Why Care About Other People’s Children

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As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.

Hero of New CW Action Series to be a Charter School Principal

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Charter schools are incredibly contentious.

 

They serve about 7% of American students, but siphon away funding from traditional public schools serving the majority of the population.

 

They are rife with scandals: Many close suddenly without warning. They often hire teachers without certifications from accredited universities. Administrators have been known to buy yachts and expensive gifts with tax dollars meant to educate children. They cherry pick the easiest students to educate and kick out the most difficult.

 

And that just scratches the surface!

 

Why would you want to purposefully set your action adventure series there!?

 

That’s exactly what the CW has done with its new series Black Lightning.

 

The network released an extended description for the show today in an announcement for its fall schedule:

 

 

“Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a man wrestling with a secret. As the father of two daughters and principal of a charter high school that also serves as a safe haven for young people in a New Orleans neighborhood overrun by gang violence, he is a hero to his community…”

 

To which I can’t help but wonder, “WHY!?

 

Why, CW!? Why put your hero at the head of a charter school?

 

In the original DC comic book on which this television series is based, Pierce is a principal at Garfield High School in the fictional city of Metropolis.

 

When the writers moved the setting to New Orleans and made the hero a charter school principal, they were making purposeful changes to the mythology.

 

Why?

 

What does it add to the series with the inclusion of this extra detail?

 

Yes, Jefferson Pierce is African American. It’s about time we have more black super heroes. Marvel did an amazing job with its Netflix show based on Luke Cage, a character also created by writer Tony Isabella.

 

But charter schools are not uniquely black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a moratorium on charter school expansion just last year. The national civil rights organization has been publically critical of charter schools’ impact on children of color since 2010.

 

Specifically, the resolution states:

 

“…the NAACP opposes the privatization of public schools and/or public subsidizing or funding of for-profit or charter schools…”

 

“…the NAACP calls for full funding and support of high quality free public education for all children…”

 

The resolution goes on to oppose tax breaks to support charter schools and calls for new legislation to increase charter school transparency. Moreover, charters should not be allowed to kick students out for disciplinary reasons.

 

Yet THIS is where the CW decides to set its Sci Fi/Fantasy series!?

 

 

Perhaps the writers wanted to place the action in historic New Orleans, a city that has had almost nothing but charter schools since Hurricane Katrina.

 

But this is far from a success story.

 

After one of the worst natural disasters to hit the US in decades, the state fired almost all of its public school teachers, disbanded almost all local public school districts and reopened them as charter schools. New Orleans is now the only nearly all charter school city in the country.

 

Though supporters claim that this has resulted in increased test scores and graduation rates, the city’s schools cannot honestly be described as having turned around.

 

The district is still the fourth lowest performing educational institution in the country. Moreover, when compared with traditional public school districts in the state and controlling for factors like race, ethnicity, and poverty, New Orleans charter school students do much worse academically. For instance, on eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—2 to 3 standard deviations.

 

These are the largest gaps between public and charter schools in the nation!

 

And that’s not all! Before becoming an all-charter district, the city had a substantial amount of teachers of color. Now they’re mostly gone.

 

This is where your escapist superhero fantasy is taking place?

 

New Orleans charter schools are notorious for strict discipline policies where students describe feeling like they’re in prison.

 

You want your hero to be a principal HERE!?

 

Teachers and parents describe feeling demoralized and ignored. They filed a federal civil rights complaint in 2014 and still pine for the community schools they experienced when they were children.

 

And this is where you’re shooting your action adventure series?

 

I can’t help but wonder why the CW would greenlight such an irresponsible drama.

 

Perhaps Black Lightning will fight to turn his nefarious charter school back into a traditional public institution with an elected school board, public meetings and sensible regulations.

 

Other than that, I cannot imagine why any sane television network would actively decide to champion school privatization.

 

In the original comic book, Pierce eventually was made Secretary of Education by President Lex Luthor. Perhaps the CW is drawing a parallel between their hero and our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

 

President Donald Trump certainly brings to mind the super-villain Luthor – except that Luthor is known for being an evil genius and Trump is only known for one of those things…

 

But why would you want to associate your superhero with the most unpopular Education Secretary in history. DeVos only got her position after a split Senate confirmation and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. She has been publicly booed at a graduation ceremony at an all black college where she spoke. Parents and protesters have physically stopped her from entering several schools.

