| April 9, 2012

Private schools are serving the poor

It’s not uncommon to hear people imply, or even outright declare, that poor parents can’t really be trusted to make good educational decisions for their children.

For example, Michael Walker Jones, head of Louisiana’s largest teachers union, recently told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”

That’s wrong. As Patrick McGuigan wrote a few years ago for OCPA (“Entrepreneurial Spirit and a Mother’s Love”), poor parents from Somalia to the Sooner State are seeing to it that their children are educated.

Frustrated with bureaucratic lethargy and angry with those who have surrendered to the despair of inner-city poverty and family collapse, I’ve found and then reported, sometimes in the most unexpected circumstances, examples of heroic service to children who lack stable living environments.

In the Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa and at public and private schools in Oklahoma City, I have witnessed the miracle of learning in defiance of life’s greatest obstacles. I have seen the future, or part of it, at St. John Christian Heritage Academy, then dreamed of justice for hopeful and productive people.

But for all our problems, nothing I have encountered in American ghetto schools or in the lives of our nation’s urban poor can compare with the squalor found in descriptions given by James Tooley in his new book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. …Tooley describes a remarkable odyssey uncovering productive but unregistered private schools all over the world, places where the children of desperately poor parents make lives better through mathematics and composition, English and French, science and hope, while preparing for success in work and life.

Tooley crossed stinking ditches, passed open sewers, encountered reeking slaughterhouses, and circled putrid fish boats all over the world, only to find enclaves of excellence guided by great minds the equal of Marva Collins of Chicago and Tracy McDaniel of Oklahoma City. The schools Tooley visited were islands of calm in the midst of turmoil, “areas that lacked decent sanitation and clean water supply, adequate roads, electricity.”

As the book jacket for The Beautiful Tree puts it: “Both the entrepreneurial spirit and the love of parents for their children can be found in every corner of the globe.” For further confirmation, I commend to your attention this fascinating new TEDTalk by Pauline Dixon.

So the next time you hear a local school superintendent earning a quarter-million dollars a year complain about Oklahoma’s “underfunded” schools ($9,121 per student officially, even higher in reality), I would suggest that some healthy skepticism is in order.

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