Betsy’s Choice: School Privatization Over Kids’ Civil Rights

Betsy DeVos attends education meeting at the White House in Washington

 

Betsy DeVos seems to be confused about her job.

 

As U.S. Secretary of Education, she is responsible for upholding the civil rights of all U.S. students.

 

She is NOT a paid lobbyist for the school privatization industry.

 

Yet when asked point blank by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) whether her department would ensure that private schools receiving federal school vouchers don’t discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students, she refused to give a straight answer.

 

She said that the these schools would be required to follow all federal antidiscrimination laws but her department would not issue any clarifications or directives about exactly how they should be doing it.

 

“On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts to settle,” DeVos said at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education yesterday.

 

“I think you just said where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program. If that’s incorrect, please correct it for the record,” Merkley replied.

 

DeVos did not correct him.

 

Instead she simply repeated, “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law, period.”

 

Merkley said she was dodging the question.

“I think that’s very important for the public to know, that today, the secretary of education, before this committee, refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that would ban discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or would ban discrimination based on religion,” he said.

 

“Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form,” DeVos replied.

 

But that doesn’t mean she’ll fight against it.

 

She held firm to her position that it is not her job as Secretary of Education to fight for students’ civil rights. That is the responsibility of Congress and the courts.

 

But she’s wrong.

 

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is part of the Department of Education.

 

According to the department’s own Website, the “OCR’s mission is to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.”

 

There is nothing “unsettled” about that at all. What IS unsettled is how and if the U.S. Constitution allows federal funds to be spent on private schools in any manner whatsoever.

 

At very least, it has been argued that giving tax dollars to parochial schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment guaranteeing a separation of church and state. Moreover, the degree to which voucher schools that don’t explicitly teach religion would have to abide by federal laws about what they can and should do is likewise “unsettled.”

 

Yet DeVos has no problem advocating for the school privatization industry. In fact, it has been her lifelong calling. As a billionaire Republican mega-donor, that’s exactly what she’s done for years – shoving bundles of cash at candidates and lawmakers to support school vouchers and charter schools.

 

Someone needs to remind her that that is no longer her role. In her official capacity as Secretary of Education, her job is not to advocate for school choice. But it IS her job to protect students’ civil rights – regardless of the type of school those students attend.

 

If a school is at all public, she is responsible for ensuring those students’ rights. And receiving public funds makes a school public.

 

 

Specifically, she is responsible for ensuring no child is discriminated against on the basis of race, color and national origin, according to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This includes protecting children who are being treated unfairly due to limited understanding of the English language or who are still learning to speak the language. This includes children experiencing bigotry as a result of their shared ancestry, ethnicity or religion such as Muslims, Sikhs or Jews.

 

 

It is also her job to protect children from sexual discrimination as per Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  No matter her own personal conservative views, she must protect pregnant teens or teen parents. And to speak toward Merkley’s point, according to the Department’s Website, this explicitly includes, “…sex stereotypes (such as treating persons differently because they do not conform to sex-role expectations or because they are attracted to or are in relationships with persons of the same sex); and gender identity or transgender status.”

 

She is also required to be a champion of students with disabilities as per Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Moreover, Title II explicitly forbids public entities – whether or not they receive federal funds – from demonstrating any partiality against students with disabilities.

 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She has to protect against age discrimination per the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 and enforce the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act. She is responsible for investigating complaints about equal access to youth groups conducting meetings at public schools and/or that receive federal funding.

 

To quote the Website, one more time:

 

“These civil rights laws extend to all state education agencies, elementary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities, vocational schools, proprietary schools, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, libraries and museums that receive federal financial assistance from ED [the Education Department].”

 

I’m not so sure DeVos understand this – at all.

 

Nor do I expect her to get much help from the political ideologues she’s using to staff the department.

 

Take her choice for Assistant Secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson.

 

She’s an ANTI-Civil Rights activist. She literally doesn’t believe in the office she’s running.

 

The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

 

She once filed a complaint against her prestigious college, Stanford University, for discriminating against her rights as a rich, white person by refusing to allow her access to free minority tutoring.

 

For all its faults, the Barack Obama administration took civil rights seriously. So much so that conservatives often criticized the Democratic organization as being overzealous in the execution of its duties.

 

The Obama era Education Department issued so many clarifications of the law that it received a record number of civil rights complaints. This required hundreds of additional lawyers and investigators and increasing the civil rights division by 30 percent.

 

Complaints went from more than six thousand in 2009 to almost ten thousand in 2015. Of these, the largest increase was in complaints of sex discrimination.

