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Walking the Walk to School 

A problem of paternalism

School Board candidate and Wachovia executive Peter Sidebottom has spent years trying to improve education, from California to UNCC to his behind-the-scenes work creating studies for Charlotte's school system. Part of his dedication to public schools, he says, comes from his parents being teachers. In other words, Sidebottom wants what's best for public schools, and he's proved it. There's one problem. Sidebottom -- who is, in effect, the Chamber of Commerce candidate for the District 4 seat on the School Board -- sends his own children to private school.

Some people think that's OK. But others say Sidebottom's candidacy begs the question: if you're committed to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, then why aren't your kids there? Sidebottom responds that all citizens have an obligation to public schools and he's doing his part; and, in any case, he fully expects his children will attend public schools once they've completed their primary education.

Sidebottom is obviously an intelligent, able and sincere man; in fact, I think he'd be a formidable school board member. But there's another issue that leaves me uncomfortable with his candidacy. In a way it's a deeper issue, one that goes back to local government's long and lingering history of paternalism. There's something about school board decisions being made by folks who don't send their children to public schools that smacks of the "we bigwigs will tell you how things should be done; it's for your own good" system that dominated the city's politics for decades.

Charlotte has a lot of civic-minded people of means who pitch in for any number of local causes, which is something to be glad about. And we all know CMS is an immensely important "cause," with very real problems, not the least of which are inequities among schools; an administrative bureaucracy that's on its way to reaching Soviet levels of inertia; and a semi-dysfunctional school board. So help is definitely needed, and it's a good thing the Chamber wants improvements in CMS, even if, as many suspect, it has more to do with being able to recruit new businesses than with concern for school kids.

But there was another time of crisis in Charlotte schools when the city's elite fully supported the schools by actions both public and private. During the 1970s, local schools were rocked by controversy when the city was the national test case for court-mandated busing for integration. Just like now, private school enrollment began to swell, but influential and conspicuous people of wealth, like Bob Culbertson, Ward McKeithen and C.D. Spangler, kept their children in public schools and ran for the school board based on their first-hand knowledge.

Author Frye Gaillard covered schools for the Charlotte Observer during those tumultuous times, and his book The Dream Long Deferred is the definitive account of that era. He says, "I had great respect for civic leaders in the 70s who ran for the school board because they had children in public schools. What the schools need more than anything are bright, prepared kids who wind up improving the quality of education for everyone, and they need the parents of those kids to become active in their children's schools."

An interesting sidelight to this argument is that C.D. Spangler, one of the aformentioned bigwigs who kept his kids in CMS in the 70s, has endorsed Sidebottom (as has former School Board Chair Wilhelmenia Rembert). The issue has nothing if not multiple levels of nuance.

Nevertheless, I come down on the side for walking the walk. And so do others. Realtor Dan Cottingham told Chamber execs a couple of years ago that the best thing they could do to improve the local school system would be for "everyone in this room [to take] their kids out of private schools and put them in public schools." As Don Hudson reported in the daily paper, Cottingham's reasoning was that if you "have a dog in the fight," you're much more likely to fight hard for better teachers and classrooms. That makes sense to me, and it especially applies to potential school board members. Otherwise, it's kind of like a consultant for locally owned restaurants who eats regularly at Morton's of Chicago. Or an avowed Panthers fan who flies every weekend to wherever the Indianapolis Colts are playing.

I can complain about public schools with the best of them, but as a CMS parent, I can also tell you firsthand that kids can get a good education here -- particularly for those fortunate enough to have parents with the time and ability to be involved. It's simply common sense that a school board member should be able to look that involved parent in the eye and say, "I understand exactly what you're talking about."

What this issue gets down to, really, is a difference in the ways people define "leadership." Is it something you provide by bringing helpful messages from on high, or is it best provided by example? I'm not saying Sidebottom wouldn't have good ideas for our schools; in fact, I applaud his involvement. It's just that his ideas would carry more weight if he put his kids where his ideas are.

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