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'Greenfield' vs. 'Brownfield' Schools

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Education "reformers" have found an ideal metaphor when describing Advanced Academics as the archetypical "greenfield school," or a school freed from "the status quo." The online education provider was described as housing 50 employees in its small office in the "vibrant Bricktown" of Oklahoma City. I knew Bricktown before it gentrified, back when it was an archetypical brownfield industrial area, surrounded by generational poverty as intense as we have seen in the United States. So, it is fitting that "reformers" would seek greenfield schools, unburdened by regulations designed to protect the powerless, located in tax-subsidized greenfield economic zones.

Before addressing the educational aspects of greenfield versus brownfield schools, I must review some economic history of greenfield versus brownfield industrial policy. Before Ronald Reagan and "Supply Side Economics," work conditions in Bricktown's industries were brutal and dangerous, and wages were meager, but the old-fashioned factories were still profitable. In 1983, three sets of tax breaks subsidized the closing of those businesses, and their relocation to the exurbs, and overseas. Overnight, 10 percent of Oklahoma's jobs disappeared, and the proportion of males over the age of forty driven from the state's job market was the same as that of Buffalo and the "Rustbelt."

Since the human costs of abandoning entire communities was ignored, the redevelopment of brownfield factories never had a chance in competition with greenfield industries. The same applies to schools. Whether we are considering business or educational entrepreneurial efforts, institutions that must pay the cost of past exploitation will always be at a disadvantage. Just as businesses that are granted amnesty from the price of cleaning up environmental degradation have a huge advantage, schools that are not burdened with the full bill for the legacy of Jim Crow and generations economic oppression have a huge head start.

Rick Hess, author of Education Unbound, makes a fair point when explaining why a charter school would not want to be burdened by regulations that had developed over 353 years of bureaucratic politics. Although I question the number of 353, he makes a valid point, and I can understand why educational entrepreneurs would seek to librate themselves by destroying "the status quo." The problem is that Hess et al. target their opponents with the accuracy of a 353-year-old blunderbuss. It was not the students or the educators in neighborhood schools trapped in our nation's abandoned brownfields that are to blame for bureaucratic paralysis. We also are victims of education's "culture of compliance," and fearful central offices, divorced from the realities of urban schools, and obsessed with making their systems' numbers look good.

To his credit, Hess does a great job in lampooning the educational engineering of the accountability hawks, and he sees the limitations of standardized test-driven "reform." He can be hilarious in dissecting education's endless search for one "silver bullet" after another. Hess thus should be a naturally ally of teachers, unions, and students left behind in brownfield schools. In fact, it was Hess who said aloud that the alliance between his conservative brand of anti-labor reform and the left/liberal anti-teachers union accountability hawks is temporary, and may start to break up by 2012.

I propose a nonaggression pact between patrons of greenfield and brownfield schools. To innovators who seek the freedom to experiment with better ways of serving the students who they want to serve, we should say, "Brethren, depart in peace." Be empowered to live by the maxim of "today is the first day of the rest of your life." In return, please stop the gratuitous attacks on educators who have committed to the toughest educational challenges. For us, "History is not dead... It is not even over."

Urban educators can not battle the legacies of generational poverty with one hand, while fending off self-righteous "reformers" who love poor children in the abstract without having much actual experience in urban education, with the other hand.

So, Mr. Hess, please speak out against the silly pretense that we in neighborhood schools could match the student performance gains of selective schools if we just used data, and raised "Expectations!" Just as it would take a coordinated effort to address the environmental and health legacies of brownfield communities, the schools in those neighborhoods must be empowered to address the full social and emotional needs of students from the brownfields. We invite you to join us in redeveloping brownfield schools. Help us create community schools that bring our kids out of their buildings and into the full diversity of America, and bringing a prerequisite array of social services into our schools. Or you can just concentrate your energy on creating greenfield schools. But please divorce yourselves from the teacher-bashers and union-bashers, as they experiment with one "quick fix" after another for solving the problems of urban education.

Please, read more of my thoughts at ScholasticAdministrator.com.