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Why Some of You Will Hate Learning Curve, the New Education Blog at D Magazine

Donald Sutherland from Animal House

True story, with some specifics omitted to protect the innocent:

A group of teachers were chatting at a graduation ceremony last week when the subject turned to DISD’s home-rule initiative. (If you’re not up to speed, here’s a good primer by former Dallas Observer writer Patrick Michels for the Texas Observer.) These teachers were all longtime educators, bright, generally well-informed on education issues. They were shaking their heads at what a bad idea home rule is, noting it was simply a way for “rich people to monetize children.”

If you haven’t heard this phrase, then you haven’t paid attention to school reform debates the past several years. (And you certainly don’t read the work of anti-reform chief big dog Diane Ravitch.) It’s the mantra spouted by people who rail against all reform efforts (charter schools, montessori schools, school choice, vouchers, stricter teacher evaluations, you name it), people who say this is all about “the privatization of education.” Essentially, this is the song sung by people who think the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is committed to imposing great evil by trying everything it can to change our public schools for the better.

The teachers then turned to a colleague, someone who — this is where I have to be very generic — has a lot of experience in K-12 education. Someone who has been a teacher, an administrator, who has started schools, raised money for reform, trained teachers, someone who cares only about good data and improvement and facts on the ground and what works and kids kids kids and screw the politicians and the media who abuse and cover education because of course screw them. What I’m saying is, you’d like this person.

In response, this person asked the other professors a simple question: “Who exactly is getting rich off home rule?”

They all chuckled. Naive fool! The rich are getting richer! Hands in the honey pot, they have! They even came up with a specific example: “That billionaire in Houston. The one backing the effort.”

That Houston billionaire is John Arnold.

This person tried not to laugh. “How is he going to make money off this?” he asked the teachers. “How in the world would he monetize children? And even if he could make money off this, which I doubt, the amount he made would be nothing to him.”

The camaraderie stopped. This person was shunned. The subject was dropped.

Because of course it was. People want to believe that rich people are trying to take over our school system and turn our children into little passive-income generators. I get that. It fits into a worldview that is comfortable. Trying to figure out how to fix our schools is a terrifying task. Really, it’s like 13-layer chess. Every move has powerful, often unintended consequences. And so when reform critics say reform efforts like the home-rule initiative are simply steps in the corporatization of our schools, that it’s rich people trying to monetize children, I understand where that comes from. It comes from the pain and confusion real reform takes. It’s easy to believe that most of the problems in the world come from rich people trying to screw us over, because a lot of them do.

You may believe all this is true, no matter my protests. If you can’t put that aside and evaluate the discussions we’re going to have with an open mind, you will really hate this blog.

But I’m optimistic that the loudest voices on this issue are a vocal minority. I’m going to ask the rest of you not to succumb to such lazy thinking. Work harder than that. Let’s start with the idea that John Arnold, who is worth $2.8 billion according to Texas Monthly, is trying to make money off this deal. Start by understanding the math involved: Let’s say he could somehow, I don’t know, swing a contract to a construction company who wins the bid on fixing up Harllee Elementary in Oak Cliff. Let’s say that company makes a $250,000 profit on its $840,000 bid for repairs and renovation because they cut corners or whatever. Then they pay Arnold $100,000. Let’s say he gets two or three of those deals. What has that done for him? He’s worth $3 billion! In context, if I were worth $3 million, it would be like me negotiating a deal where I could make $100. Not just once, but several times!

Let’s understand something else about this scenario. For it to be true that John Arnold doesn’t care about education but only cares about making a buck off poor dumb Dallas ISD, you have to believe two things:

1. That this dastardly genius decided he was going to somehow, some way make some cash by orchestrating a years-long plan in the most public of arenas in an area where his every move will be questioned, his character will be publicly assailed, and his every e-mail will be FOIA’d.

2. That you were smart enough to figure out his plan.

Nope. Sorry. Not gonna play that way. What I hope to do on this blog — for at least a year, that’s how long D and I have agreed to give it a shot, see if it makes sense in the overall scope of D‘s media empire — is to explain complicated stories in ways that help us all see the issues more clearly. (For example, the home-rule plan, no matter what it ends up being, will have huge hurdles to overcome in terms of implementation and expectation. We’ll look at that as we go along.) We’ll look at reform efforts already underway in the district and in Dallas County. (I think that is sort of the natural coverage area for this blog: all schools and issues within Dallas County proper, and how national issues affect Dallas schools.) But what we won’t do is allow the cesspool-swimmers in town to dominate the discussion here.

Because the goal is to learn about these things together. There’s a reason the home-rule folks got 48,000 signatures. There’s a reason the internal polls from the home-rule groups show that whatever charter suggestions get on the ballot in November, they will pass. It’s because a lot of people are not just fed up with school systems that don’t heal themselves, but also fed up with status-quo advocates who create boogeymen instead of debating education issues openly and honestly.

We’ll do our best to do just that at Learning Curve. Like the name suggests, I hope that the more we do so, the better we’ll understand the tremendous education problems we face as a city. And, I hope, the closer we’ll be to discovering the most-sensible path to follow as we try to create better opportunities for every kid in Dallas.