Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Q and A: OPS Board Member Vin Lyon-Callo

We're very pleased to bring you a discussion with Okemos School Board member Vin Lyon-Callo.  Vin is serving his first term on the Okemos School Board and is a professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University. He has a son in 7th grade at Chippewa and a daughter in 4th grade at Bennett Woods.  Vin and his wife, Sarah, have lived in Okemos since 2002.  Vin answered our questions via email.

Q: In recent years we have seen a tremendous amount of legislation coming out of Lansing which makes decisions about how Okemos and other districts are run (third grade Read or Flunk bill, the Vouchers for Vendors provision of last year’s budget, mandating “merit pay” for teachers, etc.), and erodes local control of all districts.  Do you think the Legislature or local school boards should be making these kinds of policy decisions, and why?

It’s actually not an easy question.   It’s nice to think of local control as universally desirable, but let’s recall that segregation, teaching creationism as scientifically equivalent to evolotion (or the outright banning of teaching evolutionary theory), banning books, and separate but unequal education also are/have been  products of local control.  On the other hand, just south of us in Indiana we have a governor who is trying to enforce what authors can be taught in university classes (advocating the banning of Howard Zinn) and we have states and the federal government imposing standardized testing in the name of progress.   Perhaps there is no ideal balance, but there should be some basic standards that all students should benefit from in public schools and, beyond that, give teachers freedom to teach. The trick is finding the proper balance between local control, community standards, and universally desirable ideals.

Q: We have also seen individual districts and schools be entirely removed from local control through the use of Emergency Managers, the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and handing over to charter companies.  What do you think of putting districts and schools under state control in this way?

I find it shameful and embarrassing that such practices are allowed to occur.

Q: We have talked a lot about the EAA on our blog and in our emails recently. Do you support or oppose the EAA?

As presently constituted and functioning?  Of course not.  It’s a bad joke right now.  It’s based on a faulty premise that outside managers and private, for profit corporations will somehow transform the conditions in positive ways.  Let’s not ignore the fact that the children in those schools have not been doing well for many years, but I’d suggest that has much more to do with our broader failures as a society to create economically and socially sustainable communities where all children have a fairly equitable opportunity to thrive.  We are far from that and, thus, both the EAA and local control are simply distractions from the real work needed to create a just society.

Q: Some have the view that the EAA will only take over “failing” schools and so this is an issue that does not impact folks in Okemos, Haslett, and East Lansing.  Do you agree?

On the most basic level, the measures used to take over schools with emergency managers has much more to do with meeting financial conditions rather than academic performance.  The state sets guidelines and thus far local districts have managed to avoid that fate.  Okemos, Haslett, and East Lansing have continued to cut programs and decrease real compensation for staff for almost a decade while financial reserves continue to disappear.  We are not isolated from those pressures and could eventually fall into the situation.  Then, there is the concern that as emergency managers become more and more widespread, it may become much easier for that to eventually become the new common sense and become implemented more widely.  But, more fundamentally, I suggest that we all do better when we all do better.  We don’t live on an isolated island of privilege, but rather in a world full of other people.   Perhaps we’d all be better off if we created a situation where all children have an opportunity to thrive and make the most of their potential human capacity.  Pretending we are isolated from the broader community strikes me as callous, selfish, and misguided.  If we hope to reverse the current paths of increasing economic and environmental instability, we need to figure out ways of working together to create more sustainable global communities.  Of course, we can choose to just continue along the current path of increasing oppression for many with privilege for a few.  It works great at creating jobs in the incarceration industry.  But, that’s not the type of world I like living in.

Q: Often times those arguing for radical changes and experiments like the EAA and the Read or Flunk bill claim Michigan schools generally are failing.  Do you agree with that proposition?

Yes, I pretty much agree that many Michigan schools are generally failing but in very different ways than those advocating the EAA suggest. One obvious way that the schools are failing is in how the state funding system operates to institutionalize inequities by funding some districts more than others on the per pupil basis.  Most disturbingly, this unequal funding tends to exacerbate already existing inequities in that those districts that get more money per pupil tend to be relatively wealthier (for the data see:   http://www.senate.michigan.gov/sfa/Departments/DataCharts/DCk12_FoundationHistory.pdf

What message does it send when the state provides much more on a per pupil basis for students in Bloomfield Hills or Gross Pointe than for those in Detroit or Kalamazoo?  Is it because the children in those wealthier districts need the extra resources in order to overcome the challenges of growing up privileged? 

Related is the policy of allowing local school districts to fund themselves more with local bonds.  I know the argument is that those in that district are supporting their community, but why do we want to continue with such a narrow visioning of community?  It’s why I was so torn about the recent bond in Okemos.  It’s great that we can agree to tax ourselves to fund computer devices for the local schools, but what about those children who are in districts that can’t possibly afford such a practice?  Are they not our concern? Are they not part of our community too?   Doesn’t this just increase already existing inequities and opportunities between different children?  Is that really the message we want to be sending through our educational policies?  Institutional structures and regulations that reinforce already existing disparities are indicative of a failure to me.

