I was so impressed with the policy chops of the seventh grade singers and dancers TAPPED posted about earlier today that I did some reading on the school they attend, the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. As I suspected, it is no ordinary middle school, but an incredibly media-savvy private institution. (Check out the professional head shots of the teachers. They look like the cast of a network television drama.) The school was founded by 36-year old Ron Clark, the 2001 Disney Teacher of the Year, Oprah darling, and author of best-seller The Essential 55. Perhaps Clark's Southern upbringing was at play in creating his teaching philosophy and the book that explains it, a compendium of basic social rules he believes children need to be taught. Examples: "If you are asked a question in conversation, you should ask a question in return." "Do not save seats." "When you win, do not brag; when you lose, do not show anger." I totally support these rules and can be quite a stickler for etiquette. But as one online reviewer quipped, "Clark reminds me of those parents who think that everybody should have perfectly disciplined children because she does. I don't like them much, either."
In any case, Ron Clark isn't a public charter school. It is a year-old private academy with corporate sponsors including Dell Computers, Delta (which sent the students on field trips to six continents), and Promethean (manufacturer of interactive whiteboards). The school is housed in a converted warehouse and features an amusement park-like atmosphere complete with a giant slide. And while it's clear the teachers there are working themselves to the bone and doing amazing work, this is no ordinary group of disadvantaged, inner city kids. Tuition is $14,000 annually, though there is a sliding scale depending on family income, and Clark does extensive fundraising for scholarships. Fifty out of 350 applicants were accepted for the first academic year, only after an extensive interview process. Parents must commit to 10 hours of volunteer service each quarter. That's 40 hours per academic year -- an entire week of work.
In other words, this school is practicing exactly the kind of "skimming" that critics point to as a major shortcoming of the school choice movement. The Ron Clark Academy is the kind of project John McCain and his chief education adviser, Lisa Graham Keegan, would hail, with their record of support for school privitization experiments and vouchers. Undoubtedly, this school and its students are, in every way, extraordinary. But if this campaign had focused at all on education, the candidates would have debated the implications of using schools like Ron Clark as the model for national reform. Alas, that never happened.
cross-posted at TAPPED