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The Invisible Student

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

[Excerpt from a Political Stump Speech in October, 2012]

"Giving students trapped in bad schools a genuine alternative requires four things: (1) such alternatives must exist, (2) parents must receive clear information about the performance of their current school and of the alternatives, (3) students must be allowed to move to a new school, and (4) students must bring funding with them so that new schools can afford to serve them.  My reforms achieve each of these objectives by allowing low income and special needs students to choose which school to attend by making Title I and IDEA funds portable."
(Adapted from Mitt Romney.com)

That is what some of our politicians would like us to think. In reality, vouchers for students might create situations more like this . . .

Fortunate Voucher Recipient (FVR) walks down the hallway of his new school, a little overwhelmed, but also proud that he made it out of his under-funded, struggling inner-city school and into one of the best schools in the area. It was just like the politicians said, he did it himself. He used that voucher that they were talking about to lift himself up by his bootstraps and make somebody of himself. He did that. And now he’s strolling like a big man down the hallway of the rich school his friends back home told him he’d never get into. He did that, despite what anyone said, and all that stupid talk about not fitting in. Whatever. They’re just students like him.

But as FVR slows down, looking for the classroom for his first day in the new school, he starts to notice that people are moving away from him- giving him a wide path and that most seem to have clothes from the most expensive stores in the mall compared to his generics from Wallymart. He stops – right in the middle of the hallway and the other students just walk around him like he isn’t even there. He looks straight at some dude with a football jacket and  Bieber hair, and says, "heh?" The kid doesn’t even glance at him or make eye contact – just strolls right on by like FVR is invisible.

When he finally finds the classroom on his own, because no one will help him – they treat him like a leper – the only chair for him looks like it just got brought up from the cellar. He looks at the teacher for help, but the man barely acknowledges him, nodding at the dilapidated chair. Frustrated, FVR sits and doodles aimlessly on his notebook. After what seems like forever, the bell rings and he stands up slowly. He steps toward the door to the room and is brushed aside by a rush of people heading out. Flustered, he leans against the wall to wait for the rush to die down. When it does, he heads for his next room, only to find that there are no empty seats in this room. Confused, and more confused because this teacher gives him an angry look – FVR sits on the floor at the back of the room.

The class starts, and he is completely overwhelmed by the math that’s being put on the board. FVR knows he is a good student. He studies hard and gets good grades in his school. According to his schedule, this should be a class he can do – maybe even one that would be a little boring for him. He raises his hand to ask if he is in the right room, but the teacher won’t call on him. He keeps his hand in the air for a long time – waiting. Eventually the bell rings again and he gets up to talk to the teacher. But the teacher, along with the students has left the room. He follows.

The crowd seems to be almost all heading in one direction. Up ahead he sees a sign for the cafeteria with some ritzy ‘chez’ name. He’s hungry and can’t wait to get his lunch. He’s curious to see what kind of food they have in this school. He gets in the line, grabs a tray and proceeds through the lunch line. He takes a milk, apple, pizza, and heads to the cashier. The woman pushes some buttons and holds out her hand. FVR looks at her, confused. Then he glances at the cash register that’s showing $3.50. He didn’t bring that much money. In his school, all his lunches were free. 

He slams down the tray and heads for the cafeteria door. As he gets close, he notices that the whole room is quiet. Dead quite, and everyone is looking at him. He opens the door and the collective release of held breath pushes him out of the building. As the door closes, he hears the school return to normal.

Jared, the boy with the Bieber hair and football jacket turns to his friends and says. "I knew he couldn’t last the day. Those voucher kids can never take the Invisible man treatment. Good riddance. This is our school!"

A Work of Fiction?
The work of fiction that you have just read is inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel as well as the classic Universal Monsters (literally) Invisible Man (inspired by the H.G. Wells story), and the increasing talk this election season about school voucher programs.
 

Vouchers represent a thinly veiled plan to allow the best, brightest, and generally most affluent students to leave failing, or even marginal schools to attend "better" schools. The hype is that they help minorities obtain a better education by allowing them to move out of their neighborhood schools and into the best schools that they can find. This piece, however, attempts to imagine the reception that those students might receive from their new schoolmates when they essentially "invade" a school with an existing social structure, routines, and standards.

A far better plan than allowing students – and the funding tied to them – to flee bad schools is to make all schools excellent so no one feels the need to attempt to integrate themselves into schools where they may not fit or may not be welcomed. This is not an argument against integration, or in favor of segregation – quite the opposite. If every school was an excellent school, urban flight would be curtailed and the parents of the privileged would have no reason to pull their students out of schools, which is the actual cause of educational segregation.  

As the election nears, vote "NO" for any voucher initiative or any candidate that thinks these tickets of false hope can save education. They might help a select few students, but ultimately will do much more harm than good.

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