This is my last Chalkboard blog post for The Capital Times. I'll miss much about my job as a reporter, including my colleagues and many of the wonderful folks I've gotten to know covering K-12 education over the last five years.

When I told my editors I'd be leaving, I was anticipating a vote on Nov. 28 on the Madison Prep charter school proposal that has dominated much of local education coverage over the last year and a half. I was looking forward to at least some closure on what's been a fascinating story. Now the final vote on the plan is scheduled for Dec. 19, with an administrative analysis from the district due Saturday. I'll be watching from the sidelines as it unfolds. It should be interesting, to say the least.

Next month I'm starting a new, entrepreneurial phase of my life that has nothing to do with public education, schools, teachers, students, testing, reform, charter schools or collective bargaining agreements.

I'll definitely miss being amid the rich stew of intellectually engaging ideas surrounding public education and its place and purpose in a democracy. Reporting on that conversation has been fascinating, exhausting, exhilarating -- and never dull.

For what it's worth, here are some of my observations as I put aside my reporter's notebooks, file papers and clear out thousands of emails that helped inform my work over the last several years. 

Not all "reformers" actually want reform.

There's a well-funded national campaign made up of conservative think tanks, public relations firms and big-money donors whose mission is to discredit public schools. Some of them just hate the teacher unions and disdain teachers and all public workers.

Others are ideologically opposed to the notion of public education and would like to privatize everything; their releases provide a steady litany about the advantages of "choice" schools, from private voucher schools to for-profit charters that operate with public dollars.

I definitely get propaganda from the various teacher unions, as well. With the releases from WEAC or the American Federation of Teachers, the spin on the message is straightforward and there's no guessing where the money to support the organization comes from.

That's not true with groups with names like the American Federation for Children (pro-school choice) or Education Action Group (strongly anti-union) where it takes more than a casual effort to learn who's providing the money behind the messages (generally it's a handful of extremely wealthy individuals with an ideological bent against public education). 

Overall, these outlets provide a steady drumbeat designed to discredit public education and turn readers against "government schools," sometimes at the rate of two or three press releases a day.

Some of the information is valid. Most of it is distorted or biased. But I see it reported as "fact" by a lot of news media. It has certainly predisposed many people without any real experience with public schools to believe all or most of them are "struggling" or "failing." 

Madison schools aren't failing, by any stretch of the imagination, for many students.

In fact, if you're a white, middle-class family sending your children to public school here, your kids are likely getting an education that's on a par with Singapore or Finland -- among the best in the world.

However, if you're black or Latino and poor, it's an unquestionable fact that Madison schools don't do a good job helping you with your grade-point average, your successful completion of high school, your college readiness or your test scores. By all these measures, the district's achievement gap between white and minority students is awful.  

These facts have informed the stern (and legitimate) criticisms leveled by Urban League President Kaleem Caire and Madison Prep backers.

But that doesn't take into account some recent glimmers of hope that shouldn't be discounted or overlooked. Programs like AVID/TOPS support first-generation college-bound students in Madison public schools and are showing some successes. Four-year-old kindergarten is likely to even the playing field for the district's youngest students, giving them a leg up as they enter school. And, the data surrounding increasing numbers of kids of color participating in Advanced Placement classes is encouraging. 

Stepping back from the local district and looking at education through a broader lens, it's easy to see that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have aimed to legislate, bribe and punish their way toward an unrealistic Lake Wobegon world where all the students are above average.

That said, NCLB did do something very innovative in American education by shining a bright light on the dirty truth that a lot of kids ARE left behind.

Like it or not, that reality is no different from when I was a Madison student at Cherokee, Orchard Ridge and Memorial, beginning in the late 1950s. In fact, there were MORE kids falling through the cracks and not succeeding in school then. But no one noticed, or particularly cared. The philosophy? It was their fault ... their problem. It's a big improvement that we don't think that way anymore. 

In the last five years, I've been impressed by most teachers I've come across as I write about their schools, their projects, their students, their struggles. They not only want their students to succeed, they work at it with a kind of missionary zeal that involves long hours and creative thinking.

Personally, I'd love to see some of the state's political leaders who have helped shred teachers' lives and reputations over the last year spend a week leading a classroom. They would surely get an education. If hidden video cameras recorded their efforts, the footage would yield a billion hilarious hits on YouTube, guaranteed.

I've also learned that leadership -- the principal --  defines a school in almost every case.

Forget about testing teachers, or even students. If you want to improve a school, hire a top-notch principal who can inspire teachers and engage parents.

During my tenure as an education reporter, I've visited most Madison district schools and many in surrounding districts as well. I've gotten a feel for what kind of principal is in charge -- or not in charge -- almost the minute I've walked through the door.

The best teachers will struggle with a bad principal. But even the most indifferent parent community will engage with a smart, charismatic school leader who loves the children and respects his or her staff. 

It does, honestly, take a village to educate a child.

Finally, whether I agree with the members of a school board or not, I have to take my hat off to them for taking on a tough, thankless job with no real upside. Yes, they have their special interests and favorites that range from one end of the political spectrum to the other, but they represent the real grass roots of American democracy at work. We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

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