Education experts in Academia can be really tough to take for those who don’t exist in an abstract world of theories and studies and a recent debate at Sacramento State on charter schools and vouchers was no exception. Chris Stewart (aka Citizen Stewart) and Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig argued opposing sides of the issue and Heilig never really brought his argument out of the ivory tower of academia. Like so many academics, Heilig comes across as a smart guy loaded up with nuggets of research to quash the naysayers but lacks the power of persuasion for one simple reason: he exists in a world of theory and white papers while regular people need their lives to change. It’s certainly not fair to generalize in a way that implies all of academia suffers from ‘but I have a doctorate’ syndrome, but far too many do and their over-reliance on those letters after their name lead them to assume that they are the smartest person in the room, even when they have zero experience actually living any of the things about which they are experts. Even when we throw them a ladder and a rope to come down out of that tower, they just can’t seem to do it. Or maybe they’re just too comfortable where they are and don’t want to venture down to rub elbows with the masses.
Now I am biased. Chris is my friend and I work with him. He became my friend and colleague precisely because we share a passion for empowering low income parents to access the best schools they can for their kids. But here’s the deal: if I didn’t think Chris had been persuasive in his arguments, I wouldn’t write anything about the event. I’m certainly under no obligation to do so. But because the discussion highlighted so much of what is wrong with disconnected academics like Heilig (who refuses to even provide data about the teachers who emerge from his institution’s prep programs), I’m proud to give a shout out to my friend.
One of the Professor’s first complaints was that education reformers “always change the subject.” The rich irony of this absurd generalization is that throughout the entirety of the debate, Dr. Heilig wandered off topic quickly and talked about what he wanted to talk about instead of what the moderator had asked. While Stewart stuck to the questions and responded with examples from his experience as a father and a school board member, Heilig literally took his arguments to South America so that we could learn about the educational system of Chile. And when Heilig made statements that he considered to be factual (and actually told the audience to “fact check”), Stewart pushed back with examples that directly contradicted the Professor’s claims.
Stewart made it clear that he is a believer that bad is bad and wrong is wrong no matter where it happens or by whom. Heilig was unwilling to acknowledge the bad stuff happening on ‘his side’ and instead insisted on pivoting to his favorite talking points: Teach for America, New Orleans, and educational practices in other countries.
When a member of the audience called out Michigan for its lousy schools, Stewart agreed. He referred to the traditional system and the charters in Detroit as “a mess.” As a non-ideologue, Stewart calls a spade a spade regardless of a school’s governance model. Heilig refuses to do the same. And that is a major problem for kids.
Heilig continued to be a cheerleader for the recent charter moratorium resolution passed by the NAACP. But when Stewart talked of the Los Angeles Unified School District recently agreeing to pay $300 million dollars to settle sexual abuse cases that happened on their watch, Heilig couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge it. Stewart wondered aloud if perhaps we need a moratorium on LAUSD or on the Texas district proven to be knowingly denying students their special education rights. Heilig had nothing to say about that.
Stewart repeatedly brought it back to parents and asked people to put themselves in the shoes of parents who are quite literally desperate for their kids to have a better school and a better life. He doesn’t accept the implication that low income parents are somehow too ignorant to make choices for their children and he questions how a society can be fine with Section 8 housing then cry foul over vouchers for poor kids to have access to better schools.
I’m always going to reject the notion that poor parents are somehow ignorant and middle class and upper income parents are somehow universally informed. Neither is true. Middle class parents actually believe a lot of their schools are a lot better than they actually are.
Heilig chose to center his arguments way out in the hinterlands of education research and worked hard to counter Stewart by pointing to very narrow and specific anecdotes or programs that support his position. He talked about the democratic process as some sort of panacea when it comes to schools while ignoring the terrible consequences democratic elections can also have, especially for kids and families. He seemed to want to play a game of gotcha with ideas and schools he doesn’t like instead of talk about what we can do right now to help low income parents access greater and better opportunities. On the heels of Stewart’s closing argument, Heilig jumped in to talk about the data set he’s creating. No. No. No.
The audience also seemed to agree that Stewart made the strongest arguments. The goal of this style of debate is to move the audience from their pre-debate position to your side of the argument. Audience members vote on the motion at the beginning and again at the end.
The motion read this way:
Charter Schools and Vouchers are the Answer.
At the start of the event, only 11 percent agreed with this statement. At the end, 43 percent did. By contrast, 89 percent of the audience disagreed with this statement when they arrived and at the end, only 52 percent did. Zero percent were undecided at the start and that number grew to 7 by the end.
So thank you Chris Stewart. Thank you for doing the hard work it takes to rebut guys like Dr. Heilig on substance, thank you for continuing to stand up for poor parents, and thank you for believing that the way things are now doesn’t mean they can’t change.
Thank you for never stepping foot in that ivory tower. We need you down here on the ground.