Lack of Trusted Authority is Why Covid-19 is Kicking Our Butts

We have faced tough times before.

World wars, famines, pandemics, economic ruin.

But in each of these disasters, the majority of people thought they had somewhere to turn for knowledge and advice.

We had trusted authorities to tell us what to do, to counsel us how to handle these seemingly insurmountable disasters.

Today many of us face the Covid-19 pandemic feeling there are few sources to believe in – and that more than anything else – is why we are having such a difficult time coming together to overcome this crisis.

The media, government, science, religion – none hold a central place of confidence in most people’s lives. So when tough decisions about health and safety come into play, many of us aren’t sure what to do.

This wasn’t always the case.

Look back to World War II.

Not only did we defeat fascism but new vaccines put a wallop on illness and disease.

When we entered the fray, the US government organized new research initiatives targeting influenza, bacterial meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, measles, mumps, neurotropic diseases, tropical diseases and acute respiratory diseases.

And because there was an immense trust in government – after all, as a nation we had been attacked together as one at Pearl Harbor – there was enormous trust in these initiatives.

Before World War II, soldiers died more often of disease than of battle injuries. The ratio of disease-to-battle casualties was approximately 5-to-1 in the Spanish-American War and 2-to-1 in the Civil War. In World War I, we were able to reduce casualties due to disease through better sanitation efforts, but we could not protect troops from the 1918 influenza pandemic. During that outbreak, flu accounted for roughly half of US military casualties in Europe.

Much of the groundwork for innovation in vaccinations had already been laid before WWII. However, it was the organization of the war effort and the trust both the civilian and military population had in government that catapulted us ahead.

I’m not ignoring that some of this trust was misplaced. The US government has never been fully trustworthy – just ask the Asian American population forced into internment camps. However, the general feeling at the time that the government was a force for good, that we were all in this together and we all had to do our part had a vast effect on how we handled this crisis.

Today that kind of trust is gone.

In some ways that’s a good thing. It could be argued that “The Greatest Generation” put too much faith in government and the following years showed why too credulous belief in the good will of our leaders was unearned and unhealthy.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct to George W. Bush lying us into a war of choice to Barack Obama’s neoliberalism to Donald Trump’s gross mismanagement and blatant racism – we can never go back to a WWII mentality.

Skepticism of government is kind of like seasoning. A certain amount is a good thing, but the inability to trust even government’s most basic ability to take care of its citizens and function in any meaningful way is hugely detrimental.

And this earned distrust has seeped into just about every source of possible certitude that might have helped us survive the current crisis.

The media used to be considered the fourth estate – one of the most important pillars of our society. After all, the freedom of information is essential to the free exercise of democracy.

However, the erosion of impartiality has been going on since at least the 1980s when the FCC under President Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Since 1949 this had required the media to present both sides’ of opinions. In 1987 a Democratic Congress passed a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine but it was vetoed by Reagan.

This, along with the rise of talk radio and the insistence that news departments turn a profit, lead directly to the creation of more biased reporting skewed to a particular audience – Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group being the most prominent.

The fact that just six corporations own 90% of the media outlets in the country skew coverage to what’s in the best interests of big business. These corporations are GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS.


Finally, the loss of local newspapers and the purchase of those few that do exist by large media conglomerates further increase bias.

Few people feel they can trust the news anymore. They turn to the Internet, social media, Twitter and other sources that often are just echo chambers for what they already believe.

The irony is not lost on me that you are reading a blog by a public school teacher, not a professional journalist. But my aim is to use my experience in education to inform the debate.

It’s just too bad that I’m often forced to report the news when traditional news sources drops the ball.

Again skepticism of mass media is a good thing, but we should at least be able to count on the press as a reliable source of facts. However, these days few facts are free from bias, spin and editorial comment.

Even science is not immune.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made several blunders handling this pandemic which hurt the organization’s credibility.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the organization refused to acknowledge and later emphasize the airborne spread of the virus. It took until May 2021 for the organization to fully recognize that fact.

Another blunder was the guidelines on what counts as “close contact.” It went from “within 6 feet” to “within 3 feet”, and the duration went from 30 minutes consecutively to 30 minutes cumulatively. It’s not so much that the evidence changed, but that political pressure forced the CDC to lower its standards.

World scientific consensus now is that the coronavirus is capable of airborne spread without close contact between two people. Airborne droplets can linger in the air indoors and infect any number of people from one superspreading host subject.

The CDC’s advice on close contact is based on old scientific research that just isn’t as good as modern experiments.

