cliché used by everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Rand Paul (in very different contexts)—“we are all interconnected”—really is true. Charter school parents may not like to hear this, but in Duluth, it’s true: your choices affect everyone else. The good news is that, in a smaller community, a movement to change the course doesn’t take a whole lot of people. We can make this happen.

In a community of this size, it’s impossible to imagine a sustainable social fabric without public schools. To their credit, Duluth public schools have programs for the kids who aren’t on the fast track on college that teach them skills that will get them employed after their school days are over. I don’t know how well these programs work, but at least the effort is there, and that is essential. Students who aren’t going to college need to know that they aren’t failures, and that there is a group of people who care about their futures. By keeping everyone in the same building, we recognize that interconnectedness, even if they’re tracked into very different sorts of classes. Tracking can make sure that the highest achievers can get the courses they need to go to the best colleges (it worked for me), and the kids in the middle can find a happy medium, too. Money and support flows in to everyone, and not just the select few who already have strong support networks. If you get enough stakeholders on hand to fight the good fight, the class sizes will fall to normal levels, and these schools can reach their very real potential.

You might call that an idealistic stance, but it’s an ideal rooted in acceptance of reality. The people in public schools are going to be our neighbors. Some of them might even be our relatives. If you’re a liberal, the need here should be obvious, Red Plan rancor be damned: there is no other way forward if you really do support an equitable society. If you’re a conservative, giving these kids a chance can keep them off the welfare rolls, and creates at least an avenue to welcome their families into a community that will allow them to escape the pathologies of the past. Of course it won’t work out for everyone. Human nature is what it is, and people will make mistakes or not listen or face obstacles that simply cannot be overcome. But it is not destiny. And public education, for all its faults, is, from a societal standpoint, the only cost-effective way to keep it from being destiny.

Yes, this requires some active parenting. It requires a bit more engagement, perhaps, as people band together to fight for their kids and confront the bloated bureaucracy and inane love-and-happy-thinking education-speak that plague many school systems. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for everyone that you share this community with, and for your own kids, too. Putting one’s children in a school that offers the whole gamut of students also broadens their horizons in ways that no self-selected charter school ever could. There is more to “diversity” than race or faith, after all. This is the world we live in. The empathy I feel for people from different backgrounds from mine does not come from the various service projects I’ve done among people from disadvantaged communities. It comes from living among them.

All of that said, I support the sale of the old Central High School to Edison. I can wish that all of the Edison parents are going to read my piece and change their minds, but I’m not delusional. Edison High is going to happen. I don’t like it one bit, but holding up some ideal in a desperate attempt to keep one’s hands off the inevitable is only going to hurt the district in the long run. Selling Central to Edison gives ISD 709 some chance to control the terms of the sale and cap enrollment, and I doubt it’s going to get a better offer for that financial black hole atop the hill. At the very least, Harry Welty’s lease idea could offer some sort of compromise. (Full disclosure: Harry and I did lunch after he read my last column on ISD 709.)

Antagonizing the charter school people even more certainly isn’t going to win them back, either. This is our future we’re talking about. We’re all in this together, even if we have some disagreements about methods. I hope Duluthians can come together and work some of these things out, perhaps over a drink or three. (I’d be happy to foot the bill, even on my underemployed recent college grad’s salary.) This town is unique because it has such a distinct communal identity; with enough effort, it has the potential to be exceptional. Getting there is going to require that people get out of their comfort zones, though. We’ll see if Duluth can pull it off.