Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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An Originalist Reading of Public Schools

Let’s say you went to a restaurant and ordered a big ol’ meat sandwich only to find nothing but straw between two pieces of bread.

“Waiter!” You say, calling over a server.

“What’s wrong, Sir?”

“There’s no meat in my sandwich.”

“Oh, Sir?” He says smiling, examining your plate. “Here at Scalia’s Bar and Grill we adhere to a strict originalist interpretation of language.”

“What does that have to do with my sandwich?”

“Well, Sir, in Old English ‘meat’ meant any solid food, anything other than drink. As in ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ (1775), Samuel Johnson noted, ‘Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat.’”

“But that’s not what I ordered!”

“Oh yes it is, Sir. You ordered the meat sandwich. Enjoy your fresh hay and oats.”

In everyday life, you wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense.

But for some reason, far right ideologues think it’s exactly the right way to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

The meanings of words change over time.

But ignoring that fact allows disingenuous crackpots to sweep over centuries of judicial precedent in favor of what they pretend to THINK the words meant at the time the law was written.

It’s not even about what the writers of the law SAID it meant. It’s about what today’s justices decide some hypothetical average Joe of the distant past would take certain words to mean.

The most obvious example, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, is District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which reversed 200 years of precedent on gun regulations.

Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.

It was about the obligation to serve your country, not the right to own a gun. However, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – the most infamous proponent of judicial originalism – orchestrated the majority opinion in this case changing all that. By doing a thought experiment about what words might have meant in the 1700s, he papered over two centuries of established law. He was so proud of it that he even described it as “my masterpiece.”

THAT’S judicial originalism.

And now that Scalia fanboy and federal judge for not even three whole years, Amy Coney Barrett, is being rammed through Senate Confirmation Hearings, that preposterous ideology is about to have another proponent on the highest court in the land.

Just imagine if we interpreted everything like people living in the 18th Century!

Black people would lose any semblance of equal rights even being forced back into slavery.

Women couldn’t get checking accounts, their own healthcare, make decisions about their own bodies, even vote (least of all hold positions on the Supreme Court).

And our public schools wouldn’t even exist!

After all, there was no widespread, comprehensive system of public education in the country before John Dewey championed it in the 1930s.

Sure, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all spoke at length about the importance of education to a free and just democratic society.

But remember, originalists don’t care about the writer’s intent. They only care about what regular people would understand by the terms. And regular people wouldn’t even understand the words “public” and “school” used together as a single concept at the time.

The first school that opened in what would become the United States was The Boston Latin School in 1635.

Its mission, and that of other colonial schools, was not to teach academics like math and literacy. It taught religion, family values and community spirit kind of like many parochial schools today.

Moreover, most schools were for boys only. If they deigned to teach girls at all, they taught them how to read but not write. No reason to give people a voice who weren’t seen as worthy of being heard.

Academics didn’t become something schools were responsible for until the mid-1800s. And even then, how they went about achieving it differed greatly from region to region of the country.

In the South, education rarely had anything to do with anything we’d call a school today. Rich families paid private tutors for their children. Everyone else was expected to work as soon as they were able.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction era began when public schooling really became a thing in the South.

And even when it did, it didn’t look much like our schools of today. These were often one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher tried to educate children of various ages, grades and abilities.

Moreover, these schools weren’t solely supported by taxes – if at all. These Common Schools were more like private or parochial schools of today. Parents paid tuition, provided housing for the teacher, or contributed other commodities in exchange for their children’s education.

Even then, the learning students received wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as our kids routinely expect in even the most under-funded urban public schools today. And special education services was non-existent. Kids with special needs were routinely left out of education altogether.

Only 31 states passed laws requiring children to go to school by 1900, and kids only went from age 8-14. It wasn’t until 1918 that every state even required elementary school.

But let’s not forget segregation.

It was the law of the land until Brown vs. Board in 1954, and even then it took until the late 1970s to become even moderately enforced.

Subsequent rulings have weakened school integration efforts to such a degree that today many districts are as segregated – if not even more – than they were in the 1950s.

Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!

Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.

Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.

We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.

But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.

Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?

Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.

Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.

Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.

It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.

After all, the GOP platform is certainly different today than it was when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as their first President.

They used to stand for abolitionism, immigrant rights and progressive values.

Now they’re the party of plutocrat neofascist Christian fundamentalism.

If anything were to revert back to its original meaning, I wish it were the Grand Old Party, which is now neither grand, barely a party and merely old.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

How Did America’s Schools Cope with Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus?

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They say history repeats itself.

 

And if you’ve read any accounts of the bygone days of yesteryear, the current crisis certainly appears like a rerun.

 

Look at all the closed businesses, frightened people venturing out wearing face masks or self quarantined in their homes. It sure looks a lot like 1918.

 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the nation a little more than a century ago bares more than a passing resemblance to COVID-19, the coronavirus. And the ways we are trying to cope with the situation are in many cases modeled on what worked a hundred years ago.

 

For instance, when our ancestors enacted social distancing policies to flatten the curve of infection, their infrastructures were better able to save lives. When they didn’t enact such policies, death tolls were greater.

 

That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.

 

However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.

 

After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.

 

In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.

 

But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.

 

They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

 
Let’s begin in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
City officials didn’t take the matter seriously enough and as a result, Pittsburgh ended up with the highest death rate of any major city in the country. The Spanish Flu killed at least 4,500 people – a smaller total than cities like Philadelphia, but it represented more than 1 in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals.

 

According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.

 

This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

Though local colleges and universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed their doors near the start of the outbreak, city public schools initially were kept open.

 

In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.

 

However, as Kenneth White put it in his 1985 article “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918”:

 

“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”

 
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.

 

Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.

 

Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.

 

Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.

 

I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.

 

While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.

 

However, just like Pittsburgh, New York kept its schools open.

 

In an October 5th New York Times article, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland explained his logic behind the controversial decision to keep students in class:

 

“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”

 

In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.

 

In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.

 

According to Francesco Aimone in “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response”:

 

“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”

 
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.

 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”

 

CHICAGO

 

However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.