And the organization has misjudged so much more from the importance of masking (at first they said it wasn’t important, now they say it is important), whether children can catch the virus (at first they said this was unlikely and now they admit it happens but is often asymptomatic), whether Covid spreads in schools (they used to say the limited protections in place at schools made this unlikely and now they admit it is happening), etc.

One could argue that these were simple mistakes that have changed as better science comes in. However, in each case they appear to have initially been politically motivated and justified with limited or flawed studies that could not continue to be supported as new data came in.

At first the CDC told us that masking wasn’t important not because it was true, but to hide a shortage of masks that needed to be prioritized for medical staff. These needs are understandable, but hiding the truth and then changing your messaging doesn’t engender trust.

Misinformation about the impact of Covid on children was an attempt to keep schools open and stop the economy from shutting down as parents were unable to work. Not only did this put children at risk for economic gain, it has contributed to the current refusal of so many people to follow CDC guidelines about reopening schools.

Why do so many people refuse to have their children wear masks at school? Why is there so much vaccine hesitancy? Why anxiety about reopening plans that focus on close contacts?

The CDC owns a lot of the responsibility because it has repeatedly earned our distrust.

This isn’t to say everything coming from them is dubious. I think the guidelines the CDC has put in place for the current school year are supported by the facts.

I think there is evidence that people need to wear masks in schools. I think we need to vaccinate as many people as possible.

But these are just bare minimums.

I think the CDC is still focusing too much on the economic impact of its guidelines when it should be solely focused on the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

This is not a time for scientists to be playing politics.

We need them to be as transparent as possible – as trustworthy as they can be.

Unfortunately, the erosion of institutional credibility at so many levels has become a cycle to itself.

At multiple levels, sources that should be bedrock have become wet sand.

The federal government has not taken enough action to keep people safe. State governments have not taken enough action – and some have even taken action to prevent safety.

Even at the local level, many school boards have cowardly refused to put in place mask or vaccine mandates.

It is the systematic breakdown of a society.

We have few places left we can trust.

And that is why we are fractured and scared.

We don’t know what to do to keep our loved ones safe.

People seem forced to choose between taking the virus seriously and ignoring it.

Many refuse to admit that it could hurt them. They think it’s just the sniffles. Few healthy people die and they discount the potential longterm effects of catching it.

The US has only 4% of the world population but nearly a quarter of all Covid cases.

That’s not a coincidence.

In large part, it’s because we don’t know how to combat the virus because we don’t know who to trust.

And the resulting credibility vacuum has enabled unscrupulous politicians, agents of chaos and other charlatans to position themselves as experts.

When all information is equal, disinformation is king.

The solution to the pandemic may end up being easier than this riddle.

How our institutions can regain their credibility.

Especially when our politics doesn’t allow them to be honest, and fewer people are even listening to them every day.


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Why We Need a Department of Education

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Let’s say you have a starving child.

 

 

You take out a knife, a fork and a spoon. You hand her a cup.

 

 

This isn’t what she needs.

 

 

She needs food. She needs water.

 

 

But the utensils seem a precursor to meeting those needs.

 

 

That’s what the Department of Education has always been – a tool and a promise.

 

 

But now the Trump administration wants to do away with even that polite fiction.

 

 

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the plan to merge the Education and Labor departments.

 

The reason you may not have heard much about it – beside the fact that bigger stories have overshadowed it like the forced separation of undocumented children and parents at the border, coercing kids into immigration court without parents or even legal counsel and then locking them up in cages in detention centers – is that the plan has about zero chance of coming to fruition.

 

Democrats oppose it and there don’t even seem to be enough Republicans in favor to get it through Congress. It may not even have enough support to get a vote.

 

Unless it’s a huge tax cut for the rich, no one seems able to get any actual laws through this GOP controlled legislature.

 

Moreover, the proposal is a definite step backward. The Department of Education was created in 1980 by splitting the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

 

At that time, its purpose was clear. It was a tool to increase funding equity and transparency while protecting students.

 

 

After all, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools.

 

 

As President Jimmy Carter said upon signing the bill into law:

 

 

“First, [the Department of Education] will increase the Nation’s attention to education. Instead of being buried in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy, educational issues will receive the top-level priority they deserve. For the first time, there will be a Cabinet-level leader in education, someone with the status and the resources to stir national discussion of critical education concerns.”

 

 

Unfortunately, those principles were never fully realized.

 

 

The Department did increase funding to public schools, but it didn’t end up dramatically increasing opportunities for the underprivileged.

 

 

Sure, it provided targeted grants like Pell Grants that did offer opportunities to select groups of students. But it didn’t radically alter our outdated (even then) funding system.

