No piece of journalism is ever perfectly-crafted or argued, and I think Matt Yglesias' defense of charter school donor/advocate Whitney Tilson, who I criticize in my essay on Class Warfare, is generally fair.
Yes, Tilson is a Democrat who has donated to many politicians who support progressive taxation and better social services for the poor. I admire Tilson for being one of the "Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength," signing a letter in support of raising taxes on wealthy folks like himself. And I'm a commited reader of Tilson's invaluable, though sometimes overheated, school reform newsletter.
The point I tried to make in my essay, however, was not, as Matt writes, that "the focus on schooling is kind of a mask for people who want to avoid grappling with other inequities." I agree with Tilson, and with Matt, that school reform is a productive lever for social change–if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be devoting my professional life to this topic! Rather, my point was that the political/rhetorical contention of some education reformers that teacher-quality reforms alone can significantly overcome poverty is wildly misleading. This becomes clear when one looks at the body of social scientific research on the forces that shape poor children's lives. As I write in the essay, we cannot downplay or ignore all the other elements of schooling–let alone other policy areas–that can help close achievement gaps, from rich, culturally-relevant curricula; to academic and social counseling; to vocational training; to civics education.
Unfortunately, we have an education debate that, in the media, is often narrowed into a labor-management issue: "teachers' unions vs. poor kids." Tilson is certainly someone who uses this limiting lens frequently in his writing and speaking. That said, I also know that Tilson, who is intimately involved in the KIPP schools, has a deep understanding of the many challenges of school reform at the classroom and school-level. It wasn't fair for me to suggest otherwise.
I continue to believe, however, that there's a reason why non-unionized charter schools are so attractive to affluent education reformers who hail from the business world: They are a free-market solution based around ideas of competition and choice. But when we require parents to make a complicated set of choices to access a quality education for their children, we set up a certain number of poor kids to get left behind: the vast majority who lose school lotteries or who are never entered into them. Meanwhile, the least-advantaged children become clustered in neighborhood public schools of last resort, isolated from their peers who enjoy more parental involvement.
If we want to address this problem, we should be considering integrationist education reforms, not just policies that seek to make the best out of 100 percent high-poverty schools. And we need to figure out–fast–how to apply the lessons of high-performing schools, whether they be charters, privates, parochials, or traditional publics, to failing schools. As successful school leaders will tell you, an obsessive focus on teacher evaluation and pay isn't enough: Successful schools are built on engaging curricula, effective outreach to families, and so many other factors.