 

Keeping schools open in the Windy City more closely emulated the situation in Pittsburgh.

 

According to a timeline of preventive measures published in the American Journal of Public Health by Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, city schools weren’t closed because officials didn’t think children were getting sick more than adults. They thought it would be better to keep students indoors where they could be watched for symptoms.

 

However, children ended up dying from the flu in Chicago at a higher rate than their parents.

 

Like in Pittsburgh, any student who coughed or sneezed was immediately sent home – though eventually this also came with a mandatory home quarantine.

 

SMALLER TOWNS

 
Officials were more sensible in smaller towns like Adrian and Tecumseh, Michigan.

 

In both municipalities all schools were closed by the end of October when the epidemic began there.

 

By Dec. 12 there was a plan to reopen, however that was revised as the death toll continued to rise. Schools ultimately remained closed until January 1919.

 

Schools made up the missing days of class by extending the remaining year.
They stayed open for 30 minutes beyond their usual dismissal time and held half-day sessions on Saturdays.

 

Another small town that wasn’t taking chances was Pontiac, Illinois.

 

Not only did officials close the schools, they ended up using them as field hospitals for the sick.

 

Moreover, when classes were cancelled, school age children were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had to run an errand. Anyone with the flu was immediately quarantined in his or her home.

 

Schools were closed on October 15 for what was originally supposed to be just five weeks. However, when the second wave of the flu hit, the closure was extended.

 

Things got so bad that from December 3rd through January 1st, school buildings were used as a hospital to treat those with the flu.

 

By early January, the worst had passed and schools were reopened. Beginning on January 10, 1919, the high school held an extra session on Saturday to help make up some of the missed class work.

 

This seems to be the general pattern. Larger cities tried to push on and keep things as normal as possible – with usually disastrous results. Smaller towns took more serious precautions and limited the death toll.

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

 
Leave it to this district in Polk County to be the oddball.

 

On Oct. 10, the schools were officially closed. But not really.

 

Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:

 

“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”

 

Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.

 

Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.

 

Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.

 

Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help.
 Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.

 

Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.

 

However, instead of waiting for the crisis to pass before addressing any academic deficiencies, many districts are requiring distance learning.

 

Teachers are being made to go in to school buildings or work from home creating online courses from scratch with little to no training.

 

True, this doesn’t expose educators to an added risk of catching the virus, themselves, but it does seem a bit mercenary.

 

We’re in a public health crisis where thousands of people are getting sick and dying. And the thing ourschool administrators are most concerned about is continued academic performance. They’d rather keep going with whatever quality of instruction can be provided in slapdash fashion than wait until it can be provided in the best possible circumstances.

 

They’d rather risk leaving behind those students without Internet access or whose special needs can’t be met online. Anything rather than extending the school year?

 

It’s interesting to compare today’s solutions to those of yesteryear.

 

Why didn’t more districts in 1918 try to make teachers instruct students through the newspaper and over the phone? Why didn’t more districts make teachers go to school buildings and even students homes during an epidemic?

 

Are we really doing the right thing by emulating those solutions?


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-4

Did Rosa Parks Really Support Charter Schools?

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They say history is written by the victors.

 

But fortunes change, and sometimes you can even reclaim a figure from the past who the last round of winners had cast in an unlikely role.

 

Take Rosa Parks.

 

She is universally hailed as a hero of the civil rights movement because of her part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

 

Everyone knows the story. Parks, a black seamstress in Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus and was arrested. Then working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other activists, she helped encourage black people throughout the city to stop riding the buses until they were eventually desegregated.

 

But did you know that 40 years later after she had moved to Detroit, Parks tried to open a charter school?

 

It’s true – from a certain point of view.

 

And school privatization cheerleaders are quick to reference her advocacy.

 

President Bill Clinton used the anecdote to sell the charter school concept in a speech to the NAACP in Pittsburgh in 1997.

 

Joe Nathan, one of the authors of the first charter school law, still likes to troll readers of this blog by bringing that factoid up in the comments.

 

Keri Rodrigues, one of the founders of the Walton front group the National Parents Union, uses it like a trump card on Twitter to shut down privatization critics.

 

The facts are somewhat more complicated.

 

CHARTER SCHOOL CRITICISM

 

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but not bound by the same regulations as authentic public schools including the need to be run by elected school boards. In fact, they are often operated by appointed business interests.

 

Today charter schools are roundly criticized for their limited accountability, lack of local control, tendency to profit off the children they serve, ability to cherry pick students enrolled in them, propensity for draining funding from neighborhood public schools, frequently poor academic records, and inclination to increase racial and economic segregation.

 

Yet lobbyists and industry insiders insist they are civil rights reforms. Being able to tout Parks as a charter pioneer helps them make their case.

 

But did she really do this?

 

I mean Parks went to segregated schools, herself, before Brown v. Board. You’re telling me she actually advocated to start a segregated school in Detroit decades later?

 

THE FACTS

 

Parks did lend her name to a charter school proposal in 1997 that would have opened an institution named for her and her late husband, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Academy for Self Development.

 

However, according to Anna Amato, an education consultant who worked with Parks on the proposal, the Detroit Board of Education put the item on their agenda but took no action.

 

Parks then moved on to other concerns – of which she had many.

 

She spent most of her life fighting the good fight.

 

In 1957 she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where from 1965 to 1988 she was a member of the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr. She remained active in the NAACP fighting against housing segregation in the city, traveling to support Selma to Montgomery marches, developed “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours of civil rights sights, served on the Board of Advocates for Planned Parenthood, and many other actions.

 

The proposed charter school wasn’t exactly a highlight. Nor does it seem to fit with her other endeavors.

 

LEGAL BATTLE

 

But the Rosa Parks who was involved in that proposal was a very different lady than the one who refused to give up her bus seat all those years ago.

 

Parks was 84 at the time of the charter school plan and somewhat isolated from close family. When she died in 2005 at the age of 92, her estate was the subject of a bitter legal dispute.

 

The issue wasn’t the money so much as the priceless historical artifacts associated with her life.