 

You want us to associate your hero with THAT!?

 

Full disclosure, I love CW’s superhero line-up. The Flash is delightful Sci-Fi fun. Arrow is escapist vigilante justice. Supergirl is girl power drama. Legends of Tomorrow is time travel fun.

 

But what the heck will Black Lightning be!?

 

Moreover, I loved Netflix’s Luke Cage. I think it was one of the best Marvel superhero series – something that transcended the genre and seemed to be addressing authentic social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, etc.

 

I can’t imagine how Black Lightning would do any of that.

 

Having a political subtext can elevate a TV show and put it in the center of the cultural zeitgeist. But it has to be done with sensitivity and intelligence.

 

Having CW’s hero be a charter school principal is a ham-handed nod to school privatizers and equity managers. Audiences want someone who fights for the underdog – not investment bankers.

 

I just don’t get it, CW.

Tax Cuts Are Theft.

TAX

 

Ben Franklin famously said that nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes.

 

But in our modern age, that might have to be amended to read, “death and tax cuts.”

 

These days, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can’t figure out how to govern without continually cutting taxes – and invariably the beneficiaries of such largess are the rich.

 

No one likes paying taxes.

 

You do a job, earn money and have to give a portion of it to the government.

 

But no one likes going to the dentist, either. Yet it’s something most adults do because we understand its necessity. We know that ignoring basic dental hygiene and avoiding regular dental check-ups will most likely result in halitosis, mouth pain and the eventual decay of our teeth.

 

There are similar societal problems with tax avoidance, but we’ve been tricked into willful ignorance.

 

The rich have paid for an army of economists, libertarians and other would-be thinkers to come up with justifications for avoiding taxation as much as possible.

 

It’s completely disingenuous. This is prostitution as philosophy. It’s whoring out one’s mental faculties to come up with a smoke screen behind which the wealthy can get away without paying their fair share.

 

The idea basically comes down to this: taxation is theft.

 

The government has no right to tax its citizens because it only gets rights from the consent of the governed. People can only give the government rights they already posses. Since they don’t already have the right to tax each other, they can’t give that right to the government.

 

It’s pure sophistry.

 

It imagines a mythical world without government and then tells a story about how that government got its power. But few of us have ever lived in a world without government. Neither did our parents or grandparents back through the mists of prehistory. In fact, it is hard to conceive of a time when people existed with no social structure at all from which individuals could then cede rights to a collective group.

 

And once government exists, each individual citizen owes it a debt. We owe it for all the public institutions from which we benefit. If we went to public school, for instance, we owe it for our education. Even if we were educated privately, we owe it for being able to live in a society where most people are educated since the great majority of those people received that education from public school.

 

It only takes a moment of reflection to see the complex web of benefits every person receives from society that come from some public services. Think of the inventions funded at least in part by government investment. Think of the safety we enjoy due to law enforcement and the military. Think of the roads and infrastructure that allow us to live at a high standard.

 

These are all provided by government, and no matter how rich or poor you are, you have benefited tremendously from being a part of it.

 

As such, you owe that society a certain portion of your income to help support this system.

 

It’s not exactly complicated. But certain economists make it complicated in a cynical shell game while their masters getaway without paying their debts.

 

And when they do, who has to make up the difference? You do!

 

It’s not taxation that’s theft. It’s tax avoidance and – often – tax cuts.

 

No one gets rich because they’re inherently better than others.

 

A person worth $500 million is not 500 million times better than a person worth $1. They are both people and equally as valuable. Nor does income equate to how hard someone works. Many billionaires spend their days lounging around the pool drinking piña coladas. Many poor people spend their days scrubbing floors and toilets. The biggest difference between the two is luck.

 

The wealthy most often are rich merely because they won the lottery of birth or their business ventures succeeded due to pure chance. And even in the rare instances when people made a lot of money because of their intelligence or savvy, that doesn’t justify them being so unequally rewarded by our society compared to those of us without such talents.

 

If you judge a person solely on his/her bank account, you misjudge the majority of the population.

 

Some policymakers will acknowledge these points but still insist on tax cuts based on misconceptions and/or lies about how economies work.

 

They’ll say the United States already has some of the highest taxes in the world. We need to cut taxes to be competitive.

 

However, this is not true.

