In Defense of ‘Paternalism’: Why Choice Schools Need to Get Better at Grappling With the Family Lives of Their Toughest-Case Students


This essay is adapted from a chapter in How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, edited by Michael J. Petrilli and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and published February 24 by Templeton Press. The book’s co-editors and contributing authors, all right-leaning scholars, public intellectuals and policy leaders — including three former U.S. education secretaries — seek to encourage conservatives to “re-engage” with education policy and reform and think afresh about the changes needed in American K-12 education. The excerpt is reprinted here with permission.

“From the start, I really try to instill in our team that families need to be our partners,” Jessica Nauiokas, the head of Mott Haven Academy, tells me. But she knows there’s a good chance that won’t happen. A third of the kids at this ten-­year-­old charter school in the Bronx reside in foster homes and another third are from families receiving preventive services, meaning they are being watched by the Administration for Children’s Services and could be removed into state custody at any time. Nauiokas adds, “In the event a child comes from the type of family where that parent’s support isn’t going to set them up for school success, we have to find workarounds for that.”

The biggest successes of the education reform movement over the past few decades have been rooted in the important idea that we need to give more power to parents to choose their children’s educational paths — to escape the monopoly of underperforming neighborhood public schools and move their sons and daughters either to public charter schools or private schools with the use of vouchers or scholarship funds. But for the hundreds of thousands of children whose parents can’t be or won’t be partners, it is time for conservatives to start thinking about workarounds.

This is not to detract at all from everything that education reform has accomplished. In return for providing astonishing academic results, not to mention some of the strongest community support, inner-­city Catholic schools and high-­performing charter-­school networks asked only that parents and caregivers act as allies. The results of this bargain have in many cases exceeded reformers’ expectations. Especially in high-­performing charter networks like Success Academy, the KIPP schools, and Democracy Prep, students have surpassed their peers in wealthy suburbs; they have gone on to elite colleges; and their completion rates are also surprising many critics.

But when schools do not have partners in the home — at least one adult willing to be responsible for getting kids to school on time, for ensuring that they get a good night’s sleep and do a little homework — it is hard for even the best of schools-of-choice to succeed. Not only would youngsters from these homes be unlikely to succeed without a stable adult at home, they would be unlikely even to apply for a scholarship, a voucher, or a lottery spot.

It is not uncommon to hear those who oppose the reforms of the past quarter century criticize the no-­excuses model, citing exactly this reason. But the fact that a school model can serve most of a population is not a reason to throw it out. Let me be clear: Choice is worth pursuing because it helps a great many students, but we need another set of policies and practices for the worst off.

The foster care crisis

There are 437,000 kids in foster care in America today, a number that’s been rising for the past few years, thanks in part to the opioid epidemic. (While there are hundreds of thousands of other children also at risk, it is worth focusing on this unique population because it is large and we actually know a lot about it.) For these kids, the future looks bleak. According to Child Trends, a nonprofit research group:

Children in foster care are more likely than other children to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems. They are also more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and to exhibit low levels of school engagement and involvement with extracurricular activities. Children in foster care are also more likely to have received mental health services in the past year, to have a limiting physical, learning, or mental health condition, or to be in poor or fair health.

Children in foster care are not the only kids in thoroughly dysfunctional home situations. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of others who have been in state custody in the past or are receiving “preventive services” because they are at risk of being removed from their homes.

I do not suggest that kids in these circumstances are ineligible to attend charter schools or Catholic schools. Many do and are better off for the interaction with qualified, caring teachers for longer hours each day. Leaders at Democracy Prep, Success Academy, Public Prep, and other such schools are regularly in contact with the Administration for Children’s Services in New York, for instance, reporting trauma and doing all they can to keep kids who are removed from their homes anchored in the same school community. But many schools of choice are simply not equipped to handle the kind of trauma or mitigate the kind of instability that these kids are experiencing at home.

Haven Academy

Haven Academy, for its part, offers kids some of the same lessons they would get at other charter schools, such as the importance of maintaining eye contact with other people while they are speaking. But Haven also spends considerable time, for instance, helping kids to learn empathy. Haven is run by the New York Foundling, the city’s oldest foster-­care agency, which offers it a unique perspective on these situations. And the Foundling also acts as a referral agency, suggesting to families with children at risk that they send their children there.

At the beginning of each year, teachers make visits to students’ homes in order to better understand the environment they are coming from and enable them to meet teachers in a place where they feel more comfortable. Teachers also try to build relationships there with parents or guardians to the extent that’s possible.

Like many New York schools, Haven also has a pre-­K program. Conservatives have rightly noted that the evidence for most pre-­K programs is shaky at best. But there are important reasons to get this particular population into a school environment sooner rather than later. For example, teachers can keep a better eye on their development and report any instances of abuse or neglect.

When students enter the building at Haven, certain physical differences from other schools are immediately obvious. Classrooms are relatively small, but they also have “cozy corners” where students can go to calm down or be alone for a few minutes. At any time during the day, there are additional small rooms where children who are having bigger problems controlling themselves can go with an adult. The rooms are equipped with special “scoop rocker” chairs for children who need to rock in order to self-­soothe. The school also has very specific safety plans for when a student is out of control, including getting other children out of the way.