 

Her will left most of the estate to Elaine Steele, a retired Detroit judge and friend of Parks who was also involved in the charter school proposal. She was co-director of Parks’ after-school program, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self Development.

 

Parks, who was later diagnosed with dementia, had abruptly stopped giving interviews in 1995 and lived a mostly secluded life from then on.

 

Her family disputed that the will created in July 1998 represented Parks true intentions. They sued to challenge the estate plan, accusing Steele of using undue influence on Parks. After a protracted battle, the courts eventually sided with Steele.

 

But the picture this paints is not a friendly one.

 

We have an octogenarian Parks lending her name to numerous projects all under the direction of consultants.

 

QUESTIONABLE ASSOCIATES, QUESTIONABLE INVOLVEMENT

 
Amato, in particular, seems to have gone on to become a champion of school privatization and education technologies.

 

She made her name in Detroit pushing these policies for decades.

 

In 1994 she founded Edtec Central, an organization that helps launch and run charter schools. At one point the company operated “two specialized strict discipline academies and one alternative high school in Michigan” as well as provided support and consulting services to other local charter schools. However, there is very little current information on the organization. It’s unclear whether it is still in operation.

 

But as of 2017, Amato still was. She wrote an op-ed praising Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called “DeVos Is a Hero to Detroit’s At-Risk Kids.”

 

This appears to be the woman who advised Parks about opening a charter school.

 

How much Parks was involved is hard to say.

 

When The New York Times wrote an article about the proposed charter school in 1997 by Halimah Abdullah, Parks either refused to be interviewed or was left out of it. But Amato, Steele and even Nathan were quoted at length.

 

It’s hard to believe a journalist for the Times could be such a bad writer as just not to include Parks in the article, especially in a piece titled “Rights Hero Presses Plan For School In Detroit.”

 

It’s much more likely that Parks declined to be included or was purposely left out of the loop by her circle of handlers possibly to hide her slow mental deterioration.

 

It’s understandable why Parks may have surrounded herself with consultants and caregivers.

 

In 1994 when she was 81, Parks was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. The assailant, Joseph Skipper, broke down her door but claimed he had chased away an intruder. He requested a reward and when Parks paid him, he demanded more. Parks refused and he attacked her.

 

Parks was treated for facial injuries and swelling. Though Skipper, a black man, was eventually caught and prosecuted, the incident left Parks shaken and anxious to the degree that she moved from her house to a secure high-rise apartment.

 

Another peak into her personal life was revealed in 2002, when Parks received an eviction notice from her apartment for not paying rent. Both the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and Little Ceasars owner Mike Ilitch claimed to have paid the bill, but Steele says the eviction notice came in error. Parks family blames the incident on financial mismanagement from caregivers. When NBC news reported the story, the network noted she had been diagnosed with dementia.

 

In total, these events provide a sad look at the last years of a civil rights icon. And it’s during this late period that the charter school project was developed.

 

Was it one of Parks’ passions? It’s impossible to tell. It is at least as likely that an elderly and suggestible Parks was surrounded by people who may have been using her name to get across their own agenda.

 

PARKS ON SEGREGATION

 

Consider how out of character a charter school was to Parks former legacy.

 

In 1995 (just two years before the charter school proposal) Parks did agree to an interview where she talked about the importance of education and reminisced on the evils of school segregation:

 

Interviewer: Was there a teacher that influenced you?

 

Parks: My mother was a teacher and I went to the same school where she was teaching. My very first teacher was Miss Sally Hill, and I liked her very much. In fact, I liked school when I was very young, in spite of the fact that it was a one-room school for students all ages, from the very young to teens, as long as they went to school. It was only a short term for us, five months every year, instead of the regular nine months every year.

 

Interviewer: What was it like in Montgomery when you were growing up?

 

Parks: Back in Montgomery during my growing up there, it was completely legally enforced racial segregation, and of course, I struggled against it for a long time. I felt that it was not right to be deprived of freedom when we were living in the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free.”

 

These do not sound like the words of a woman who two years later would push for a segregated school to be opened in her name.

 

PARKS ON DESEGREGATION

 

Moreover, this flies in the face of her work at the Highlander Folk School in 1955. Before she participated in the bus boycott, she took a two-week workshop entitled “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.”The idea was to learn how she could encourage youth groups to push for desegregation.

 

The workshop was her first experience of an integrated learning environment. In a 1956 interview she said that she found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of all races and backgrounds meeting and having workshops and living together in peace and harmony… I had heard there was such a place, but I hadn’t been there.”
Parks took copious notes during the sessions, detailing what each speaker said and her reactions to them. In one section she wrote, “Desegregation proves itself by being put in action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.”

 

Her time there was brief but transformative. It led directly to her refusal to give up her seat and subsequent history of activism. To think that someone so committed to the cause of desegregation would willingly engage in its opposite staggers the mind.

 

But a lot can happen in the intervening decades.

 

Maybe she came to think that well resourced segregated charter schools were preferable to poorly resourced integrated public schools. However, she must have realized that when schools are integrated it is harder to withhold resources. Perhaps she gave up on integration in favor of Afrocentric charters, but that would be a fundamental change in her thinking, indeed.

 

IMPORTANCE FOR TODAY

 

If Parks did wholeheartedly support the charter school project proposed in her name during her twilight years, does it make a difference?

 

Not really. After all, lots of people make bad decisions – even civil rights heroes.

 

We remember these people not because of their biggest mistakes, but because of their biggest victories, how they struggled year-after-year in the cause of human dignity.

 

More important might be an analysis of whether Parks would likely support charter schools today if she were still alive and cognitively sound.

 

In truth, it seems unlikely that she would. After all, Parks was active in the NAACP all her life. Along with Black Lives Matter and the Journey for Justice, The NAACP voted almost unanimously just a few years ago to demand a moratorium on all new charter schools because they exploit children of color.

 

It’s easy to imagine Parks leading that charge.

 

But some folks will tell you Parks ideas of segregation were different than the dictionary definition and that she would be on the side of Betsy DeVos, not modern day civil rights activists.

 

MICHIGAN’S CHARTER SCHOOL FAILURES

 

It’s no accident I bring up DeVos.