 

In 2014, total US tax revenue equaled 26 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – well below the 34 percent average for developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

 

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Of all OECD countries, only Korea, Chile and Mexico collected less than the United States as a percentage of GDP. In many European countries, taxes exceeded 40 percent of GDP. But those countries generally provide more extensive government services than the United States.

 

Some will argue that tax cuts are necessary to boost the economy. However, we have countless counterexamples to this popular fabrication. For instance, when President George W. Bush cut taxes from 2001 – 2007, the average annual growth rate was far below the average growth rate for any other period after World War II. In fact, only corporate profits experienced rapid growth. Over all, this expansion was among the weakest since World War II.

 

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In short, the US is doing a terrible job providing every citizen with the benefits of our society. We are disproportionately rewarding the rich while forcing the rest of us to pay for the services from which we all gain. Moreover, other countries provide even more bang for that buck.

 

Now this doesn’t mean that the government should tax us all into the ground.

Nor does it mean that the government should spend our tax dollars willy-nilly.

 

Taxation needs to be fair and spending needs to be regulated.

 

But constantly cutting rich people’s taxes is immoral. It is unfair to the majority of people making up the difference and struggling to survive when government services lag behind need.

 

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Our public schools are suffering under strategic disinvestment. Especially in poor neighborhoods that often disproportionately serve people of color, public schools cannot keep up with children’s needs. They aren’t providing an equitable level of service with those schools in richer, whiter neighborhoods.

 

Our policymakers try to solve the problem with charter schools, vouchers, standardized tests and Common Core. And the results have only been a worsening situation.

 

The real solution is simple – increased funding through fair increases in taxes on the wealthy.

 

Tax cuts are popular, but every time we let the rich get away with paying less, we have to either take more from the poor or take the knife to public services.

 

This affects the poor immediately in the form of reduced services, but it affects the rich, too. They have to live in a world where the majority has less – this means increased crime, increased drug abuse, increased ignorance, etc.

 

As a society, we must get beyond the selfish urge to look out only for what seems best for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. We must look out for our entire society. We must look out for the needs of everyone in it.

 

Otherwise, when we fall for these economic fallacies, we’re only stealing from ourselves.

Teacher Appreciation Week is a Pathetic Joke!

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, America!

All over the country, millions of educators can look forward to a free burrito. Or maybe an Arby’s sandwich. Or a complimentary donut.

Because we REALLY appreciate teachers here.

What a pathetic joke!

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.

I’ll redeem my coupon at Chipotle. I’ll take that Roast Beef Classic. I’ll grab that Dunkin’ Cruller.

But let’s be honest. These cheesy buy-one-get-one coupons don’t demonstrate appreciation. They’re guilt.

They’re a manifestation of the feeling that we SHOULD appreciate teachers, but don’t. Not really.

Not for one week, not for one day!

Why else would we begrudge them a middle class income? Why else would we provide them with so few resources and so much responsibility? Why else would we bar them from making any meaningful decisions about how their students should be taught yet hold them accountable for everything their students do?

Appreciate teachers? We don’t LISTEN to them. We don’t RESPECT them. Many of us don’t even LIKE them.

The only time we value teachers is when a maniac enters a school with a gun. Then – when they protect our children with their very lives – then we praise them as heroes!

On that day and that day only. But every other day – not so much.

We won’t do anything to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. At most we want to arm teachersGreat! Something else to be responsible for on top of education, counseling and children’s all around well-being. But otherwise, we won’t do anything to help teachers do their jobs. And we certainly won’t listen to their professional opinions on anything!

That would be living in a culture of life. But we live in a culture of death.

We do the barest minimum for children – especially poor and minority kids. Instead we invest in parasitic business interests that provide zero value for students and parents.

We’ve got nothing for teachers or proven educational practices but we throw public money at charter, private and parochial schools that only accept the cream of the crop and turn down everyone else – yet still rarely do better than inclusive public schools. We defund public schools until they can no longer operate – and then we close them as failures. We promote lightly trained Teach for America temps to the same status as authentic educators with a 4-5 year degree and decades of experience. And we do everything we can to bust their unions and take away collective bargaining rights.

Yet everywhere I look I see people congratulating themselves for donating to some teacher’s GoFundMe project. This may come as a shock to you, but we shouldn’t be resorting to charity to fund our public schools! That should be a given!