 

However, President Donald Trump has recommended the Department be downsized in his budget proposal.

 

The Reality TV star would cut the Department’s budget by 13 percent, or $9 billion, eliminating after-school and summer programming for kids and professional development for teachers.  Instead, he would invest $250 million in a school voucher incentive program and an additional $168 million for charter schools.

 

Also, getting a boost is personal security for DeVos, herself. She is spending an additional $1 million a month for U.S. Marshalls to guard her against protesters.

 

It should come as no surprise that Trump and DeVos don’t support the mission of the Department of Education. Both have expressed interest in disbanding the office altogether.

 

In a February magazine interview, DeVos said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job. But I’m not sure that – I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

 

Likewise, Trump wrote in his 2015 book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” that “if we don’t eliminate [the department] completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”

 

That is exactly what DeVos is doing.

 

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, it could be argued the Department was guilty of overreach. But Trump and DeVos are going in the opposite extreme.

 

Someone has to look out for students’ civil rights. That someone has traditionally been the Department of Education. With DeVos abdicating her responsibilities and continuing her role as a school privatization cheerleader, it is anyone’s guess who – if anyone – will step into the void.

Is Love Enough to Fight Today’s White, Male Terrorists?

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When I was growing up, I was told that love is all you need.

But now in the face of such hatred toward people of color, I’m not so sure.

Three brave people put their lives on the line to stop a knife-wielding white supremacist on a bus in Portland, Oregon, yesterday. Two of them – Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche – lost their lives defending two young women being menaced with anti-Muslim slurs. The other – Micah Fletcher – was viciously wounded but survived.

As Meche was bleeding out on the floor of the bus, a witness recorded his last words: “Tell everyone on this bus that I love them.”

It’s heartbreaking.

What are we to do with such knowledge? Three people filled with love and one maniac filled with hate.

Was love enough?

It saved the would-be targets this time. The attacker is behind bars. But two precious lives have been snuffed out.

Why? So one scared little man can vent his xenophobia and intolerance?

The America I grew up in seemed to have learned the lessons of the Civil Rights movement. I was born after the murders of Dr. King, Malcolm X and the Kennedys. I was born after the church bombings, bus boycotts, freedom rides and marches.

I grew up in a time when we could look back on all that and wonder what we would have done had we been faced with the same challenges. And now

Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” What better term to define the age of Trump and the Alt-Right than farce?

Capitalism is dying and the one percent are so ignorant they’re only fueling the fires of their own demise. They ship jobs overseas and then wonder why no one has any money to buy their products. Meanwhile the frightened and forgotten white American men who used to sit atop the social ladder are once again looking for someone to blame. And the same convenient scapegoats present themselves.

I find myself asking what so many generations have asked before: will we survive this time?

It is not just racism and prejudice. It is not just economic uncertainty and systemic inequality. It’s climate change and nuclear proliferation. It’s a world on the brink of collapse and civilization-ending war.

And the only thing we have to fight all these enemies at the gates, the only thing we have is love.

Will it be enough?

Do we have enough love to overcome all the fear and hate?

I don’t know.

I love my daughter. That I can say with absolute certainty.

I look at her innocent enthusiastic face as she draws a crayon portrait of Ruby Bridges, the first black girl to desegregate a historic New Orleans public school in 1960. I smile and try to hope.

I love my wife.

I watch her look of triumph as she beats me again at Jeopardy. She can read the answers faster than I can voice the questions.

I love my students.

I smile as they furiously write their final 8th grade projects connecting The Outsiders, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and To Kill a Mockingbird in one glorious essay. How much more confident they are now completing a project that would have seemed impossible 8 months before!

But do I love the stranger, too?

Will I look across the aisle at the black and brown boys and girls riding with me on the bus and have the courage to love them as much?

When a man who looks just like me stands and threatens them, will I love them enough to stand in his way? Will I suspend the love of all those I know to protect those I don’t?

Do I have enough love?

I hope so. Because in writing this article one thing has become clear to me about myself that I didn’t realize when I began.

I don’t know if love can save the world. I don’t know if it can heal the environment, stop global war, provide an equitable economy and eradicate racism.

But I still believe in spite of everything that it’s the only way to live.

We may not survive today. But we’ll love each other.

And maybe that matters the most.

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.

Charter Schools and Voucher Schools are Virtually Identical

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The stark orange monolith that was Donald Trump is starting to crumble.

And with it so are the dreams of corporate education reformers everywhere.

Where in previous administrations they could pass off their policies as Democratic or Republican depending on whichever way the wind blows, today their brand has been so damaged by Trump’s advocacy, they fear it may never recover.

Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they could champion both charter schools and school vouchers with impunity. But now the privatizers and profiteers hiding in progressive clothing are trying desperately to rebrand.

Not only is Trump’s voucher plan deeply unpopular, but the public has already begun to associate any kind of school privatization with a doomed President.

So like cockroaches, neoliberals have begun to skitter to one type of privatization over another. Fake Democrats hide beneath unfettered charter school expansion. Bought-and-sold Republicans cling to the idea that we should spend taxpayer dollars on private and parochial schools.

But is there a real substantial difference between each of these so-called “choice” schemes? Or are they both just scams when compared with traditional public schools?

THE DIFFERENCES

Charter Schools and Private Schools are basically the same thing.

The biggest difference between the two is funding.

Charter schools are completely funded by tax dollars. Private schools – even when school vouchers are used – often need to be subsidized by parents. For instance, many private schools charge tuition of $30,000 – $40,000 a year. Vouchers rarely provide more than $6,000. So at best they bring the cost down but still make it impossible for most students to attend private schools.

Sure they may start as an effort to allow only impoverished children to use tax dollars towards private and parochial school tuition. But they soon grow to include middle class and wealthy children, thus partially subsidizing attendance at the most exclusive schools in the country for those families who can already afford it.

Parochial schools, meanwhile, are exactly the same except for one meaningful difference. They teach religion.

Their entire curriculum comes from a distinctly religious point of view. They indoctrinate youth into a way of seeing the world that is distinctly non-secular.

Progressives complain that using tax dollars to pay for student tuition at such schools – even only partial tuition – violates a foundational principal of our nation.

Using public money to pay for religious teaching has historically been interpreted as a violation of the establishment clause of the first Amendment to the Constitution – namely, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is further exacerbated in many parochial schools where religious teaching includes a blatant political bias toward conservatism. Children at many of these schools are taught that supply side economics, voter disenfranchisement and prejudice are normative bedrock truths.

These are the main distinctions between voucher and charter schools.

In short, they’re not all exactly the same. And corporate reform apologist are trying to rebuild their brand on these split hairs.

But the similarities between these types of school are much more striking.

THE SIMILARITIES

The biggest commonality between these types of educational institutions is how they’re run. Unlike traditional public schools – which are governed by duly-elected school boards – charter, private and parochial schools are overseen by private interests. They are administered by independent management firms. They rarely have elected school boards. Their operators rarely make decisions in public, and their budgets and other documents are not open to review by taxpayers. This is true despite the fact that they are funded to varying degrees by public tax dollars.

So in all three cases, these schools are run privately, but taxpayers pick up the tab.

It’s ironic. Sending kids to charters, private and parochial schools with public money is called school choice. However, each of these types of schools gives taxpayers much less choice about how their money is being spent.

The community funds the school, but almost all decisions are made by people outside of the community – people appointed, in fact, by bureaucrats or business managers.

To be sure, parents can express their displeasure of administrative decisions by disenrolling their children in the school. But beyond this nuclear option, they are powerless. Even more troubling, taxpayers without children or with children who do not attend these schools have no say whatsoever about how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury, it doesn’t even really allow the parents to choose which schools their children attend. They can put in a request for their kids to attend a choice school, but enrollment decisions are made by these same private equity managers. In short, administrators make the ultimate choice – not parents.

If the religious school doesn’t want to accept your child for whatever reason including operators’ disapproval of your religious beliefs, they don’t have to accept him. If the private school doesn’t want to accept your child based on race, gender or nationality, they don’t have to accept him. If the charter school doesn’t want to accept your child because of bad grades or troublesome behaviors, they don’t have to accept him.

The traditional public school, however, cannot refuse a child who lives in district borders for any of these reasons. In effect, school choice really isn’t about parental choice. It’s about increasing choice for the operators of privatized schools – letting them choose their students and how to spend your money without any meaningful input from you.

And it’s true at all three types of school!

Those are pretty considerable similarities. Moreover, they highlight major differences between these so-called choice schools and traditional public schools.

This is important because we don’t even have to get into the academic records of individual schools. The way each type of school is structured shows the clear inferiority of choice schools compared to traditional public schools.

By their very structure, public schools give parents and taxpayers much more agency in children’s education and how taxpayer money is spent.

Second, the latitude for school administrators to perpetrate fraud on the public is maximized in so-called choice schools and minimized in public schools. This doesn’t mean public schools are perfect, but it is much better to have a school under public scrutiny and local control than otherwise. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of charter school scandals popping up in the news every day, where charters close suddenly, money is misspent on luxury items for operators that have nothing to do with education, and – especially in cyber charters – the quality of education students receive is literally lower than having no formal education at all.