 

Like Parks, DeVos’ home is in Michigan and she has had a tremendous effect on education throughout the state, in Detroit, and nationwide.

 

When Parks’ charter school proposal was issued, the concept was pretty new. The first charter school law in the nation had only been passed in 1991 in Minnesota. Michigan didn’t jump aboard until three years later.

 

No one knew then exactly what to expect of the policy or what these schools would end up becoming.

 

Now charter schools have been in Michigan for more than a quarter century and the results are in.

 

They are an absolute disaster.

 

A 2016 report from Education Trust-Midwest, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, found 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan scored below the state average in math and reading proficiency tests.

 

Moreover, the state leads the nation in for-profit charter schools, according to research by Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron. Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies, alone, operates almost 50 for-profit charters throughout the state.

 

After an intensive investigation, in 2014 the Detroit Free Press criticized these kinds of schools for their lack of financial transparency and excessive overhead costs.

 

Maybe it’s my own lack of imagination, but I find it difficult to imagine Parks championing schools that get so much worse academic results than traditional public schools. I find it nearly impossible to imagine her fighting for the right to segregate black children into “separate but equal” schools.

 

 

INCONSISTENCIES

 

 

Charter school apologists will lump Parks in with Trump and DeVos. Not with the Rev. William Barber II, Jitu Brown, Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Yohuru Williams, Denisha Jones, and other prominent black people who oppose school privatization.

 

They tell us that Parks name on an application to start a charter school (her signature does not appear on the document) is enough to prove her support for the concept.

 

Yet never once that I can find did Parks ever speak out on what was allegedly her own proposal. Others spoke out on her behalf, but she declined to be interviewed when the media came calling and didn’t use her iconic status to get the publicity needed to bring it to completion.

 

Can you imagine a celebrity today opening a charter school named after themselves without even releasing a statement, not to mention a press conference and media blitz? And this wasn’t in the distant past. It was only 1997.

 

But the school privatization lobby tells us that this is so. And moreover that Parks – who worked her entire life battling the forces of segregation whether it be in our schools, housing or elsewhere – somehow turned against this aim in her last years to open this school.

 

It’s quite a story they’re telling.

 

However, the possibility that a declining Parks was convinced to put her name to a project she didn’t fully understand or support is at least as consistent with the facts as the privatization narrative – in fact, more so because it clarifies many inconsistencies.

 

 

SYMBOLISM VS FACTS

 

In any case, this is all conjecture.

 

Parks’ opinion – whatever it was – only has symbolic value.

 

The true measure of charter schools are the facts about how they operate and the results they get for students.

 

They have failed generations of children across the country.

 

They truly are a civil rights issue – but not the one the school privatization lobby thinks.

 

Every child has a right to be freed from charter schools and not subjected to them.

 

Nothing would be more in keeping with the spirit of Rosa Parks than a boycott of charter schools – just like today’s civil rights organization are demanding.

 

It’s time we as a nation refuse to give up our seats in the public schools and boycott the forces of privatization and profit.

 

The only way forward is together – not through segregation and exclusion hoping that at least some of us will make it.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Charter School’s Two Dads – How a Hatred for Public School Gave Us School Privatization

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If bad ideas can be said to have fathers, then charter schools have two.

 

And I’m not talking about greed and racism.

 

No, I mean two flesh and blood men who did more than any others to give this terrible idea life – Minnesota ideologues Ted Kolderie, 89, and Joe Nathan, 71.

 

In my article “Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along,” I wrote about Kolderie’s role but neglected to mention Nathan’s.

 

And of the two men, Nathan has actually commented on this blog.

 

He flamed on your humble narrator when I dared to say that charter schools and voucher schools are virtually identical.

 

I guess he didn’t like me connecting “liberal” charters with “conservative” vouchers. And in the years since, with Trump’s universally hated Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy Devos assuming the face of both regressive policies, he was right to fear the public relations nightmare for his brainchild, the charter school.

 

It’s kind of amazing that these two white men tried to convince scores of minorities that giving up self-governance of their children’s schools is in their own best interests, that children of color don’t need the same services white kids routinely get at their neighborhood public schools and that letting appointed bureaucrats decide whether your child actually gets to enroll in their school is somehow school choice!

 

 

But now that Nathan and Kolderie’s progeny policy initiative is waning in popularity, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are calling for moratoriums on new charters and even progressive politicians are calling for legislative oversight, it’s important that people know exactly who is responsible for this monster.

 

And more than anyone else, that’s Kolderie and Nathan.

 

Over the last three decades, Nathan has made a career of sabotaging authentic public schools while pushing for school privatization.

 

He is director of the Center for School Change, a Minneapolis charter school cheerleading organization, that’s received at least $1,317,813 in grants to undermine neighborhood schools and replace them with fly-by-night privatized monstrosities.

 

He’s written extensively in newspapers around the country and nationwide magazines and Websites like the Huffington Post.

 

But it all started for Nathan back in 1987 when he happened to see an advertisement on TV, according to Ember Reichgott, the former Minnesota State Senator who originally proposed the first charter school bill.

 

The ad was called “Ah, Those Marvelous Minnesota Schools,” writes Reichgott.

 

 

It dared to dispute the Reagan administration’s propaganda hit piece “A Nation at Risk” which painted public schools as failures that needed to be disrupted and replaced.

 

 

Well Nathan wasn’t about to take it.

 

According to Reichgott’s book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”, Nathan:

 

“…talked with the Minneapolis Foundation, among others, about what they might do. ‘The Minneapolis Foundation decided it was time to introduce into Minnesota some pretty radical ideas,’ said Nathan. So plans got underway for the Itasca Seminar, with a focus on public education.”

 

This seminar was instrumental in turning the tide in Minnesota that ultimately birthed the most infectious school privatization virus on an unwitting nation.

 

Nathan had always been a fan of transferring public services to private control. In fact, he had just finished lobbying for privatization in the National Governors Association. Now back in Minnesota, he joined together with Kolderie, a former journalist and self professed “policy entrepreneur” who had been pushing for the same thing since at least the 1970s.