 

 

Our schools are segregated by race and class – worse now than they were then. Since they’re funded primarily by local property taxes, that means the poor and minorities get less funding than richer whiter kids.

 

 

And unless you’re willing to let your kids go to a school that receives less funding than others, don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. Rich white people have long complained about the money we spend on other people’s children while doing everything in their power to protect funding for their own.

 

 

In the late 1970’s, it was hoped the creation of the Department would be the first step to increasing federal funding of schools to one third of the total cost, thereby leveling the playing field somewhat.

 

 

But that never happened.

 

 

Now as then, the federal government only funds less than 10 percent of the cost.

 

 

To return to the metaphor with which this piece began, the creation of the department was like handing a starving child utensils without much actual food.

 

 

As the years have passed, we’ve used those tools for everything except nourishing students.

 

 

We’ve fed the child by guiding an empty fork into her cheek. We’ve poked and prodded her mouth with a knife.

 

 

The result hasn’t been for her benefit. Instead we’ve let special interests feed off of HERcharter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing corporations, the ed tech industry and even book and software publishers through the boondoggle of Common Core.

 

 

Many have insisted this misuse of the Department means we should do away with it entirely.

 

 

I disagree.

 

 

The child is still starving. It is still our responsibility to feed her.

 

 

You don’t do that by taking away her utensils.

 

 

Oh, you can feed her without them, but not very effectively. She can drink from the sink, but not as well as from a cup. She can eat with her hands, but not as easily as with utensils.

 

 

This latest proposed merger wouldn’t really satisfy anyone.

 

 

It wouldn’t do away with the department – it would hide it behind closed doors.

 

 

It would simply make it harder to see what was happening to it.

 

 

Moreover, it betrays an ideological bias against education for its own sake. Making the Department of Education part of the Department of Labor implies that the only reason one goes to school to learn job skills.

 

 

One can imagine a newly reorganized federal effort to cut anything from our schools that couldn’t be immediately connected with becoming a worker drone. And I don’t mean to imply this would be a new effort, because it’s already what President’s George W. Bush and Barack Obama were using the Department to achieve. But now it would be in the shadows and who knows what monstrosity could grow without the cleansing light of day?

 

 

This would help no one. It would be a continuation of the status quo (or possibly a doubling down on it) under a different name.

 

 

No one needs that.

 

 

What we need is to roll up our sleeves and meet students’ needs.

 

 

The child is hungry.

 

 

She has been sitting before us starving for decades and all we’ve done is give her the means to eat without the food.

 

 

Isn’t it time someone open the cupboard and get this kid something to eat!?

 


 

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Don’t Trash the Department of Education. Fix It.

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How do you get people to refuse a helping hand?

Answer: Prove to them that it’s not helping.

That’s the strategy of the Trump administration in regard to his cabinet of billionaires. The Reality TV star turned President has nominated a series of out-of-touch and unqualified one percenters to head various federal government agencies.

Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, Ben Carson – Each of these silver spooned numbskulls was put in place to “prove” to the American public how inane and useless the federal government is – by making the federal government inane and useless.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the Department of Education with its Republican mega-donor turned Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos.

DeVos has spent her entire adult life buying off mostly Republican lawmakers throughout the country to destroy public schools and replace them with charter, private and parochial schools.

She is a self-inflicted cancer on the system, a know-nothing religious zealot who spouts more factually challenged whoopers than Sean Spicer and Donald Trump combined.

But the endgame for putting a person who barely ever walked into a public school in charge of nationwide public school policy is clear – she’s there to demonstrate why the department should be disbanded.

With every idiotic statement, every Unconstitutional policy suggestion – she’s a corporate sponsored demo of why we need to trash this cabinet position altogether.

This has been the conservative dream since President Ronald Reagan. How dare his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter create a Department of Education, in the first place! Not only did Ronnie, the B-movie actor turned chief executive, have to defeat Carter, he needed to erase all of his predecessor’s policies. (Sound familiar? [Cough!] [Obamacare!] [Cough!])

And with Betsy DeVos’ help, Trump may finally get to realize Reagan’s dream.

To be fair, President George W. Bush did his fair share to make the department unpalatable. And so did Barack Obama!

Under Carter, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools. However, Bush transformed it into No Child Left Behind, a blatant federal power grab changing the focus to high stakes standardized testing and punishing schools that taught poor children.

Obama took this terrible legislation to its inevitable conclusion and transformed the Department of Education into a bribe factory, dangling federal help before impoverished schools only if these schools would spend it on test prep, edutech software and Common Core. Never mind that these “reforms” don’t actually help children. It was all about helping the corporations behind them.

