Democracy 1, Oligarchy 0.
That might be the score in the latest contest between corporate education reformers and the Pittsburgh Public School Board.
Special interest groups and the media had stirred up controversy for months over one line in newly hired superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s resume.
Last night the board voted to let the 46-year-old African American start his job as planned Friday morning.
The board voted 7-2 not to cancel his contract. He will be sworn in tomorrow to start a 5-year commitment in the city.
He had been unanimously hired May 18 from the Palm Beach County district in Florida where he had distinguished himself with an excellent record of leadership and enacting authentic reforms.
Though critics cited one line in his resume as too similar to a statement in a Washington Post article, the real reasons for the dispute are ideological.
Put simply, Hamlet favors reforms that have nothing to do with teaching to the test, charter school expansion, closing schools and other market driven policies.
This put him at odds with the usual gang of corporate sycophants:
1) The Campaign for Quality Schools Pittsburgh – a PAC recently formed to Make City Schools Great Again by promoting charter schools and other failed neoliberal reforms.
2) A+ Schools, an advocacy organization that used to champion the same kinds of authentic reforms school directors are trying to enact with Dr. Hamlet’s help. However, after getting a fat check from the Gates Foundation, the group has became a cheerleader for privatization and disaster capitalism.
3) Various foundations who immediately offered to pay for a new superintendent search if the district dismissed Dr. Hamlet – a measure that probably would have meant paying him at least a year’s salary to sit at home.
In short, they want a superintendent who thinks like them who they can control. They want to undermine our elected school board and community input process. They want to further THEIR agenda – not the education of our children.
Pittsburgh school directors are to be congratulated for not giving in to the monied interests.
Even the two directors who voted to remove Hamlet did so for good reasons. Though I thoroughly disagree with them, I think Terry Kennedy and Lynda Wrenn truly have the best interests of students at heart. They have always voted that way before.
It’s easy to write a blog about a district where you don’t live, as I do. They, however, are accountable to their constituents. I’m just a doofus with a WordPress account. They had a lot of information to process and made a tough decision. Thankfully, the other seven board members didn’t see it their way.
But that’s the beauty of it. This was democracy at work! At so many other urban districts throughout the country – even in similarly troubled Philadelphia – decision making “by and for the people” has become disbarred.
Many schools like Pittsburgh’s with a shrinking tax base, large pockets of crippling poverty and a history of state disinvestment are taken over by the state. Bureaucrats and flunkies make these decisions not members of a duly elected school board held accountable by the voters.
In fact, many calling for Hamlet’s dismissal were surely cheerleading just such a move in Pittsburgh. They were hoping to show that democracy doesn’t work in the Three Rivers community and must be replaced with … THEMSELVES.
The defeat of that position is the biggest victory here.
Now Hamlet and the board will get a chance to enact authentic reforms to help the children of Pittsburgh get the best possible education.
Now Hamlet will get to strengthen the restorative justice project already under way at 20 city schools. Instead of simply assigning detention or suspension for student misbehavior, administrators are encouraged to make students set things right after doing wrong.
In Florida Hamlet made a name for himself partnering with the criminology department at Florida Atlantic University on this same project.
It’s widely acknowledged in education circles that suspensions can have lasting impacts especially on black students making them more likely to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Finding an approach to increase discipline without adversely affecting students’ prospects is imperative. This is especially true since Pittsburgh Public Schools have been known to suspend black students at a rate four times higher than white students.
Hamlet also will get to enact measures to transform Pittsburgh’s schools into a central part of the community and not apart from it. Like many on the board, he is an advocate for community schools. That means pushing for social services to help students and the community to make the schools the center of the neighborhood.
Hamlet has received support from all over the city including from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
However, in an unexpected move, some educators came out individually in favor of Dr. Hamlet even though doing so might mean putting targets of their backs from corporate forces.