In almost every classroom in America, teachers reach into their own pockets to make up the difference when our federal, state and local governments come up short. When kids don’t have pencils, we provide them. When kids don’t have books, we buy them. When kids come to school hungry, we even feed them.

Yet you’re getting excited that anonymous folks on the Internet put a few virtual coins in the cup!

I’ve been a public school teacher for almost 15 years. Next year I can look forward to another increase in class size. And I’ll probably have to teach an additional grade level or two. No extra resources to help me do it. No extra salary. Just more of a drain on my time to get the job done. And if I somehow stumble and fall, it will be my fault.

It won’t be the federal government’s fault even though they keep providing less financial help and more standardized testing, Common Core, and so-called school choice policies that rob my district of necessary funding.

It won’t be the state’s fault as they refuse to heal years worth of budget cuts in order to lower taxes on the wealthy, a scheme that, by the way, did nothing to boost the economy – in fact, it actually stalled business development. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they continue to blame me for the high cost of pensions they forgot to pay years ago while both my district and I paid on time. Nor will it be the state’s fault as they try to strip me of sick days, preserve loopholes that benefit charter schools at my district’s expense and experiment with a new funding scheme that further drains my district’s coffers.

It won’t be my local school board or administration’s fault, either, as they make cuts to core educational resources so they can preserve the state champion football team and less vital faculty office and administrative staff who are only working there because of nepotism and/or politics.

It’ll be MY fault. Mine and mine alone. That’s how much we appreciate teachers.

And none of it is even close to changing. No one is even considering altering the tiniest fraction of it. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, men, women, black people, white people, gay people, straight people, the young, the old – no one is doing anything about it!

And why should we? We’ve already got a scapegoat. We’ve already got someone to blame.

Well, look in the mirror, America. Because you’re the one to blame – each and every star-spangled banner and amber wave of grain.

We’ve made it like this. All of us.

I don’t mean to be so negative, but all these Pollyanna platitudes about that one special teacher obscure a basic truth. As individuals, we sometimes appreciate teachers – often when we’re years beyond graduation, or sometimes only when we’re parents, ourselves, and see what they do for our children. But that’s personal. That’s individuals.

When we think about the nations teachers, when we think about the profession in general, we don’t appreciate them one bit.
Because if we did, we’d act much differently.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d hire more of them. We wouldn’t demand they do more with less. When we were deciding school policy at any level – federal, state or local – we’d include them in the process – in fact, they’d be the deciding factor!

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t wait – as many folks do – until they call us to find out how our children are doing in school. We’d be proactive. And if our kids aren’t doing well, we wouldn’t blame the teacher. We’d hold our own kids responsible and look for solutions.

If we really appreciated teachers, we wouldn’t blame them for their summer breaks. We’d understand that they aren’t paid for this time yet they often take professional development courses on their own dime or work retail just to make ends meet.

If we really appreciated teachers, we’d respect them as professionals, and we’d pay them accordingly. We’d respect their rights to a positive working environment both for themselves and for our own children.

So seriously – you can stuff your ridiculous Teacher Appreciation Week.

A free cookie just isn’t going to do it.

Reaching Black Students Harder for White Teachers in the Age of Trump

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“Not everything that can be faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
James Baldwin

“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
Donald Trump

Mariah’s eyes were wide as dinner plates.

She covered her mouth with her journal and pointed at the wipe board at the front of the room.

On it, I had written my question for the day. It’s how I usually begin class for my 8th grade students.

It read:

“Some movies and books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” describe what life was like in the South before the civil rights movement. To do so, they use the N-Word. Is it ever okay to us the N-Word? Why or why not? When might it be appropriate if at all? Why?”

I guess I’ve been teaching this for too long, because I didn’t expect Mariah’s reaction.

Not that was she alone. Several of my mostly impoverished and black students were looking around at each other in shock.

Kendra even said under her breath, “I don’t want to do this.”

We had just begun reading the novel yesterday. I thought it was time to address this issue before we were confronted with the word in the text.

In all of my classes that day, students had been interested in the query. But never had any of them reacted this way.

One student raised her hand and asked, “Which word are you talking about?”

I said, “I don’t want to say it, but it starts with an N and rhymes with trigger. Do you know what I’m getting at?”

They knew. Yet in removing doubt, I had only reinforced their outrage.

