Remembering Ellen Brantlinger

“We’ve lost a warrior for public education,” a friend told me this week at the memorial service for Ellen Brantlinger. Yes, she was that and much more.

Ellen was a teacher, scholar, mother, wife, grandmother, neighbor, friend, gardener and quilter. She was also, for the past 30 years, the most passionate and eloquent advocate in Bloomington not just for public education but for fair and equitable schooling for all.

A professor in the School of Education at Indiana University, she died on March 24, just over two weeks after suffering a stroke. She was 71.

She was an advocate for public education, but not an uncritical one. An abiding theme of her research was the harm that’s done when schools sort children into winners and losers, often on the basis of family background. Her books included The Politics of Social Class in Secondary School: Views of Affluent and Impoverished Youth and Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.

During the time that Anne Kibbler, Laura Lane and I wrote about education for the Bloomington Herald-Times, Ellen was the go-to source for frequent stories about social class and schooling – often in the context of disputes over elementary-school redistricting. She was unfailingly patient and thoughtful in answering our questions and aiding our understanding.

The topic was personal for Ellen. When her children were young, the nearby Elm Heights Elementary School was closed. Parents in her affluent university neighborhood rose up against an initial plan to transfer their children to schools that served low-income families. As a result, they were given a choice of where to send their kids. They overwhelmingly chose a school where most parents were well off, like themselves.

Ellen was surprised and disappointed that her liberal neighbors seemed eager to keep their children from going to school with poor kids, and alarmed at the result – continued concentration of poverty in certain schools. But she would recount the experience with a smile, appreciating the irony.

She retired from IU in 2004 and subsequently volunteered as an advocate for children in the family court system and in the library at Fairview Elementary School. At the time of her death, she had been organizing an issues forum for the Monroe County group of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

An H-T editorial said it about as well as it can be said: “She was a conscience for the community. Her persistence helped raise awareness that the playing field is far from level for young people who walk through the school doors, and that the school corporation needs to help level it when possible.”


Why not ban private schools?

Super-investor Warren Buffett has received a lot of ink lately for his assertion that he and other rich people should pay taxes at as high a rate as ordinary working folks. But maybe you haven’t heard about another Buffett proposal, one that is equally provocative: Ban private schools.

It’s apparently not a new idea for Buffett, but it got renewed notice in January with a Time magazine cover story. “He’s only half joking when he says he’d like to see private schools banned so that rich families would be forced to invest in the public K-12 system,” wrote Rana Foroohar.

Jason Kamras, chief of human capital with the District of Columbia Public Schools, endorsed and elaborated on the idea in a recent Q&A with Hechinger Report. What’s required, he said, is eliminating not only private schools but any form of school choice: No charter schools, magnet schools or home-schooling. Everyone’s children would attend public schools, with assignments made by lottery.

As a result, Kamras suggested, engaged and empowered parents, instead of trying to find the best school for their own child, would devote their energy to making sure their kid’s school is the best it can be. “If these changes were put into place, how fast would it take to turn things around?” he said. “Five minutes? Ten?”

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, supported the idea in a 2010 essay, attributing it to Buffett. She later made an apparent about-face, becoming an aggressive champion of parental choice, even advocating publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, says Finland doesn’t allow private education – and that’s one of the secrets of its success in combining excellence with equity.

Of course, private schools won’t be outlawed in America, which has a long history of religious education – and where the idea that successful people can do whatever they want with their money is almost a religion in itself. The Supreme Court would no doubt find a right to private schooling in the Constitution.

But the value of the “thought experiment,” as Kamras calls it, is that it lets us imagine how things might be different if all parents had a personal stake in ensuring that every school served the needs of all its students. Would so-called education reformers still argue that class size doesn’t matter when talking about their own children’s schools? Would they insist that money isn’t important? Would they applaud a single-minded focus on raising test scores in math and reading?

Or would we find a way to create schools that provide rich opportunities for all, for “other people’s children” as well as our own?

Plucker blogging at Ed Week

Indiana University professor and Center for Evaluation and Education Policy director Jonathan Plucker is guest posting this week on the Rick Hess Straight Up blog at Education Week.

Plucker kicked off Monday with a piece on the PISA and TIMSS international assessments – and how Americans typically draw the wrong lessons from the way our students’ scores compare with those of students from other countries.

According to an IU news release, look for Plucker to also write about “excellence gaps” between high-achieving white, Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic children; the No Child Left Behind Act waivers that the U.S. Department of Education is granting; and Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully’s recent book about a year at Indianapolis Manual High School.