But this is all a last resort. Kindergartners receive teddy bears at the beginning of the year that they can care for and dress. Teachers use the toys to teach children about empathy and caring for others. They also use the RULER program, an acronym standing for five skills of emotional intelligence: recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions. When they enter a classroom, students are asked to rate their own emotional state, both their level of “energy” and their level of “pleasantness” on a graph. And then they are taught how to be conscious of and shift themselves to a state that is more appropriate for learning.

The school’s efforts to maintain a calm atmosphere extend well beyond encouraging self-­regulation. Instead of a buzzer or bell between classes, two minutes of Bach are played through the school’s speakers. The school has its own counseling staff and is regularly in touch with both biological and foster parents as well as the child’s ACS caseworker. The bureaucracy of child welfare agencies often makes it difficult for schools to find out what is really going on in the home lives of these children. Schools may even make reports of maltreatment but then not learn what happened. Still, schools have to find workarounds for kids to help them function even if they are not sure what is going on at home.

This is also true in the area of discipline. Many of the kids at Haven have no idea what it means to have logical consequences for their actions and there is little expectation that adults can be trusted at all. As Nauiokas explains, “It’s not about, well, we’re going to call your parent and then you’ll be disciplined at home. If it happened at school it should be consequenced at school.” If you misbehave at recess, you lose recess. If you misbehave on a field trip, you won’t be able to go on future field trips. If you destroy property, you’ll have to work to repair it. Particularly for children at younger ages, she says, we want to “help kids start becoming more informed agents. When they break a rule, they know what’s going to happen to them.” This is often very different from what is going on at home.

‘De facto families’

Defenders of the status quo in education will often say that schools cannot make up for all of the deficits that lower-­income children experience in their homes, that schools cannot become their de facto families. Yet many schools, most often parochial schools, push back against this.

Some years ago, I interviewed a young man about his transition from a dangerous neighborhood public school to a local Catholic school thanks to a scholarship. The biggest difference, he told me, is that the latter “felt like a family” — like school was a continuation of home. It was clear from the beginning that his parents and teachers were working together. He explained that his parents didn’t say, “Oh, your teachers will do their job and we’ll do ours. … It was the same vision.”

Sometimes school is the only thing that can make a particular family’s situation work out. I met a family of Sudanese refugees in Omaha. The mother had passed away. The father had to go to Alaska to find work, and the oldest sister was attending the University of Nebraska while taking care of six younger siblings. Had the local Catholic school not surrounded her and all of the children with help and support, it’s hard to see how any of this would have been feasible.

For kids in foster care — whether they are living in group homes, with relatives or nonrelatives (often for just a few weeks before moving on to the next place) — some schools are trying to create what a stable family life would look like. At Haven, lunch is served family style with a teacher at each table participating in conversations and encouraging children to ask each other to pass the potatoes. But Haven is by no means the only school to take on these challenges. Monument Academy opened in 2015 in Washington, D.C., as a charter school with a five-­day boarding program, where several kids live with house parents at the school, eat their meals together, help with chores, and learn to get along in a family setting. (At this writing, Monument’s future is uncertain.)

The SEED Academies are also boarding programs. In Florida, child welfare officials can refer kids to SEED Miami to ensure that kids who are in foster care or whose families are receiving preventive services get first priority for admission.

It’s relatively easy for a typical school to tell a parent that a child seems distracted in school because of a toothache or that the child’s breathing seems labored when running around the playground. But if there’s no one at home who will follow up, some schools may simply have to take on these responsibilities themselves. Monument, for example, has partnered with Georgetown University to provide some medical and dental care to children at school.

Leaders of no-­excuses schools have found themselves having to defend the concept of “paternalism” and don’t much like the word. At KIPP academies, for instance, the administration talks about giving students “choice-­filled lives,” which is a kind of euphemism for a “bourgeois, middle-­class future.” Sure, you can choose to be homeless and unemployed, but we would also like to offer you the “choice” of having a meaningful career that allows you to support a family. The problem, once again, is that when parents are not in the picture as partners, when school leaders cannot say they are simply doing for these kids what their parents want but cannot accomplish, they must defend a more expansive form of paternalism, one in which school leaders and child welfare officials are making choices for children about their futures.

Paternalism reconsidered

As conservatives, our first impulse is often to remove responsibility for such matters from schools. As James Q. Wilson wrote, “Paternalism seems to have democracy as its enemy and bureaucracy as its friend.” Indeed, too often school administrators have abused these powers to contradict parents’ teachings about family matters in realms such as sex education, or to belittle families’ religious beliefs. We are rightly suspicious of the kind of paternalism that public bureaucracies have tried to exercise over the lives of families. (Indeed, some libertarian-­minded folks would like to reduce the presence not only of schools but also of child welfare services in the lives of these children.)

