The first focused on Ann Romney’s love of horseback riding. The other outlined her husband’s first big speech about schools, and the policies he would implement if elected president, to address America’s “education crisis.” Governor Romney, who once famously said that he loved Michigan because all the trees were “just the right height,” wanted his audience to know that when it came to schools, he was less sanguine. Apparently, America’s teachers aren’t the right height or don’t have enough leaves.
In any case, Mr. Romney’s main points can be boiled down, roughly, as follows:
A. teachers’ unions are really, really bad (and, by the way, support President Obama)
B. all parents are really, really good (and should vote Republican) and totally committed to their children’s education
C. therefore, we can fix everything if we set up more charter schools and have more parent choice
D. …because, if we didn’t already mention it, all parents are really, really good and committed to their children’s education
E. and teachers’ unions are really, really bad and frankly, most of their members are scumbags
F. so, we should grade all schools; then parents, all good, all committed, can choose schools wisely, and, of course, all parents will choose wisely, because, well…you get the idea
F. and since private enterprise is always good, and because unfettered business cures all ills in all societies, it would be great if we turned public schools over to for-profit companies, which would mean we’d end up with nothing but “A+” schools, because companies could break teachers’ unions (which support President Obama)
G. and have we mentioned yet that teachers’ unions are responsible for every problem in U.S. public education?
NOW, DON’T GET ME WRONG. In most stories I’ve read, Governor Romney comes across as a gentleman. He’s a devoted husband, good father, regular church goer, a good human being. Ann Romney seems like a likeable, lovely woman. But it would be stretching the truth beyond recognition to assert that people like the Romneys understand the kind of realities that confront families farther down the economic scale, teachers who work with children of those families, public school teachers, in general, or the issues that most affect America’s public schools as we enter the coming election season.
Indeed, like so many others who claim to want to fix the public schools, Mr. Romney’s family long ago decided that the public schools weren’t quite good enough for their own son and sent him off to an elite prep school at the end of seventh grade. So Mitt never had to walk down a high school hallway, in some city, say Detroit, and rub elbows with any gang members. Not many homeless kids could afford tuition at Cranbrook School, where young Romney was insulated from contact with society’s less fortunate individuals. And you can bet he wasn’t hanging around with classmates who came to school hungry in the morning, or who went home to neighborhoods crawling with drug abusers at night.
The problem now, when Mr. Romney talks education, is that his isolation from reality is still so complete. He and his loved ones live in rarefied air, and Mrs. Romney is able, for example, to indulge her love of horses. She competes in riding events at the elite level. She has a dressage tutor, who helps her with form, a top man in his field, so successful he has been known to serve guests at his riding school from $4,000 bottles of wine. In fact, on their tax returns for 2010, the Romneys were able to claim a $77,000 loss related to part ownership of a horse named Rafalca.
That’s more money than most American families see in an entire year.
Meanwhile, Mitt and Ann’s four sons, raised in a home where they had every possible advantage, including good parents, fared well in school. But a recent study by John Hopkins University tells us that not all students come from the same kind of homes. Instead, 15% of U. S. students have problems with chronic absenteeism.
That is: they miss 10% of all class time, or more.
I taught in a fine school district until I retired; but I could explain to Mr. and Mrs. Romney, rather quickly, that not all parents are good, no matter how fine a district. Not all parents are like them, or like Mr. and Mrs. Obama, or the majority of moms and dads I ever met. I had Abe in class one year. Abe was absent or tardy 107 times in a 180-day school year. When he did arrive, often late, for first period history, I had trouble educating him not because I was a member of a teachers’ union, but because Abe had a devil of a time staying awake. I remember once when he told me his mother let him play video games until four a.m. the night before.
So, Abe’s mother wasn’t an Ann Romney. She wasn’t like the mothers Mitt Romney has in mind when he talks about fixing U. S. education. In fact, Abe’s mom soon added several lines to her goofy mom’s resume when she came down to school to pick up her older son, who happened to be getting suspended for fighting, and got into a battle with our school resource officer, leading to her own handcuffing and arrest.
THIS MAN, WHO WANTS TO BE PRESIDENT, who says he knows how to fix the schools, sees the world through the green-tinted glasses of the top 1%. Yet, my wife, a speech therapist, working in the public schools, could reveal to him grimmer truths. She once worked with a child with severe emotional disorders who lived in a rusted out automobile with Uncle Buster, a regular marijuana user, himself, but still his best option, because mom and dad were long gone from the family photo. She worked with a nine-year-old boy, a victim of sexual abuse by his father, who had what medical people call encopresis, or leakage from the anus, around partially-formed stool, a common problem in cases of abuse. So he had accidents at his desk almost every day. On yet another occasion a mother “interested” in her child’s education came to school to see the principal. Mom was carrying a butcher knife and said she was “tired of being followed.” Then she chased the principal down the hall, out of the building, and across the parking lot.
It’s not just anecdotal evidence, either, Mr. Romney should consider. Take Chicago, where in 2010, the average student missed 26 days of instruction. We know that tens of thousands of teens in the Windy City belong to gangs; and in one twelve-month period 245 school-age kids were killed or wounded in gang-related violence.
What solution does the Governor offer? Let’s grade schools.
Mr. Romney might even pick up a newspaper and see what he could discover. It’s never hard to find sad examples, of parents who fail; but here’s one of my “favorites,” a story I stumbled across in 2008, involving a Pennsylvania mom named Elizabeth Ann Fox. Ms. Fox was charged with child endangerment after leaving two sons, ages 4 and 2, home alone for hours. Police were notified when the boys managed to crawl out a bedroom window. One officer entered the home but was driven back immediately by the overpowering smell of garbage and human feces, which littered the kitchen floor. A second officer located mom–at a fast food restaurant, of all places–where she was enjoying a hamburger and a shake.
Perhaps, Mr. Romney might work that example into his next speech about what must be done to fix America’s schools.
In the end, Governor Romney is blind to all such ugliness, because he travels only in circles of wealth and privilege. Or perhaps, because he hopes to score political points, he doesn’t care to look for any ugliness.
Too bad, too, because we know there are 1.6 million homeless children in the United States today. We know that in 2010 more than 70% of black children were born to single mothers. We know on certain Indian reservations poverty, depression and hard-drinking add up to mean one in four children will be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. We know that here in Ohio, one out of every ten children in Scioto County, where illegal use of painkillers has spread like plague, is born with illegal drugs in their blood streams. And we know that at any given moment, 1.5 million American children have a parent in prison.
Nor, if we want to see the whole truth, should we stop with that. What about parents who kill their children? Even these stories are not hard to find; and nothing Mr. Romney has to offer, so far, when he talks about education, would ever do the unluckiest children in our society the slightest bit of good. Consider this one example, out of many, a recent case from West Palm Beach, Florida. It involves Jorge Barahona, accused of murdering his stepdaughter, Nubia, and for the attempted murder of Victor, his ten-year-old son. The boy showed evidence of prior injuries: broken collarbone, broken arm, burn scars on buttocks and abdomen, rope marks on wrists. Emily Rodriguez, Victor’s first grade teacher, later told reporters she remembered how Nubia used to visit her class at the end of every day to see how her brother was doing.
Does Mr. Romney really believe the key here would be to focus on Rodriquez and fume because she’s in a teachers’ union?
YET, THERE THE GOVERNOR WAS, telling an audience last week: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could look back on the last four years with confidence that the [school] crisis had been confronted and we’d turned the corner toward a brighter future?”
Nope. The problems just won’t go away. Blame it on President Obama. And blame his evil allies, the teachers’ unions.