But, perhaps the major problem is that so many school districts have cooperated with the embracing of standardized tests and the related curricular focus on so-called “core” subjects (which, ironically mirror the messages from the far right in the 1970s who advocated a return to “reading, writing, arithmetics”) and a consequent loss of creativity and critical thinking skills (for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’d strongly recommend Kenneth Robinson’s TED talk on “How Schools Kill Creativity”).  In Okemos, we at least maintain a strong music program, but I find the marginalization of art, philosophy, social science, language instruction, and science to be quite problematic.  How do we continue to not teach languages other than English until 7th grade (or, for that matter, computer programming or coding)?  How does it make sense to have a gifted and talented program so reliant on references to outside resources?  Is 600 students per counselor really ideal?  Are fewer school days than just about any other state or developed nation pedagogically sound?   So much of educational practices still focus on individualized learning and competition with little depth of critical exploration of subjects that students appear to be being taught more how to learn information that learn how to critically and intellectually engage the materials.  I see the results of that in my own classes as students coming to my university classes are increasingly excellent at spitting back what I tell them or writing to a rubric, but struggle with working together cooperatively or when asked to exhibit more creative thinking and writing. The thing is that none of these are really what any teacher or administrator I talk with want to do (many senior teachers will express real frustration with the recent trends if you talk with them privately); it’s the combination of pressures from inadequate funding, pressures to perform on standardized tests, and an increasing sense that education is primarily a form of training for employment that results in the failure of education.  So, I guess failure depends upon how you define success.  I’d like to see education that prepares students for lives as rich citizens able to take on the challenges of the 21st Century rather than just preparing them for competing in an increasingly exploitative labor market.

Q: As of September 56 Michigan school districts had budget deficits.  Some say local mismanagement and teacher compensation are to blame for these deficits.  What do you think is driving Michigan schools into deficit?

I am pretty sure that it’s not the development of new educational programs that is doing it.  School districts are experiencing financial distress because their costs are increasing faster than their funding.  In Okemos, for example, we have expenditures today of approximately 41 million dollars while expenditures were slightly more than 42 million dollars seven years ago.   Employees have not seen raises for many of those years, programs and staff have been reduced or cut, students and parents and the OEF have taken on paying for more,  class sizes have been increased, schools have been closed, bussing has been reduced, reserve funds have been spent, and properties have been sold.  Part of what has happened here has been a decrease in students which naturally reduces funding on a per pupil basis.  But, other expenses have increased (primarily health care and pension costs).    So, overall, districts are in difficult positions because the state government has been either unable or unwilling to provide funding consistent with the increased costs.   That’s the broader question though---why is the state unwilling or unable to afford the cost of at least maintaining the same level of support in inflation adjusted dollars?  I believe it’s part of a broader trend of neoliberal restructuring of life that has disastrous impacts on the lives of most people in the nation over the last thirty years.  It’s the promotion and embracing of policies and imaginings predicated on a misguided faith in the so-called free market, privatization, individualization, and deregulation.  The result has been a massive transfer of wealth into the hands of a tiny fraction of the population matched by an unwillingness to tax those with the wealth.  As most citizens become more financially insecure, emotional insecurities increase as well which lends credence to an increased security apparatus through the criminal justice system.  Take a look at state spending on “criminal justice” and compare that to education and public health.

Q:  The Snyder administration makes the claim that it has increased funding to K-12 education.  Is this a fair statement?

Sure, the administration can make that claim if you interpret the data in a particular way.  You could also easily provide alternative readings demonstrating how real K-12 spending has not increased during the Snyder administration (http://www.miparentsforschools.org/node/187) as the slight recent increases have yet to make up for the previous cuts.   Either way, it’s just not enough to cover the actual cost of providing high quality public education.   I was showing my son some information about a few private schools in New England this fall and how they go about educating.  He was impressed, but then asked a logical question: why can’t we make all schools for all children as good as the best private schools?  Of course, there is a cost to that type of education, but not much more than we spend per prisoner each year.  Or, Is it that we believe that only those able to pay the $45,000 tuition deserve that quality? 

Q:  Do you see a common theme with all of the education coming out of Lansing?

It’s difficult to know.  I’d like to assume that those advocating the education bills are genuinely interested in improving education.   But, who knows.   And, of course, it’s not just Lansing.   There are advocates in private foundations pushing for all sorts of problematic reforms while the Secretary of Education himself is very troubling in terms of his own agenda and policy recommendations.  So, it’s not just Lansing.  And, it’s not just Republicans or just Democrats.  There seems to be a desire to force changes to the schools, implement mandates without funding, and to punish unionized workers for daring to still lead middle class lives rather than to do the hard work of reducing the growing inequalities in the nation.  The disease is growing inequality and exploitation and the proposed remedies do all they can to avoid tackling that problem.

Q:  What can folks do to work toward more positive education policy?

Read, think, read, and think some more.   Talk with each other about how we might rebuild our nation and communities.  Rebuild the dream of crafting democracy.  Resist the easy answers and begin to work collectively to create a land where everyone is valued and valuable. 

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