School Choice

No Lines in the Sand: How to Keep Ourselves Honest in School Politics

If politics make strange bedfellows, as the saying goes, then school politics just make fellows strange. Strange, or you might call it conflicted. When unexpected situations arise in our lives, I find that our views on public education can cause a crisis of conscience, or worse, integrity, when we take on public personas that don’t align with our private lives. Here are some real-life examples to illustrate what I mean:
  • A Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher protested the authorizing of a charter school that would compete with her school, yet she sends her own kids to a charter school outside of her neighborhood.
  • A charter school teacher pulled her own child out of the school where she worked in the middle of the year so her kid could get a better education at a Catholic school.
  • A Christian school claims it educates youth to do the Lord’s work, but refuses to admit kids who test just one grade level below because “teaching them would take time away from the other students in the class, and that wouldn’t be fair.”
  • A white charter school principal has committed his career to serving underprivileged black and brown children in the city, but when his children reached school age, he left Chicago for an affluent suburb, where his children are now educated.
  • A district teacher/union delegate feels obligated to pass out CTU’s anti-charter school flyers but privately admits that she would work at a charter if the salaries weren’t so low.
  • The top brass at CPS typically send their children to elite private schools in the city, though a few district leaders take pride in enrolling their kids in public schools, albeit the top-performing ones.
I think all of these scenarios are, well, strange. That’s me in the third bullet point! Good, honest people will go to extreme measures to give their children an edge, or at least ensure that they are getting a good education. We might draw a line in the sand publicly, but when our own kid or livelihood is at stake, we so easily erase and redraw the line a little closer to the opposing side while pretending it never moved. Is it a crisis of integrity to secretly move the line? Or is drawing a politically-charged line in the sand the biggest threat to our integrity? Is it unethical to seek ways to gain an edge in a broken school system, or is not doing so irresponsible? I often wonder how effective any of us can really be if we spend our professional careers fighting against systemic injustice, but we navigate our personal lives in such a way that we remain completely untouched by it. The Mother Teresa approach of serving the poor while also choosing to live with the poor has little to no curb appeal. Ask yourself this question: Does how I choose to educate my own child combat or exacerbate systemic injustice in the educational system?   I am not your judge. I live with the same tensions that every other parent-educator lives with. This question is uncomfortable and has nagged me at my core for the 13 years I’ve worked in schools; I’ve only recently been able to clearly define and articulate this dilemma. Our jockeying for educational advantages for our own children can be both righteous and reckless, creating a complicated, entangled web of conflicts of interest and strange bedfellows. Picking a side—teachers union or ed reform, Republican or Democratic, charter or district—is the worse thing an independent thinker like me can do. Complex educational problems are never solved by drawing superficial, dishonest lines in the sand, so I refuse to do it. As a teacher, my goal is to err on the side of children, which is impossible to do if I have already pledged allegiance to the adults.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

Join the Movement