Daniel N. White. Introduction by William Astore.
I taught at the college level for fifteen years. Education, I’m convinced, is about motivated students, skilled teachers, and supportive parents, families, and friends. Put those three together and you’re bound to get good results.
Yet there’s always a search for a magic bullet, a shortcut to success. It might be standardized testing, or teacher evaluation, or the Common Core, or charter schools, or STEM, or computers, or school uniforms, or single-sex schools, and so on. As one “solution” after another gets pushed on confused students, concerned parents, and beleaguered school boards, it’s best to secure your wallet or purse. Because, sadly, it’s often the students who lose the most as various marketers of “solutions” see their profit margins soar. But profits, like sex, are not discussed in polite society, a fact clearly revealed in Dan White’s latest report from the educational front lines. W.J. Astore
The Fix Is In: Money, Sex, Politics, and Education in America
Daniel N. White
I’ve never attended an Austin, Texas School Board meeting, and that’s because I’ve never paid attention to the school board politics in this town. I went to AISD (Austin Independent School District) schools grades 7-12, and that has a lot to do with my lack of interest. I hated school here in Austin; in my day it was pretty redneck and stupid and geared to sports, and I’ve mostly wanted to forget about it. That and no kids, so no personal stake in education matters. But there has been a push for the last couple of years to make several AISD schools–middle schools and high schools right now, elementary are sure to come–single-sex schools. Since the vote on creating three new single-sex schools was up for Monday, I drove down to district headquarters to book a speaking slot at the next school board meeting.
The junior high I went to became the first, and to date only, single-sex school in the district, about ten years ago. The school got renamed after former governor Ann Richards (and former 7th grade social studies teacher in Austin before that) who remains a liberal icon in these parts despite a completely mediocre and mostly neoliberal political record. Ann is adored still by gay and lesbian Democrat activists in this town, of which there are no shortage, despite her remaining entirely in the closet herself. The single-sex school activists ten years ago were all revved up by the Reviving Ophelia nonsense*, and made a successful push to get Porter Middle School turned into a girls-only middle school, and now high school too, with mandatory school uniforms and a new moniker as The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. It was just another stupidity that I never paid attention to.
I did pay attention about four years ago when I saw a group of parents planting trees off on one side of the school. Austin’s schools are ugly and unlandscaped and most of what landscaping was done on the older schools like Porter/Ann Richards is dying and makes the schools even uglier. I suppose kids spend all their time in the classroom nowadays to where we don’t have to worry about their being hit by falling branches, right? The only explanation I ever got as to why Austin’s schools are so ugly and unlandscaped** is that the AISD grounds crews hate trees because they make more work for them when they drive lawnmowers around.***
So there they were–a bunch of parents of Ann Richards students, mostly Anglos, doing the grunt work of planting trees, making a most rare effort at improving their kids’ school grounds and showing an unheard of interest in doing hard physical work now for a better tomorrow.
But when I looked more closely, I didn’t like what I saw. The trees being planted were way too close together. Every tree you buy has a tag on it that says how big it gets and how far from any other tree it needs to be planted. With big trees (big for these parts at any rate) like live oaks, the minimum distance is 60 feet. But I didn’t see a single one planted more than ten feet from the nearest neighbor. There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the planting–no order or pattern, just a bunch of different type and size trees dropped into the ground at random, all in one section of the campus, with the remaining 90% of the campus treeless. Not only that, but they had planted several trees directly under a 45KV lowline****, which is as dumb a landscaping mistake as you can possibly make.
I talked to the folks there about their landscaping mistakes–they were still in the middle of planting so it would be possible to fix them still–but I was told that they were just following the landscape architect’s orders. Besides that they had the experts from the local tree group TreeFolks there telling them what to do, you know. They gave me the architect’s e-mail address, and I contacted her the next day, but got told to mind my own business, she was the one with the degree in landscaping.
A month later I noticed one of the fathers starting to install an irrigation system for the trees. He was using Sch-40 gluejoint PVC. I explained to him that he could save 75% on labor time and materials if he used irrigation line and it wasn’t too late to change things and take the unused materials back to the store. That suggestion got nowhere, too.
That was four years ago, and that was my only contact with the single-sex school enthusiasts in these parts. But it was enough to get me to drive down to school headquarters Monday evening. Out in the hallway I ran into some folks I know who told me that the school board only allowed two minutes for your talk, unlike City Council that allows three. I did some fast amputation to my speech, which, near as I can recollect it, wound up running like this:
“Members of the school board, I’ve maintained for a long time that landscaping is an excellent window into the minds, hearts, and maybe souls even of persons, of a people. Austin’s schools have been badly landscaped and ugly the entirety of my life, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out why that is and what that means. What I want to talk about tonight is landscaping and single-sex schools.
