2022-04-11 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Interlude 2: There Is a Better Way

‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living’ (Finnish saying)

We’ll see in the final part of our series how the K-12 public education in the U.S. – sometimes referred to as “America’s Best Idea” – is being undermined by a well-organized and well-funded campaign ongoing for more than a generation, one which has taken advantage of the pandemic to step up its efforts, particularly in statehouses across the country.

But before we descend that divisive and costly path, let’s consider a country that has got public education right: Finland.  

What makes this small Nordic country’s system so successful? A number of factors:

  • No private schools (well, there’s one: the Finnish International School in Helsinki, which is for the children of foreign residents such as diplomats)
  • Equality (key goal from birth)
  • Emphasis on the individual child from a very young age (early intervention)
  • Well-defined and comprehensive youth policies extending beyond schools
  • Highly-qualified teachers (teaching is on a par with medicine and law as one of the “most desirable” professions; only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted; all teachers hold master’s degrees paid for by the state, and special education teachers have additional training – in other words, teaching is a high-prestige, high-qualifications profession which guarantees (a) continual demand for teaching positions by candidates AND (b) longevity among those selected
  • No state testing; students take only one national exam at the end of their secondary schooling (and they don’t assign PISA* results any significance)
  • Students are in school fewer hours, which allows more time for extracurriculars  (in Finland, this means means many outdoor nature-related activities like skiing, hiking, biking, sauna use)
  • Minimal or no homework
  • Major emphasis on play; in fact, the early years mostly consist of play –socialization, with Finnish children not beginning school proper until age 7 (Note: The Finns recognize “play” as a human right as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 31)
  • Emphasis on special needs children, with the goal of mainstreaming all children when possible.

The world has noticed what Finland’s been doing over the past half-century – the restructuring of the country’s education system was a long-term goal, and introduced gradually with the input of stakeholders. Interestingly, Finland looked initially to what other countries were doing (primarily, the U.S.). They adopted and adapted (and continue to adapt) what they consider best practices to their own education system. It’s a system based on involvement of all stakeholders (education authorities [all of whom are educators themselves], municipalities and teachers in the first instance, followed by business leaders, non-governmental associations, researchers, and parents). In short, “This consensus-based policymaking process has guaranteed sustainability of reforms and maintained the focus on a singular, shared vision of ongoing reforms. There have been over 20 different ministers of education and government coalitions since the 1970s in Finland, but the main principles of education policy have changed little.”

Teachers aren’t evaluated or assessed, and neither are schools. It’s a given that every school, every teacher, does the very best they can for their students. A single teacher may have the same class for as many as five years, giving them the chance to know each student (around 20 per class, with one teacher’s assistant for every 6-7 students) really well. The goal is to help each individual to reach their full potential, not some abstract test score or metric. The Finns don’t pay much attention to metrics, either; rather, they employ the human factor – teachers figure they understand their students better than any metric can convey.  “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect” (Timo Heikkinen, 24-year veteran teacher and principal from Helsinki). One important consequence of this focus on the individual child: the Finns have the smallest difference in the world between their strongest and weakest students.

Also of note: “Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.” (Outcomes and costs remind us of national health systems vs. the private U.S. health system).

Teaching and learning take place within a broader environment of “caring for the child.” Finland has generous parental leave, subsidized daycare, free preschool, and a subsidy for each child until they turn 17. No student goes hungry or has its medical needs unattended: “Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.” And municipalities help out too, providing extra funds to cover the costs of special needs teachers for, e.g. a school’s immigrant children still not conversant in Finnish (the system provides all children a full Finish-language education in addition to two foreign languages, begun at ages 8-9: Swedish and a second language, with English being the most popular).

For five years in a row, Finland has been named the “happiest country in the world” (runners-up: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland) and its education system is listed among the main reasons. Here are some others:

  • A national sense of fortitude (Finnish sisu), partly born from living in an inhospitable climate, and partly due to a harsh history of conflict with its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia.
  • The “freedom to roam”: 75% of Finland’s land expanse is forest (highest percentage in the world), and the country enjoys low levels of air and water pollution. All Finns have the right to circulate freely in nature – along rivers, on lakes, in forests.
  • A strong sense of community fostered not least by the national custom of the sauna – there are 2.4 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. Finns come together in saunas stripped of the outer trappings of wealth and status – which is both a strong equalizer and a means of encouraging comfort with their own – and others’ – bodies.
  • Sustainable, thoughtful consumption. Finns aren’t fans of the throwaway society; what they do possess is solid and built to last (often, for a lifetime). They are avid recyclers as well, so less “stuff” gets tossed; rather, it’s reused – again and again. And they’re borrowers, too: the public library system in Finland loans out 68 million books a year.  
  • Child welfare. Finns believe in giving everyone an equal start in life – witness, for example, the famed “baby boxes” distributed since 1938 to all new parents upon a child’s birth. And there’s affordable daycare and free elementary, secondary, and university education.
  • A sense of humility. Finns tend to accept their lot (both individual and collective) in life, and therefore to consider themselves happier than those who are endlessly striving.
  • Finns embrace the darkness and the light – whether weather extremes, the hot steam in the sauna versus the freezing cold outside, 200 days of darkness versus the Northern Lights, or hardship itself, which is viewed not as a setback but as an opportunity for growth. “[T]he self-image of Finns is that we are a relatively melancholic nation, who like to listen to sad tangos or angry heavy metal instead of happy songs. I think this acceptance of negative emotions as part of life might actually have a positive effect on the happiness of Finns” (well-being researcher Dr. Frank Martela).  