 

Their ideology – expounded by southern segregationists and people like the divisive economist Milton Friedman – was extremely unpopular, but they were about to get a break.

 

In 1988, Albert Shanker, the union hero President of the American Federation of Teachers, had just given an infamous speech to the National Press Club praising the idea of a new concept called “charter schools.”

 

However, he wasn’t talking about the modern idea of a charter school. Shanker was building off an idea originally proposed by Ray Budde, a little-known professor of education from upstate New York.

 

It was Budde who actually coined the term “charter school.” He thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker liked this idea because of his own teaching experience in East Harlem where administrators constantly got in the way of educators. “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he said.

 

Nathan saw in this an opportunity and invited Shanker to speak at the Itasca Seminar. His goal was to hide his side’s privatization aims under the shadow of progressive unionism.

 

 

And it worked. In fact, if you look up the history of charter schools, you’ll STILL find people who insist they were invented by Shanker.

 

 

With this cover, the Citizen’s League, which was underwritten by the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to pass a bill requiring mandatory statewide standardized testing. The bill, authored by the Minnesota Business Partnership put forth the evaluation system necessary to demonize the public schools and prepare the way for the ultimate goal – privatization.

 

 

In 1991, the same forces passed the nation’s first charter school bill.

 

 

But let’s be clear on this – the charter schools created in this bill and the “charter schools” talked about by Shanker and Budde are very different concepts.

 

 

Nathan and Kolderie wrote the majority of the bill and they stripped out almost everything any educator had ever proposed.

 

 

According to Budde’s conception, charters would be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators would step out of the way, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

 

 

Instead, Nathan and Kolderie proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate from local districts. The state had the power, not communities or their elected representatives. That meant charters could be run not just by teachers but also by entrepreneurs. And that’s almost always who has been in charge of them ever since – corporations and business interests.

 

 

This was the goal Friedman and the deregulators had been fighting for since the 1950s finally realized – almost the same goal, it should be noted, as that behind school vouchers.

 

 

From the start, this was a business initiative. Competition between charters and authentic public schools was encouraged. And that included union busting. Thus charters were free of all the constraints of collective bargaining that districts had negotiated with their unions. The needs of workers and students were secondary to those of big business and the profit principle.

 

 

Shanker eventually realized this and repudiated what charter schools had become. But by then the damage was done.

 

 

Shanker hadn’t created charter schools. He had suggested something very different. And that suggestion was used to help usher in a concept that has haunted our public school system ever since.

 

 

Kolderie had been working on it for two decades, and with Nathan’s help it became a reality.

 

 

With the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the two men went on to push a version of this same bill from legislature to legislature. Kolderie even boasts of helping 25 other states enact charter school legislation.

 

 

Today 43 states are afflicted with charter schools enrolling about 6% of the students in the country. An additional 4% go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers.

 

 

This distinction between charter and voucher schools is important to political pundits, but it’s really just hair splitting.  It’s like saying vanilla chocolate swirl ice cream is nothing like chocolate vanilla swirl.

 

 

Consider: charter schools are privatized schools paid for with taxes. Voucher schools are private schools paid for with money diverted from taxes.

 

 

False distinctions like these are another way of managing public perception just like the pettifogging contrast between for-profit and non-profit charter schools. Again they’re pretty much the same thing. They can each cut services to students and pocket the left overs – the only difference is which loopholes they have to jump through and how they designate their tax status.

 

 

They are both the flowering of the deregulationist dream of destroying public education and replacing it with business-operated schools. They are attempts to destabilize, defame and destroy public education.

 

 

And though the plan has worked for decades, here’s hoping that the current political pause represents the beginning of a change of course.

 

 

Kolderie and Nathan’s monster has devoured too many schools and with them too many children’s hopes of an excellent education.

 

 

It’s time to pin the monster down with facts and shove a stake through its heart.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

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America has been fooled by the charter school industry for too long.

 

The popular myth that charter schools were invented by unions to empower teachers and communities so that students would have better options is as phony as a three dollar bill.

 

The concept always was about privatizing schools to make money.

 

It has always been about stealing control of public education, enacting corporate welfare, engaging in union busting, and an abiding belief that the free hand of the market can do no wrong.

 

Charter schools are, after all, institutions run privately but paid for with tax dollars. So operators can make all decisions behind closed doors without public input or accountability. They can cut student services and pocket the difference. And they can enroll whoever the heck they want without providing the same level of education or programs you routinely get at your neighborhood public school.

 

In essence, charter schools are a scheme to eliminate the public from public education paid for at public expense.

 

 

But whenever anyone brings up these facts, they are confronted by the bedtime story of Albert Shanker and his alleged advocacy of the industry.

 
So grab your teddy bear and put on your jammies, because here’s how it goes:

 
Once upon a time, hero president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Al Shanker had an idea. He wanted to make laboratory schools where educators would be freed of regulations so they could experiment and find new pedagogies that worked. Then these innovations could spread to the rest of the school system.

 

One day in 1988, he gave a speech at the National Press Club and subsequently published a column in the New York Times advancing this idea.

 

And he called it – Dum, Dum, DUM! – charter schools!
The second act of the story opens in the mid-1990s when Shanker had largely turned against the idea after it had been co-opted by business interests.

 

He dreamed of places where unionized teachers would work with union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.” But instead he got for-profit monstrosities that didn’t empower workers but busted their unions.

 

If only we’d stuck with Shanker’s bold dream!

 

Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

 

Unfortunately it’s just a story.

 

It’s not true. Hardly a word of it.

 

Shanker did not come up with the idea of charter schools. He wasn’t part of the plan to popularize them. He didn’t even come up with the term “charter school.”

 

If anything, he was a useful patsy in this stratagem who worked tirelessly to give teachers unions a seat at the table where he then discovered they were also on the menu.

 

The real origin of charter schools goes back decades to at least the 1950s and the far right push for deregulation.

 

When the afterglow of the atomic bomb and the allied victory in Europe had faded, there was political backlash at home to roll back the amazing economic successes of the New Deal. Social security, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, a minimum wage, job programs that put millions of people to work – all of that had to go in favor of right wing ideology.