“The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders has the parents who are most committed to single-sex schools, and they probably are the most involved and concerned school parents in the district. About four years ago they decided to do something about the bad landscaping at Ann Richards, and they, most commendably, went about getting and planting a large number of trees on the campus. They even installed an irrigation system, to ensure that they’d grow and prosper.
“Unfortunately, these parents, the most dedicated and motivated PTA parents there are, ignored the clear written instructions attached to every single tree they planted. They planted them so closely together that it is certain that someone will have to take a chainsaw to three-fourths of them if the rest are going to have any chance of making it. They even planted some of the trees under a 45KV lowline–a gross landscaping mistake. Someone in the future is going to have to take a chainsaw to those too.
“I urged them to fix their landscaping mistakes now when they could but they paid no attention. These parents–the most dedicated proponents of single-sex schools–well-educated and well-intentioned–were unconcerned about the problems their actions were going to cause in the future that someone else is going to have to fix for them.
“A month later, an underground irrigation system for the trees was installed using Sch-40 PVC gluejoint instead of agricultural irrigation line. The latter is 75% cheaper on labor and materials, and I told them that in a professional and timely fashion, but once again my advice was ignored.
“But the real issue on single-sex schools isn’t being talked about by anyone, and that is sex. The persons behind single-sex schools are all persons afraid of their children’s emerging sexuality, afraid of how their children are becoming sexual beings. They are trying to delay it as much as they can with single-sex schools, and it doesn’t work and wouldn’t be right even if it did work. So the evidence shows that the proponents of single-sex schools in Austin are sexual hysterics who can’t follow written directions, ignore expert advice, and who happily cause problems for someone else to fix in the future. That’s who the best, the most dedicated of them, are.
“I don’t have it in me to pay attention to people like this on public policy issues. I encourage you there on the school board to do likewise.”
I got a round of applause from the crowd, best of the evening. But I freely confess the better speech was from a Hispanic mother from a newer Hispanic neighborhood, who spoke, in Spanish, haltingly–you could tell she’d never spoken before at a meeting like this–and she said that she and all her neighbors were against single-sex schools because they didn’t want their sons to grow up to be machos. I take my hat off to her for that one; that took guts.
None of it mattered in the end. The fix was in; the school board split 4-3 for the new single sex schools, with the three newly elected members outvoted by the four old dinosaurs. There’s definitely some sort of money fix in the air, but nobody in newsmedialand’s nose is picking it up. For starters, why is the Moody Foundation out of Galveston ponying up $6 million for single-sex schools in Austin? I don’t think that’s right, or lawful, for a 501-C-3 to do that. Why is it that an existing fully functioning high school requires $20 million in renovations to become a single-sex school? And there’s something fishy about how the new single-sex schools, which in the past have been pushed mostly by the diminishing Anglo portion of the Austin school population’s parents*****, are all being built in the overwhelmingly brown and black east side.
Single-sex schools are a good idea, say the Anglos, but are an even better idea for black and Hispanic kids. Huh? School board politics–like all the rest of Austin’s politics, it’s just big money players, real estate mostly, working behind the scenes, getting their share of the pie, and the fix is always in and politics and public participation is just a charade.
I suspect it is like that in most big cities in this country, and that is probably the underlying story in education in this country that nobody talks about, one of those issues we just don’t discuss. Just like how the single-sex school proponents never talk about sex, because sex, like money, is one of those topics off limits for discussion. Sex and money–neither gets discussed in this America, not intelligently or honestly at any rate, and we all are a lot worse for it.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*The book Reviving Ophelia came out in 1995 and argued that the USA was in danger of losing a generation of young women. The key to preventing this was making education more female-friendly because male oppression in schools kept girls from doing well in math and science, which is the key to success in the world. The book ignored longstanding facts that males drop out of school more, do less well in school, and have far more problems in school, than females do, and it’s been that way for decades now. None of that stopped it from being a bestseller, whose message was eaten up with a big spoon by lots of sap headed college-educated white women.
**If the AISD grounds crews had sense, they’d be all in favor of more trees and shrubs and landscaping on the campuses. It means higher paying work, and more job security for them.
***One exception is that on the affluent west side of Austin, there is this one inherited wealth attorney who has done a lot of work with some of the interested parents and planted a lot of worthwhile trees correctly. Maintained them, too. He’s a real good tree guy–I’ve worked with him on a big pro-bono tree job once. His efforts are all via privately raised funds for specific schools. He’s doing an AISD bypass to get trees planted and the AISD bureaucracy being what it is, that might be his best choice.
****Translation–a 45,000 volt, lower than standard height powerline. Your usual street power line is a 14.4 KV line, and if it goes out a couple of dozen houses lose power. A 45KV line down means a couple of thousand houses lose power.
*****When I went to high school AISD was about 2/3 white. Now it is almost 2/3 Hispanic. Black percentage remains around 10-12%. The future of America is brown, people, in case you haven’t noticed.