I thought maybe if they tried to write an answer first, it might help them organize their thoughts and maybe comprehend the point of the lesson. But they wouldn’t be directed back to the page.

Latrell was particularly upset. “It’s not always just words against black people,” he said. “How would you like it if we talked about words against white people?”

There were grumbles of agreement.

So there it was.

My white skin was the impediment. Here I was, a white man telling mostly black students to think about the appropriateness of the N-Word. I wasn’t trying to express an opinion of my own one way or the other. I wanted them to express their opinions.

But I had taken it for granted that asking them the question was appropriate in the first place.

I had forgotten that you can’t talk about racism with just anyone. It’s the same with sexual violence or abuse or a host of other topics that are deeply personal.

You need a relationship, the recognition of shared values and the promise of safety.

I assumed that I already had provided that for my students. In most classes that understanding seemed to be there. But for whatever reason, these students didn’t feel comfortable talking about this with me.

And I get it.

It’s the confluence of skin and history. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, I will always resemble the oppressor to some people. In the age of the Donald, it’s only gotten worse.

Building walls, casual misogyny, rushed deportations, religious intolerance – all are at the forefront of our modern social discourse now. These are matters not hidden under euphemisms or disguised as well-meaning public policy. They’re commands from on high, dictates coming from a mouth in a face that looks much like mine.

No wonder these kids didn’t want to talk about hate speech with me. I resemble the personification of hate speech.

I’ve been teaching “Mockingbird” for over a decade, but this was the first time in years that I paused not knowing what to do.

Should I force the issue and push forward? Should I give in and try to read the novel without the discussion? Should I put the book away altogether and find something else to teach?

I decided to get more information.

I asked the students to tell me how they felt. I asked them to explain what they were feeling.

Many were angry with me for even asking. They accused me of being racist. They tried to make me angry and blow up the lesson.

But I swallowed my pride and just let them talk.

After each statement, I repeated what I took them to be saying and asked if that was correct.

At first, many students didn’t even seem to be certain what they meant. When I repeated it to them, they shook their heads or said they weren’t sure.

Kendra spoke, “Mr. Singer, you tell me. Why are we talking about this? It don’t do nothing.”

I said, “Can we all agree that racism is a bad thing?”

But she deflected.

“Why’s it always got to be about black people? Other people experience racism,” she said.

And I agreed. I reminded them that we had just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I asked why we had read it.

At first the loudest students said they didn’t know, but then Eva said it was to try to make sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happened again.

I nodded, and repeated my original question, “So can we all agree racism is bad? Raise your hand if you think racism is bad.”

They all raised their hands.

“Okay,” I said. “Then how do we stop it if we can’t talk about it?”

Kendra responded, “Mr. Singer, when we leave this class, none of this is going to matter. People are still going to be racist. Cops still gonna’ kill little black kids. People like you still gonna’ push people like me out.”

Others chimed in with similar comments.

I nodded, and said, “You’re right.”

That silenced them.

“You’re right, Kendra,” I said. “Maybe we can’t stop racism with what we say in here. Maybe no one can. But the hope is that if we talk about it, we’ll reduce it, we’ll cut it down to size. What do you think? Do you think we can take all the racism in the world and cut it down even by just a little bit?”

She didn’t say anything.

No one did. But hands were raised in the air. No one was shouting. No one seemed angry. Several students wanted to talk, and they were looking to me to organize the discussion.

So I let them talk.

All the time I had scheduled to write the journal fell through the hour glass and then some.

And when the discussion was petering out, I promised them that I would be available after class if anyone wanted to continue talking about it.

Then we picked up the book and continued reading.

I don’t know if it was the best class I’ve ever taught.

It was disturbing and uncomfortable.

I don’t see myself as anyone’s savior. But I’m there to help. I had hoped my students knew that.

But as a public school teacher, you learn not to take anything students do personally. They’re all going through a struggle you know little about.

I don’t want them to see me as an adversary. I want them to see me as a fellow traveler, as someone on their side.

But so much has changed in the last 100 days.

It’s a different world.

Racism and prejudice are no longer at the same remove. They never went away, but now they’re an unspoken presence coiled at our feet – constantly.

I have no answers. I ask questions and try to get my students to think about their own answers.

I just hope we’ll continue to have the courage to try.

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

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How do you get people to refuse a helping hand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder people want to disband the department!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only we had the same for public education!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

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“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!