 

A cabal of mostly wealthy, privileged elites wanted to do away with these policies in the name of the prosperity it would bring to themselves and their kind. They claimed it would be for the good of everyone but it was really just about enriching the already rich who felt entitled to all economic goods and that everyone else should have to fight over the crumbs.

 

Never mind that it was just such thinking that burst economic bubbles causing calamities like the Great Depression in the first place and made the conditions ripe for two world wars.

 

Show me the money!

 

However, this really didn’t go anywhere until it was combined with that most American of institutions – racism.

 

Even before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision struck down school segregation, many white people said they’d never allow their children to go to school with black children.

 

In the South, several districts tried “freedom of choice” plans to allow white kids to transfer out of desegregated schools.

 

In 1952 and ’57, governments in two states – Georgia and Virginia – tried out what became known as the “private school plan.” Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge and community leaders in Prince Edward County, Virginia, tried to privatize public schools to avoid any federal desegregation requirements. Each student would be given a voucher to go to whatever school would enroll them – segregated by race.
The plan was never implemented in Georgia and struck down by the federal government in Virginia after only one year as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

 

But these failed plans got the attention of one of the leading deregulation champions, economist Milton Friedman.

 

He sided with the segregationists citing their prejudice and racism as merely “market forces.”

 

In his seminal 1955 tract, “The Role of Government in Education,” he wrote:

 

“So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

 

Throughout the 1970s, school voucher proposals were widely understood as a means to preserve school segregation, according to education historian Diane Ravitch. But they couldn’t gain any traction until privatizers came up with a new wrinkle in the formula – the charter school.

 

Charter schools are really just school vouchers with more money and regulations.

 

In the case of vouchers, we use tax dollars to pay for a portion of student enrollment at private and parochial schools. In the case of charters, we use tax dollars to pay for all of a student’s enrollment at a school that is privately managed. The only difference is how much taxpayer money we give to these privatized schools and how much leeway we give them in terms of pedagogy.

 

Charter schools can do almost whatever they want but they can’t blatantly teach religion. Voucher schools can.

 

Other than that, they’re almost the same thing.

 

In order to get the public to support school privatization, Friedman thought we’d need to convince them that they didn’t need the burden of self-government. This was especially true of minorities.

 

In his 1981 book Free to Choose, Friedman and his wife Rose suggested the necessity of convincing black voters that they didn’t need Democracy. School privatization could be pitched as a system that would “free the black man from dominion by his own political leaders.”

 

The opportune moment came in 1983 with the publication of the Reagan administration’s propaganda piece A Nation at Risk. Using bogus statistics and outright lies, the report painted our public school system as a failure and set up the false urgency that school deregulationists needed.

 

From this point forward, a series of supply side lawmakers, policy wonks, economists, billionaires and CEOs came out of the woodwork to push for school privatization which culminated in the first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota.

 

In the middle of all this tumult came Shanker’s National Press Club speech in 1988.

 

Ronald Reagan was still in office and it’s hard to overstate the threat he posed to unions having infamously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

 

Shanker was trying to ride the tide of public opinion in favor of deregulation and privatization. He accepted the bogus criticisms of schools in A Nation At Risk and offered to restructure schools to fix the problem. Like so many union leaders after him, Shanker gave away much of the power of his people-driven movement so as not to come across as obstructionist. He didn’t think teachers unions could oppose the rising tide of privatization without offering innovations of their own.

 

It’s true that he called these reforms “charter schools” but he didn’t invent the term. He borrowed it from a little-known Massachusetts educator, Ray Budde, who meant by it something very different from what it has become. Budde thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker’s proposal wasn’t nearly the first time a public figure had suggested restructuring public schools.

 

In the late 1960s after helping provide justification for school desegregation, sociologist Kenneth Clark advocated for alternative school systems that could be run by groups as diverse as universities to the Department of Defense.

 

Shanker’s contribution was not nearly as powerful as subsequent apologists have claimed. He was one voice among many. Though his comments were useful to the deregulators, they ignored everything of substance he had said beyond the myth that he supported their efforts at school privatization.

 

According to journalist Rachel Cohen, the true architect of the charter school concept as it appears today wasn’t Shanker, Budde or Clark. It was Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie.

 

He was at the heart of the issue pushing for school privatization from the 1970s through the 1990s.

 

Throughout the 1970s, Kolderie lobbied for a plethora of ways for private industry to provide government services – including education – through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO). By 1981, the focus narrowed almost exclusively to education.

 

In several reports, he blamed the bogus failure of public schools on the democracy of the school boards. Though he didn’t use the term “charter school,” his conception was essentially the same as the modern charter school: independent schools accountable only through market forces and a set of contractual obligations. He thought they could be run by almost anyone – universities, corporations, nonprofits— even public school districts – if state law could be amended to allow it.

 

That’s pretty much a charter school – a privately run learning institution that’s publicly financed.

 

Why doesn’t Kolderie get the credit? Why the emphasis on Shanker who had very little to do with what ultimately became law?

 

Because Kolderie and others wanted to hide behind the union. They wanted their policy to have a friendlier public image than that of a shadowy puppet master.

 

Shanker walked right into their trap.

 

He even agreed to give another speech in favor of charter schools in October 1988 at the Minneapolis Foundation’s annual Itasca Seminar for political and business leaders.

 

With continued lobbying from the corporate sector and right wing ideologues, three years later the state was the first to pass a charter school law.

 

And the die was cast.

 

Sure charter school cheerleaders like to give Shanker the credit today, but the legislation that was eventually passed and funneled to other states through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had little resemblance to anything Shanker said.

 

It was the deregulation and privatization model first conceived in the 1950s, funneled through Friedman and now Kolderie.

 

And make no mistake – the overall plot wasn’t simply to enact charter schools. That was merely the foothold that enabled subsequent school voucher bills and tax scholarship plans (vouchers lite). The end game was made clear by Friedman time and again – the complete destruction of public schools.

 

While speaking to rightwing lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman explained that school privatization was always about “abolishing the public school system.”