High School teacher Jon Parker even wrote a blog about the issue where he pulled no punches:
“While the [Pittsburgh] Post-Gazette is complicit in this scheme to defame and destroy Dr. Hamlet, the real enemy here, as always, is A+ Schools. They simply cannot pursue their Gatesian agenda with a superintendent who believes in community schools. They need one who believes in firing teachers. They can’t pursue their agenda if the superintendent believes in collaboration rather than stacked ranking. And they can’t pursue their agenda of closing schools and turning them into charter profit factories if the narrative in our schools shifts away from “achievement” being measured by high stakes tests. Simply put, Anthony Hamlet is not their style, and they can’t stand that Pittsburgh’s community, through real grassroots activism and real community empowerment, elected a school board which genuinely engaged its community in a selection process that produced a once-in-a-lifetime superintendent selection.”
Erin P. Breault, a district teacher with three children who graduated from Pittsburgh Public, wrote to the Post Gazette to praise Dr. Hamlet:
“First, he will be a fine superintendent who will work to foster community schools, increase student learning outcomes and graduation rates. He will be an especially welcome breath of fresh air, not beholden to corporate “reformers” agenda. Second, I am especially alarmed about growing calls for his contract to be dissolved and if it is not, that our democratically elected school board be replaced by an appointed system.
This is outrageous. These attacks on Mr. Hamlet and on the process of the search need to be viewed in context. There are powerful interests including the Pittsburgh foundations, A+ Schools and Students First who are upset that their vision of privatization of our public schools has been challenged by our school district.
They have leapt into action, using their money, and political clout to engage into what amounts to character assassination.”
Kathy M. Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote to the Post Gazette to school them on the definition of plagiarism:
“Mr. Hamlet’s resume is not a copyrighted work of art or nonfiction, such as a novel or a work of history. Nor is it a work of journalism. He was not trying to “pass off” (a legal term) the work of another artist or historian or journalist as his own.
…the outrage over Mr. Hamlet’s resume doesn’t acknowledge why it is that we demand citations from students and historians, or why artists might sue those who have appropriated their work. As the scholar Steven Dutch has argued, in an article called “Sense and Nonsense about Plagiarism,” citations “allow readers to check the accuracy of facts, gauge the credibility of the ideas being presented, know whether an idea is solidly established, controversial or hypothetical, and find further information.” When Mr. Hamlet borrowed a sentence from a Washington Post editorial to express his educational philosophy he did not, to use another phrase from Mr. Dutch, diminish the “credibility of the ideas being presented.”
Finally, the furor over Mr. Hamlet’s resume has had a tone of moral outrage so hysterical that I have been concerned about the toxic mixture of sanctimony and glee expressed by many people I otherwise like and respect. Again, according to Mr. Dutch, “the institutional hysteria over plagiarism [can become] a ‘witch-hunt.’ … Charges of plagiarism are fast becoming the blood sport of choice among academic bottom-feeders.”
Ouch. But perhaps the most incendiary remarks came from Churchill resident Lorraine Turner. In the Post Gazette, she accused the paper of outright racism in its criticism of Dr. Hamlet:
“As an African-American, we are taught this particular lesson many moons ago (along with the talk about police) growing up in, “Pittsburgh, Mississippi.” That lesson is: Black people must run twice as fast and jump twice as high as their white competitors. Black people must be exceptional with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. The comparison of President Barack Obama and Donald Trump will highlight this lesson…
…The editorial goes on using language to highlight nearly every antiquated, racist stereotype referencing black men: Mr. Hamlet made a “perfunctory apology” (he didn’t bow his head and say, “I’se so sorry), Mr. Hamlet “sounded like a nervous student” (just call him boy), then “a bad superintendent” (black is bad), “a good superintendent” (one approved by someone white), Mr. Hamlet “prefers recalcitrance to transparency’ (recalcitrance is when one is stubbornly resistant to authority or guidance — he thinks he’s actually going to have the power of the superintendent!)…
… I hope the board quotes a line from “The Wizard of Oz,” and tells your good ol’ boy editorial staff what the Good Witch of the East told the Bad Witch of West: “Go away, you have no power here!”
In the end, the power of the monied elites evaporated against the power of good ol’ fashioned democracy.
Because the fight against corporate education reform is a fight for representative government.
And the winners of today’s battle are as always our children, our grandchildren, our posterity.