Anti-Parent Propaganda in the Name of Self-Interest

When I recently rebooted this blog after some technical difficulties, one of the first posts I re-published was titled “A Different Narrative of American Education,” in which I compared the typical reformer’s narrative of public schools with a different narrative. The blog was originally reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s “The Answer Sheet” blog on the Washington Post’s website back when it first appeared in 2013. When I republished it, someone reposted it with a positive comment on one of the school-system related Facebook pages here in my district, Volusia County Schools. 

It received a comment to the effect that I was writing propaganda, was motivated by self-interest, and was “anti-parent.” 

I have been drawing comic strips satirizing education reform since 2000 and blog posts on the topic since 2013. Interestingly, I have seldom if ever been directly attacked in this way. I stopped commenting at the Facebook group, because I didn’t feel it was worth it to engage with this person. He wanted a fight, not an argument (there’s a difference). I do feel the exchange is worth commenting on in a more general sense – so I am doing so here. 

First, he claimed that I wrote propaganda. There are various definitions of propaganda, not all of them negative, and it is beyond the scope of this post to come up with a definitive definition. By some definitions, all argument is propaganda simply because it is presenting an idea and trying to get you to agree. If having a point of view makes you biased, then we are all biased. Some definitions see propaganda as relatively neutral, depending on how it is used, and what techniques it uses. 

But my critic was obviously giving the word a negative connotation. At its worst, propaganda resorts to techniques that are dishonest or that manipulate the audience. In some cases, using the word propaganda is a form of propaganda – or rather, a form of projection. People who resort to the worst techniques of propaganda themselves often accuse everyone else of using propaganda. 

My critic resorted to one of the basest forms of propaganda: name-calling. 

Second, he said I was motivated by “self-interest.” He did not say exactly how this manifested itself. I suppose the implication is this: I want to save my public school job, and any threat to public education – like school choice – is a threat to my job. 

Actually, that is not really what motivates me. While I do worry about the attacks on public education, I don’t think the entire public school system is in danger of collapsing in the next three years. I can retire if I want in three years. There is an acknowledged lack of people wanting to go into teaching, so my job is not in danger. I am not writing in a desperate bid to save my job. I am writing to help save my profession for future teachers. 

If by “self-interest” my critic meant that I love my job and am motivated by having a job I love – I am guilty as charged. There is no downside to teachers loving their jobs. A teacher who loves his job does a better job. Have you ever, as a student, had a teacher who hated their job? You probably couldn’t wait to get out of their classroom. 

One of the reasons I wrote my original post is to point out that education reform, for whatever reason, has undermined everything I – and many of my colleagues – love about teaching. Whether intentionally or not, it has been squeezing the creativity, fun, and joy out of teaching and learning for both teachers and students. We have a teacher shortage because of the way we have treated teachers. I would argue that ruining the teaching profession weakens public schools, and was a deliberate part of the plan from the start.

What my critic didn’t address was the inherent “self interest” involved in the school choice movement. If self interest is bad, as I believe he is implying, then the opposite would be “other interested” or “good-of-society interested.” But while school choice is about some parents being interested in their own children getting ahead, I don’t think any parent ever changed schools for the good of society. And the for-profit charter schools are inherently, obviously self interested in making profits. They are not altruistic. I don’t know enough about the specifics of the different private schools that take vouchers, but I do know that they receive the money that comes with the student. I also know that many of them have definite agenda’s they are interested in promoting. 

If the opposite of self-interest is interest in others, or in the good of society, then public schools have a chance of fitting the bill. Ideally, they serve all students, not a chosen few. Ideally, they are an actual embodiment of our nation’s motto – e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Yes, teachers earn a living, but they can’t teach homeless. And don’t get me started on teacher pay in many states. If teachers were completely self interested, they would go find a job that paid more for their level of education. 

As for the idea that I am “anti-parent,” – this is, as far as I’m concerned, propaganda at its worst. It is a simple, efficient bit of name calling that gets its job done quickly – unless you think about the implications. On the surface, I suppose it makes some simplistic sense. If some parents want school choice, and  I am anti-school choice, then I must be anti-parent.

But there a lot of different types of parents. What about parents who want stronger, well-funded public schools that aren’t test-score mills? (I was one of those parents.) By supporting school choice, are you anti-parent because you are against the parents who support public schools?

The phrase “anti-parent” is extremely problematic. It implies that parents are one big lump of people, and that to disagree with any of them is to be anti-parent. I see parents in public and parents of my students doing plenty of things I don’t think are good for their children or society. I had a student tell me her stepmother had plagiarized her paper to “help” her with her essay for my class. I have seen students zip in and out of public school through a variety of private schools, continually looking for a better fit as the student fell further and further behind academically. If being against these things makes me anti-parent, perhaps I am. 

Being anti-parent is about as possible as being anti-people. But even if it was possible, I don’t believe that I am anti-parent. I am against using tax payer money to support school choice because it sometimes violates church and state, often wastes that money due to lack of oversight, and always weakens public schools. As a parent, I sent my children to public school because I believe in the diversity, democratic nature, and promise of equal opportunity for all that public schools represent – and because they received an excellent education there. I realize that public schools have never been perfect. That is not the issue. No school is perfect. But I believe public schools represent our best hope for educating everyone. 

Yes, I have a point of view, but I hope I am arguing that view with nuance, a respect for the ambiguities involved, and without resorting to name calling. If you would like to have respectful debate, an argument instead of a fight, please don’t come at me with catch-phrases and name-calling. Approach me with questions, concerns, and be up front about what you value. 

I will try to do the same.