I’ve been critical of the recently released Memorandum Opinion that Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala offered on Tuesday night as her seal of approval for the Proposed Consent Order that the Department of Justice worked out with Huntsville City Schools and submitted to the court on March 11, 2015.
I’m critical of this plan for four basic reasons:
- The public plan almost entirely excludes the public from the process of unifying. Yes, there were “public” hearings held, but with the exception of grandfathering in Seniors, not one other suggestion from the public was seriously considered resulting in a change to the plan.
- The plan calls for the “limiting” of one school’s offerings to enhance another’s. You cannot enhance a school by limiting another. Education is not a zero-sum game.
- The plan furthers harms teachers by dismissing the importance of personnel transfers (allowing teachers’ children to attend school where a teacher teaches). It doesn’t prohibit it out right, but many principals have already informed teachers that their children will not be allowed to attend their parent’s school next year.
- The plan calls for and celebrates the moving, again, of Special Education students around the district. In general, I believe that students should be in their home schools (or as close as possible), but the praising of instability that Judge Haikala mentions in her opinion is disheartening.
None of these may, at first glance, seem to be significant issues in this massive process. You’d probably be tempted, “Damn Russell, nitpick much?”
And I’d probably be tempted to agree. This is a historic agreement, after all. And the desegregation of our town is absolutely important to me.
But I’m convinced that these four points demonstrate that the plan is fundamentally flawed and will, as a result, lead to an increase in segregation and distrust across this city rather than the opposite.
But, as was pointed out to me on Facebook where I was discussing this with some people I trust, simply being critical here isn’t enough.
What would I do differently? How would I address the issue of segregation in this town if I were in charge?
(No, I don’t want to be in charge, and no, I am not running for any office. What I am attempting here is to offer a reasonable pathway forward for this city to address the issues that we’re all facing.)
What Would My Desegregation Plan Look Like?
This is, by necessity, a broad outline of a “plan.” It might be helpful to think of them more as guiding principles, but I think that each of these ideas is crucial to helping to unify our city, which is the ultimate end-game that we’re supposed to be shooting for.
- I would focus first and foremost on addressing the quality of the academics at all schools. In order to do this, I would encourage the city, state, nation to begin to address the issue of poverty. I know, there goes the liberal preaching about inequality again.
The single most persistent correlation that we see tied to educational achievement is how far above the poverty line the child’s parents are. If we truly wish to improve the quality of education in all of our schools then we must work to raise the standard of living of the families at all of our schools. We can certainly do this. We’ve done it before as a nation. This needs to be job one and everyone who cares about education in this country needs to be working to address this single issue. Unfortunately, poverty (like religion and politics before it) has become the unspeakable issue in our nation.
- I would work to ensure that every school in the district had high quality teachers. Thus, despite the difficulty it places on teachers, I think Wardynski’s plan of centralizing hiring is, in theory, a good one. (Someone please tell him I said he did something right. I’m sure it would irritate him to no end.)
However, I think he undermines the effectiveness of this step with his hatred of teachers, and his refusal to pay teachers above the state minimum. Thus we’re running off excellent, effective, experienced teachers and attracting less qualified, less-experienced teachers.
Paying teachers a wage comparable to their training and importance would aid this step. Wardynski, however, is more concerned with keeping his corporate backers happy and profitable than he is with actually making our city unified.
- I would work to enhance the Magnet Schools without intentionally hamstringing the non-magnet schools. You cannot improve the Arts at one school by “limiting” the Arts at another. Education doesn’t work that way.
- I would, before I began a process like the desegregation of a city, work to make sure that I had earned the trust of the city first. Wardynski has actively isolated himself from anyone in this city who disagrees with him.
That’s asinine and shows that he knows nothing of education, leadership, or even how to be a decent human being. Without having the trust of the city, any unification process anyone undertakes is doomed to failure. In order to bring unity to people, people must believe that they have a voice in the process and that they matter.
The public’s voice in this process has been systematically silenced by the district, the DOJ, and the court. That does not support the goal of unity. It only supports further segregation. (Which is, if you listen to the conversations in the car lines, and diners in this town, exactly what is happening.)
Wardynski has failed us by failing to treat others the way he wishes to be treated. This process will fail for the same reason.
- I would actively work to make sure that teachers absolutely know that the superintendent has their backs. Supporting them is the only way that the district has of supporting its students. (That’s the structure. You cannot support “students” without supporting the people responsible for teaching them.)
This would make teachers want to work harder/longer/and more innovatively to change the repeating circles of poverty leading to more poverty that our nation is embracing. This would make them volunteer to move to another school where they might be more effective. Unfortunately, Wardynski will never do this. I believe teachers intimidate him. (Seriously.)
- I would make absolutely sure that every single step of the desegregation process, every single meeting, every single negotiation, every single executive session were completely transparent with every comment available for public scrutiny. That is the only way that the process will ever have the trust of the public. Placing a gag order on the parties was a stupid move by the court.
- I would make certain that every action/decision we took in the process of bring unity were open to public examination with reason-based justifications offered for every zone line modification and every SPED placement explained clearly and reasonably. We’re talking about education after all. Any educational process that is unquestioned and unexamined is not worth being called education.
These are the steps that I believe this process has, almost without exception, failed to accomplish. On this all three parties, HCS, DOJ and the court have completely failed us.
The result, therefore, rather than bringing people together, is ripping them apart.
In the words of John Lennon, you may say I’m a dreamer for thinking anything like what I’ve described is possible. You might be right. But it is the way that I would have done this, and it is, in my mind, the only way forward.
I’m sure there are other points worth mentioning. I’m sure I haven’t begun to think through all of the steps in the process. But that’s the beauty of my approach as compared to the one we’ve suffered through: I’m not afraid of other people’s opinions.
Diversity is crucial to life. It’s a shame that the desegregation plan that’s being forced on us did not embrace a diversity of ideas.
Feel free to tell me how full of crap I am below.