Finally, if public schools struggle, it is almost always due to a lack of equitable funding and a surplus of impoverished students. It is no accident that poor students receive less resources and larger class sizes than middle class or wealthy ones. Nor is it an accident that we judge the effectiveness of schools primarily on standardized tests which are so good at highlighting the results of lack of resources rather than any academic deficiency.

If we spent our education dollars ensuring equitable resources instead of funneling tax dollars to charter, private and parochial schools, we would better increase the quality of children’s education. But for the last few decades that has not been the goal of education policy. It has instead been to enrich these same privatized school managers and investors – the corporate education reform industry. Nor is it a coincidence that this industry and its subsidiaries counts itself as major donors to both political parties.

Before she was elevated to Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos was exactly that – a billionaire mega-donor pushing school privatization while getting richer off investments in the same. Now that she’s driving school vouchers off a cliff in the Trump train, her co-conspirators are getting nervous.

Neoliberal Democrats may try to save the movement by claiming charter schools are completely different. But they aren’t. They are fundamentally the same.

The public sees the clear similarities between these kinds of schools. And much of that is thanks to the incompetent boobery of Donald J. Trump.

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.

Trump Can’t Limit Federal Role in Public Schools AND Push School Vouchers

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Donald Trump is talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Again.

This time he’s signing an executive order demanding the Department of Education study how the federal government oversteps its legal authority with regard to K-12 schools.

Yet he still proposes bribing states with $20 billion in federal funds to enact school vouchers.

Well which is it, Oh Orange One?

Are you for limiting the federal role in education or for coercing states to do your bidding?

Because you can’t be for both.

Either states and local districts determine the bulk of their school policies or not. You can’t barge into our state capitals promising billions of dollars in federal tax money if and only if we enact your chosen reforms.

That’s one of the primary reasons many conservatives (and even a sizable number of progressives) oppose Common Core. The Obama administration promised billions of dollars in Race to the Top grants if and only if states adopted these new, untried academic standards.

How is Trump’s voucher scheme any different?

In both cases, the proposed education reform has not been proven to work, and it’s not being requested by the education community or voters. In fact, when it comes to vouchers, voters have repeatedly turned them down in referendum after referendum.

So if Trump wants to investigate federal overreach, he should start with his own campaign speeches on vouchers.

So why is the former Realty TV star doing this?

Well, his first hundred days are almost up, and he has next to nothing to show for it. Other than uniting the American people against him, President Con Man hasn’t achieved much. One can imagine why he might want to hurry up and toss off yet another executive order so he could put something – anything – in the achievement column.
But there’s a more insidious reason why the founder of Trump University took out his signing pen.

His administration – especially his Department of Education – is particularly inimical to civil rights.

Just look at the brain trust he has running it.

Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t sure the department should be in the business of protecting special education students. Nor is she willing to take a stand to protect transgender kids.

Latest hire Deputy Assistant Secretary Candice Jackson has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the very existence of civil rights. The 39-year-old attorney is anti-women’s rights, anti-distributive justice and possibly even anti-compulsory education and anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964!

In college, she thought she, herself, was being persecuted because a tutoring group set up for minorities wouldn’t serve her as a white person – despite the fact that she could probably afford to pay for her own damn tutoring.

So this latest “study” into federal overreach is probably an attempt by the Trump administration to justify doing nothing to protect the civil rights of students across the country.

Under President Bad Hair Day, special education students can be denied services with impunity. It’s not the federal government’s job to step in. THAT would be overreach.

And if black and brown students don’t receive the same resources and opportunities as their white counterparts, there’s just nothing the Trump administration can do. They don’t want to step over the line.

It’s not that The Donald doesn’t sympathize with transgender students denied access to bathrooms that correspond with their gender. Ivanka even gave him a stern talking to. It’s just that his tiny little hands are tied. Thems the limits of federal authority, Son.

If you ask me, that’s truly the impetus behind this executive order.

He’s just setting up his next excuse for giving us, the American people, zero return on our tax dollars.

That way he can just shrug and offer more tax cuts to the rich.

Sadly, there is truth to the claim that the Department of Education has overstepped its authority. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama frequently usurped states and communities local control. No one was crying out for high stakes testing, more test prep material, and unregulated charter expansion. But that’s what we got!

If you’re looking to Trump to balance the scales, look somewhere else!

He has given no indication that he will be any different. He’ll still push his own agenda on us, but he’ll pretend like we asked for it.

Now that’s the Donald Trump we know best!