South Teacher Speaks out Against Charter Schools

Antonia Lowell, Staff Writer

Students may have seen social studies teacher Robert Panning-Miller on TV August 30 with Soledad O’Brien, talking about charter schools in Minneapolis. Panning-Miller was featured on the most recent episode of O’Brien’s documentary series. The series, called “Black in America,” focuses on the hardships and inequalities black people face in the U.S.

The newest installment follows a seven year old Minneapolis public school student during his first year at Mahmoud’s Mastery School, a charter founded by Eric Mahmoud, and known for it’s “no-excuses” attitude. The student was far behind the state standards for his grade, and his mother enrolled him in the school to try to bring him back up to standard before it was too late. Panning-Miller advocated against charter schools in the episode, showing the opposing view.

The producer and host saw Panning-Miller speaking at a school board meeting and asked him to do an interview about his opinions regarding charter schools and standardised testing. “I was seen as just one of the bigger critics of what was happening. And then some other people apparently recommended that they talk to me.”

Panning-Miller refused at first; he had seen several episodes of the series and was worried about how he would be portrayed. “I thought that it was propaganda, and that it was full of misleading statistics,” he said. He was afraid his message would be lost or misrepresented.

The producer asked him to reconsider several times and, after consulting several other strong supporters of public schools, he decided to go ahead with the interview. “I felt this side of things, the argument in defense of true public schools had to be out there, even if it gets lost in the message, which it ultimately did,” he said.

The episode had a special premiere screening in Dallas, at the Megafest festival and a panel discussion afterward, which both Eric Mahmoud and Panning-Miller took part in, along with a principal and a teacher from a Dallas public school. The panel covered much the same topics as the documentary, but Panning-Miller was glad to have the chance to reiterate his point without a filter.

Panning-Miller believes charter schools take away much needed funding from public schools, and create an atmosphere of competition. He said “[charters are] creating a system of competition, and when you have competition you have, by definition, winners and losers.” The documentary argued that public schools have failed to equally educate everyone, and charter schools have successfully picked up the slack. The students at Mahmoud’s Mastery School, 99% of whom are black, test consistently higher than students at public schools in Minneapolis. Panning-Miller attests that test scores don’t accurately measure intelligence or progress.

Panning-Miller defended the public school system by saying, “In true public education, we take everyone, and we take them where they are, and we try to bring them forward and educate them as best  we can. Charter schools pick and choose, charter schools create systems that are just very limited in scope for certain students.”