For children without a consistent adult presence in their lives or who have experienced severe trauma at home, school may be as close as they get to a family and conservatives need to find a way to live with that. When it comes to functioning adults (or even partially functioning ones), democracy can work, but when it comes to children, we are stuck with bureaucracy. The question, though, is how to ensure that these involuntary forms of heightened paternalism do not turn into Dickensian institutions and that they are run in such a way as to give these children the advantages they need instead of warehousing them to keep their disadvantages out of public view.

We should encourage some no-­excuse model charters and parochial schools to expand their capabilities, whether that means providing more counseling for students, showing them how to live in a family, helping them access medical care, or providing them with a place to live. Parochial schools, because of their religious missions, may be best equipped to handle this kind of education, but charter schools whose mission is to aid such children can also accomplish a lot. What’s clear is that putting these students into a standard-­issue “special education” setting and expecting classroom teachers to figure something out has not worked.

Lest conservatives worry that all this talk about trauma-­informed care and social emotional learning is code for lower academic standards, the leadership at Haven and Monument know that the schools have an important academic mission as well. Over the years, however, their ability to keep these two in balance has been a challenge. Many kids come to Haven already behind in their classes. They have missed significant amounts of school because of being transferred among different schools. And even children who are capable of doing the work have often been placed into special-­ed classes because of their behavioral issues.

There’s no clear-­cut public ­policy answer to helping at-­risk kids succeed in school. Conservatives are on the right path with their focus on encouraging new models of charter schools and providing public and private scholarship funds to be used in private schools that may be better equipped to handle these challenges.

The temptation may be simply to continue replicating charter schools that are part of already successful networks. But it is vital that we also figure out how to serve students whose parents are not partners. Like other charters hoping to scale up, Monument is putting information about its strategies and successes in the public domain for other schools to use. Because Washington, DC, has a generous funding model for charters, Monument has not had to raise many extra dollars. But other states that are attempting to serve this population should ensure, with their own funding mechanisms, that a school like Monument could open inside their borders as well. Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina all have voucher programs for kids in foster care to attend private schools. In 2018, Oklahoma expanded a program for special-­needs kids to include foster children too.

If these youngsters are to have any chance at success in life, they must catch up academically. And we need to find ways for them not only to finish high school but also to get some postsecondary training. The First Star program of South Jersey, supported by the Pascale Sykes Foundation, is now in its third year, with about 30 tenth and eleventh graders spending several weeks each summer at Rowan University. There, students take at least one college-­level class for course credit in addition to learning their way around a campus. Students also participate in a year-­round program that meets every couple of weeks, where they receive tutoring for the SAT, advice about college applications, and the opportunity to work on group projects, like creating a robot or a radio program. Students also make group visits to colleges.

The federal government also helps children who were in foster care via the Fostering Adoption to Further Student Achievement Act, which allows students adopted on or after their thirteenth birthday to exclude their parents’ income from their federal financial aid forms. And the Chafee Grant finances state-­administered vouchers of up to five thousand dollars per year for former foster care children.

Time to grapple

A middle-­class mother in Brooklyn recently asked me about my research and wondered aloud if she could afford to take in a foster kid or even adopt out of foster care. Her only son was about to graduate college, and she had a little extra room in her apartment. But then she asked how she would afford college for another child. Ensuring that states put money into an education account that follows the child rather than depending on foster families to foot these costs is a vital part of caring for these young people. Doing so will also make fostering and adopting out of foster care more feasible for many middle-­class parents who wouldn’t want to give these kids any less than they would give their biological children.

Not all these kids will go on to college.

In 2017, America Works signed a contract with New York City’s Human Resources Administration to aid hundreds of former foster youths in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The four-­decade-­old organization holds that the first step to getting people to be independent, productive citizens is getting them a job. America Works has placed a half-­million people in jobs with an average starting wage of ten dollars per hour plus benefits. In New York City, more than half of these workers were still employed after six months. Its clients, according to founder Peter Cove, include “single parents, drug and alcohol abusers, the mentally handicapped, the homeless [and] military veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder.”

The program simulates a workday. Participants are required to be there from nine to five. If they show up twenty minutes late or forget to clock out, their caseworkers will explain why this is a problem. And America Works provides counseling and help with working out transportation, childcare, and other factors that may get in the way of employment. With former foster youth, America Works is helping them with high-­school equivalency exams and even college courses. It’s teaching them how to make a household budget.

It’s tempting for conservatives to avoid talking about the educational options for the most at-­risk kids. Because the no-­excuses model has worked so well and because conservatives tend to believe that parents are the best arbiters of decisions about their children’s education, we have not fully engaged the question of what to do with kids who don’t have a stable adult presence in their lives. The concern about getting public schools too involved in the personal and family lives of students has also made us wary of institutions that serve these kids in a more complete way. And our worries that a focus on the social and emotional aspects of kids’ lives will detract from giving them the academic tools they need to succeed has kept many of us from grappling with the questions of how schools can heal the wounds that these vulnerable kids have suffered. But it’s time to grapple.

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