 

Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:

 

“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you’re not gonna do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice…”

When Minnesota proposed the first charter school law, the state teachers union fought against it. But tellingly Shanker refused to speak out during legislative debates.

 

And this was due in part to the rise of the neoliberals.

 

School privatization was the brainchild of the far right. But as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, so dawned a new type of political figure – the social progressive with distinctly right wing economic views.

 

In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie worked closely with the DLC and even wrote its first policy paper on school privatization.

 

Clinton was an immediate convert, embracing Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches even though he knew it was unpopular with teachers unions. Clinton ruffled so many feathers that Shanker, himself, commented, “It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches.”

 

Though the first charter school law came a year later, in 1990 Wisconsin passed the first school voucher program. Since it was pushed through with mostly Republican support, this provided cover for neoliberal charter supporters. Though there was little difference between the two policies, neoliberals could distinguish themselves by criticizing school vouchers while endorsing their ideological cousins the charter schools.

 

So we had the two major political parties both supporting different flavors of the same school privatization.

 

It allowed Democrats to stop supporting more funding for social programs and schools while weakening the main driver of such policies – labor unions. This allowed the neoliberals to be economically as conservative as their “adversaries” across the aisle while publicly pretending to support progressivism.

 

Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students.

 

This does not now – and never did – represent any ideal offered by Shanker or unions.

 

His dream of teacher-run schools as laboratories of innovation may or may not have merit, but not at the expense of making different rules for different schools. Where regulation is important, it is important for all schools. Where it is too restrictive, all schools should be freed from its requirements. All teachers should be allowed to innovate and take a leadership role in their schools.

 

When Shanker spoke about “charter schools,” he was not a visionary. He was leading us down a dead end. He was foolishly offering an olive branch to an inferno. That doesn’t mean he started the blaze or even that it was his idea.

 

Yet even now you can read propaganda that says otherwise on the AFT’s own Website – “Restoring Shanker’s Vision for Charter Schools” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. It’s funny how Potter, a former charter school teacher, and Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation – which loves charter schools – both want to keep the happy face on an ugly idea. And sad that one of the largest teachers unions can’t face up to one of its heroes biggest mistakes.

 

If charter schools have a face, it should be Kolderie’s or Friedman’s – or perhaps it should be the industry’s most famous modern champion Betsy Devos.
Charter schools are no progressive dream.

 

They are the corporate paradise of spending tax dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support indefinitely.

 

Public education will crumble and fall just as the architects of school privatization always knew it would.

 

Unless we take a stand and take back our power.

 

To do that we need to understand where charter and voucher schools came from and who is responsible.

 

Charter schools do NOT represent a good idea that was perverted by the corporate world. It is an essentially bad policy that should be abolished immediately.

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the reporting of Rachel Cohen.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

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You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
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Diane Ravitch’s New Book is a Fun and Breezy Romp Through the Maze of School Policy

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Imagine you could talk with Diane Ravitch for 10 to 15 minutes everyday.

 
That’s kind of what reading her new book, “The Wisdom and the Witt of Diane Ravitch”, is like.

 
You’ve probably heard of Ravitch before.

 

She’s the kindly grandmother you see on the news who used to think standardized tests and school privatization were the way to go but actually had the courage to pull an about face.

 

She’s that rare thing in public policy – a person with the honesty to admit when she was wrong — and even lead the resistance to everything she used to believe in!

 

Now she champions teacher autonomy, fair and equitable school funding and authentic public schools with duly-elected school boards.

 

Her new book is full of shorter pieces by the education historian from all over the mass media – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Huffington Post and even her own blog.

 
You’ll find an article explaining why she changed her mind about school reform nestled next to a reflection on what it’s like to grow up Jewish in Texas. Here’s a succinct take down of President Obama’s Race to the Top next to an article extolling the virtues of student activism in Providence. Ever wonder what Ravitch would say to her mentor Lamar Alexander about our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? It’s in there. Ever wonder what books on education she would recommend? It’s in there.

 
This new book from Garn Press is more personal than anything I’ve seen from Ravitch on the shelves before. And that’s because it’s not part of a sustained argument like “The Life and Death of the Great American School System,” or “Reign or Error.” It’s a collection of vignettes taken from the last decade of her writing. These are flashes of inspiration, snippets of thoughts, bursts of criticism and humor.

 
They’re perfect for perusing and really quite addictive.

 
I found myself jumping from an article in the first 20 pages to one at the end to another in the middle. There’s no reason any of it needs to be read chronologically though they are organized in the order of publication.

 
It’s really a lot like talking to Diane, something that I’ve had the privilege to do on a few occasions. Like any conversation, topics come up organically and you go from one to another without rhyme or reason.

 

 

At least that’s how I read the book.

 
It would be perfect in your school’s teachers lounge. Educators could pick it up at lunch or during their planning periods and use it as a springboard to talk about almost any issue that comes up during the day.

 
Well, it would be perfect if we ever actually had that kind of time.

 
I found myself repeatedly interrupted when trying to read it. But that’s actually not a problem. Given the brevity of the articles and their impressive concision, it doesn’t matter if you have to put a bookmark in the middle of a chapter here or there. It’s easy to pick up the thread and continue later.

 
There are so many highlights, but one of my favorites is “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats” where she writes:

 

 

“I contend that it is immoral, unjust, and inequitable to advocate for policies that hurt 95% of students so that 5% can go to a private school. It is even more unjust to destabilize an entire school district by introducing a welter of confusing choices, including schools that open and close like day lilies. Why don’t the advocates of school choice also advocate for funding to replace the money removed from the public schools?”

 
Or how about “Flunking Arne Duncan”? I must admit, the title alone made my heart give a little cheer. Ravitch gives the former Education Secretary the following report card which deserves to be blown up to poster size and displayed in every classroom in the country:

 

 

“Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution                                       F
Doing what’s right for children                               F
Doing what’s right for public education                F
Respecting the limits of federalism                        F
Doing what’s right for teachers                               F
Doing what’s right for education                            F”

 
As a public school teacher, I must admit getting an inordinate amount of pleasure from Ravitch’s criticism of the fools and frauds writing school policy. But she has a lot to say on so many subjects – standardized testing, Common Core, even the basic greed underlying the whole political mess.