Much of the modern zeitgeist behind the continued movement to disband the department comes from authentic bipartisan opposition to these changes. The modern Department of Education hasn’t been much of a helping hand for almost two decades. It’s been a cruel taskmaster and a money laundering service for the publishing and testing industry. And it’s overstepped its federal authority coercing states to do as Washington bureaucrats (or at least their wealthy donors) demand.

Add to that the new wrinkle of DeVos – a representative who is all of those things but also transparently self-serving and – frankly – stupid.

No wonder people want to disband the department!

It’s a rallying cry that’s not hard to get behind. Unless you think about it for two minutes.

Because it’s not the Department of Education that’s the problem. It’s what we’ve done to it.

The department has a vital and important role to play in making sure our system of public education serves everyone. Speaking in broad terms, the department should be dedicated to these three things: ensuring public schools are being properly funded, student and parent civil rights are not being violated and to be a repository for national data and research.

These are incredibly important. Right now we have one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the world. The majority of public education funding comes not from the federal government or the states, but from individual communities. If you live in a poor neighborhood, your kids get less education funding. If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get more. This is why the nearly 50% of all public school children living in poverty are struggling academically – we aren’t providing them with the resources to succeed.

The state and federal government could be doing something about that. At the federal level, the department of education oversees billions of dollars in grants to poor schools. Admittedly much of that money is tied to standardized testing and other corporate education reforms. We should cut those ties. We should provide help for proven, authentic education practices freely chosen by these districts. That’s something that could have a huge impact on student success. And it’s a project we should expand, not destroy under draconian budget cuts or the closure of the department.

Second, we have to admit that parents’ and students’ civil rights are often in jeopardy. This means special education students seeking an appropriate learning environment and modifications. This means students being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This means minority students facing disproportionate discipline policies, unfair grading and/or lack of opportunities offered to other racial or ethnic groups. This means women and transgender students suffering discriminatory dress codes or bathroom policies. In short, it means that someone needs to be the moderator and protector of student and parent rights.

And finally, there needs to be a repository of national student data. This has gotten a negative connotation lately because of Bush and Obama’s incredibly permissive policies allowing edutech companies to collect a horde of student data for economic purposes. Let me be clear: The department shouldn’t be doing that at all. Student privacy should be respected. Computer programs and apps should not collect sensitive information about individual students to be sold to advertisers or used to market products to them.

But there is an incredible amount of aggregate information about student groups collected by the federal government that could be used to help improve the lives of students. This includes information on the racial proficiency gap and the amount of resources provided by states and municipalities. Moreover, we need an impartial entity to fund educational research about which reforms actually help students learn. Relying on corporations to fund research that “proves” the efficacy of their own products is not good science.

In short, disbanding the Department of Education would be a disaster. What would happen to Pell Grants, for instance? What would happen to the bundles of federal money that boost our public schools? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

If we got rid of the department, at best these jobs would fall back on other government agencies that haven’t the funding, staff or ability to accomplish them. More likely, it would result in the elimination of billions of education dollars that the states simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) replace. Abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.

I sympathize with those who wish to make government more efficient, but the Department of Education is not a place to make cuts. If you really wanted to close an unnecessary federal department, start with the most recent one – the Department of Homeland Security. Nowhere else is there a more obvious duplication of services and waste of tax dollars to provide a service that was already being provided. But you never hear anyone suggest we close this department because (1) it was proposed by a Republican, and (2) as a nation, we have a broad, bipartisan priority on the safety of our citizens.

If only we had the same for public education!

But we don’t. In fact, many conservatives scoff at the very idea of public schools on the grounds that it’s “socialism” – as if social security, Medicare and a standing military were not!

Too many people have bought into the lie that there is something unAmerican about public school. On the contrary, our system is implicit in our very form of government and the flower of our founding fathers’ thoughts.

The rich and powerful don’t want a robust system of public education because it goes against their interests. An informed, thinking public is harder to control. They especially don’t want minorities or the poor to be well-educated because once people realize how much they’re being exploited, they won’t continue to submit to the status quo.

In short, the Department of Education needs to change. It needs to be revitalized from the ground up. And DeVos is not the person to do it.

However, we shouldn’t let her incompetence make us throw it all away. We need to find ways to agitate, resist and survive the Trump administration while preserving as much as we can of our Democracy – and our sanity – in the process. We need to find and support prospective lawmakers and public servants who will actually represent us, the people, instead of Trump’s billionaire buddies. We need a robust, grassroots movement to take back our government.

And then we can begin the hard work of making our government work for us again. Part of that will involve the Department of Education.