 
Consider this gem from “What Powerful and Greedy Elites are Hiding When They Scapegoat the Schools”:

 

 

“I have nothing against the wealthy. I don’t care that some people have more worldly goods than others. I understand that life’s not fair. I just harbor this feeling that a person ought to be able to get by on $100 million or so and not keep piling up riches while so many others don’t know how they will feed their children tonight.”

 
I could offer a dozen more quotes from the book. My copy looks like a rainbow with all the different colored highlights I’ve made through its 451 pages.

 
So if you want my advice, go out and buy “The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch.” It’s a fun and breezy romp through the maze of school policy.

 
Just keep a good supply of highlighters and bookmarks handy.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ Has Never Been More Important Than It is Today

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The biggest mistake people make about “The Diary of Anne Frank” is to assume it’s about a little dead girl.

 

 

It’s not.

 

 

Anne Frank is not dead.

 

 

Not in 1945. Not in 2019.

 

 

Anne was a Dutch Jew hiding from the Nazis with her family and four others in a loft above her father’s former factory in Amsterdam.

 

 

The teenager is the most famous victim of the Holocaust, but her story doesn’t end when she succumbed to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the closing days of WWII.

 

 

Because it’s a story that never ends.

 

 

Her physical self may be gone, but her spirit remains.

 

 

In the 1990s, she was a Muslim Bosniak child killed by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

In the 2000s, she was a Christian Darfuri in Western Sudan killed by Arab militias.

 

 

A decade ago, she was a Palestinian toddler torn to pieces on the West Bank – a victim of Israeli bombs.

 

 

 

And, yes, today she is a brown skinned Central American girl fleeing from violence to the United States only to be forcibly separated from her family and thrown in a cage.

 

 

 

Not only is Anne Frank not dead, she is more alive than most people who draw breath, whose hearts still pump blood, whose eyes shrink from the violence, prejudice and hatred all around them.

 

 

 

Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to teach her Diary in my 8th grade class.

 

 

It’s not a particularly difficult book.

 

 

Her prose is uncomplicated. Her ideas clear.

 

 

In fact, she jumps right off the page and into the classroom.

 

 

But that’s what makes her so difficult for me, the teacher.

 

 

Every year I help bring her to life for my students. And I suffer her loss all over again each time.

 

 

I think everyone sees something different in Anne.

 

 

My students see themselves in her. Or they see their friends or siblings.

 

 

Her problems are their problems. They, too, can feel closer to one parent than another.

 

 

They, too, can hate to be compared with a “perfect” sibling.

 

 

They, too, feel all the emotions and frustrations of growing up – the confusion, passion and hurt.

 

 

For me, though, it is different.

 

 

I don’t see Anne primarily as myself. I see her as my daughter. Or perhaps I see my daughter in her.

 

 

A precocious child hunched over a book scribbling away her deepest thoughts? Sounds like my precious 10-year-old drawing her comic books, or writing her stories, or acting out melodramas with her dolls and stuffed animals.

 

 

I want to take her somewhere safe, to keep her away from the Nazis, to conceal her from all the evil in the world.

 

 

After teaching the book for almost a decade and a half, it was only this year that I hit upon a new perspective. I realized that if Anne had survived, she would be almost the same age as my grandmother.

 

 

And for a moment, an image of her was almost superimposed over my Grandma Ce Ce. There she was – a physical Anne, a living person. But then it was gone.

 

 

When speaking about her to my students, I try to be extremely careful of their feelings. I make it exceedingly clear from the very beginning where her physical life ends.

 

 

She and her family are in hiding for 25 months before the Nazis find and send them to concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, is left.

 

 

I don’t want any of that to be a surprise.

 

 

Yet it is.

 

 

Every time.

 

 

My classes stare back at me with shocked expressions when we reach the last page.

 

 

That can’t be the end. There has to be more.

 

 

So we read first hand accounts of Anne in the camp.

 

 

But that can’t be all, either. Can it?

 

 

So we learn about her legacy – about the Anne Frank House, the Academy Award winning film, and how her book is an international best seller.

 

 

Somehow her spirit still refuses to die.

 

 

I think it’s because she has become more than just a victim. More even than a single physical person.

 

 

We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. We know that 5 million non-Jews were also killed. But no matter how many documentaries we see, or how many pictures we look at – none of them come alive in quite the same way as Anne.

 

 

She is a face for these faceless.

 

 

She irreparably humanizes the other.

 

 

Once you read her Diary, you can’t forget that smiling little girl whose light was so suddenly snuffed out.

 

 

We can go numb at the numbers – the sheer scale of these atrocities.

 

 

But with Anne, it becomes something personal.

 

 

On Dec. 24, 1943, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.

 

We see you, Anne.

 

 

And because we do, we see beyond you, too.

 

 

We see you in the continuing horrors of our age.

 

 

Because your death is never in the past tense. It is always present.

 

 

Your eyes look out at us through the victims of our day, too.

 

 

And your words ring in our ears:

 

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” (May 7, 1944)

 

 

We have not prevented it.

 

 

It continues.

 

 

Hatred and prejudice and murder echo through our human interactions.

 

 

All while the history fades.

 

 

According to a 2018 study, only 22 percent of millennials say they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.

 

 

I don’t think any of those young adults read your Diary, because my students remember you.

 

 

That’s why I’ll never stop teaching your story.

 

 

In the vain hope that by remembering you, they’ll see your eyes on the faces of all the future’s would-be victims.

 

 

In the vain hope that caring about you will help them care about the faceless strangers, the propagandized others.

 

 

In the vain hope that knowing your face will force their eyes to see – actually see – the faces of those who are demonized and dehumanized so someone will care when the boot comes down on their visage.

 

 

So that someone will stop the boot from ever coming down again.

 

 

In one of her last entries, on July 15, 1944, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

 

 

That time has come for us all.

 

 

Anne’s Diary remains to remind us – a clarion call to empathy and action.


 

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