To sum up, here’s what Finland has going for it:  A highly egalitarian society (not so homogeneous anymore, however; Finland now has a significant refugee population); a focus on the welfare of all its inhabitants from birth; a national ethos of moderation in consumption; care and respect for the natural environment (which is, after all, the nurturer of us all); strong social welfare programs that alleviate poverty, strengthen the middle class (Finland has no homelessness, almost no poverty [Gini coefficient of 27.3]), and a high level of trust in government at all levels – for example, the national education system is completely devolved; local councils have full responsibility for schools, and there is no oversight by the national government.

And finally: Finland, although an EU member country, is also neutral (since 1995), which means that a higher percentage of its GDP can be devoted to life-enhancing as opposed to life-destroying investment. That matters too.

*PISA = Programme for International Student Assessment, administered every three years to around 500,000 15-year-olds throughout the world. It was most recently administered in 2021.

Further Reading

Finnish Lessons”: Interview with Pasi Sahlberg

 (beginning at 20:46)

Finland’s Educational Success Is No Miracle

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”

Why Finland Has the Best Education System in the World

What Makes Finland the Happiest Country in the World for the Fourth Consecutive Year?”

7 Lessons Learned from the Happiest Country in the World

2022-04-06 Interlude

The Story of Buzz and Janie and Danny

It has been clear for some time that completing our series of planned posts on “Education in a Time of Pandemic” has become difficult, painful even. The final planned post, on the many well-funded efforts to privatize American public education by stealth, will have to wait for a bit as we go on holiday from the darkness enveloping our world to seek out the light.

We woke up this morning determined to find a more uplifting topic to use as a launching-pad. It took several hours, but we found one, on a site we visit occasionally when we’ve a mind to read in-depth, reflective writing on a wide variety of subjects. Appropriately enough, the site is called “longreads.” The piece we chose, “Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful,” was published in an online magazine called The Atavist, which we weren’t familiar with – one of the pleasures of longreads is that its selections come from all sorts of out-of-the-way sources.

The story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and concerns only three people – Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul (Buzz was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Michigan; Janie, an artist who taught color theory at the University’s School of Art & Design) and a man named Danny Valentine, and of how Buzz and Janie first saved Danny’s life (literally and metaphorically), and of how Danny subsequently saved theirs.

Here’s what happened: Buzz and Janie met at an artists’ residency in 1992 (“Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love”) ; Buzz spent his 1993 sabbatical year in NYC with Janie, and when the year was over, she managed to land a job in Ann Arbor and moved there.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had become involved in art outreach for prisoners (Michigan’s prison population had gone from under 10,000 to over 30,000 in the 20 years he’d been living in Ann Arbor). Once Janie became his life partner, that outreach expanded, and grew to include the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a University of Michigan program “dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.” ([Both Janie and Buzz] “thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible.”)

One of the program’s features became a yearly exhibition of artwork by prisoners, hosted by one of the University’s art galleries. Works were for sale, with proceeds to go to the artists themselves. In order to gather ideas about possible artist-exhibitors, Buzz wrote to a number of the prisons PCAP was already working with. This was in 1995. And here’s where Danny enters their lives.

The director of a prison in Jackson proposed a man who, in his words, “could do anything.” He could sculpt, he could model, he could paint, he could draw – an all-round master of every technique available to him. And so, Buzz wrote a letter to prisoner number 156689. His name was Danny Valentine.

Danny’s story was light-years apart from those of Buzz (Harvard, Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan) and Janie (Hunter College, NYU, Michigan). He’d grown up as the second of five children in a blue-collar family in Ann Arbor. There was a fair amount of violence in the family; Danny had found solace by teaching himself to draw at the age of six.

He first ran away from home when he was 12; his father called the police, and thus began Danny’s long carceral career – he was in and out of jails and prisons until, as so often happens with young men who’ve had an early acquaintance with the injustice system, he was accused of rape (he claimed he was innocent) and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.

During his first years in prison – not long before his path crosses that of Buzz and Janie – he married his girlfriend, Diane, who served as his lifeline for a short period. But she moved to another town, began seeing someone else, and served him with divorce papers not long after. He signed them. Here’s Danny in the fall of 1995:

Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny decided to keep on living, and participated in PCAP art exhibitions for 20 years.

The first PCAP exhibition Danny took part in (with two works) was in spring 1996; he didn’t meet Buzz and Janie, however, until 2004, eight years after he’d begun exhibiting with the program.

Janie on that first meeting:

I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings. The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.

Danny’s memory of that same moment:

I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time. I felt like I had met the other half.

Danny was up for parole in 2011, and Buzz and Janie wrote a letter in support of his release. But his request was rejected, and he vowed never to apply again – he’d serve out his full term.

Then in 2013, Danny was released without prior notification (perhaps the prison needed to free up beds). He’d served 23 years – by that time, he was in his early fifties. He was taken by his brother to a halfway house, where he’d have six months to get his life together. With an inheritance from his father, he bought a Dodge Caravan – if he became homeless, he’d be able to live in his car. He’d never had a bank account, never used a cell phone, and his prospects for regular employment as a registered sex offender were slim to nil.  He ended up moving to northern Michigan, a long drive from Ann Arbor and Buzz and Janie’s beautiful, book- and art-filled home, where they’d hosted him for a blueberry pancake breakfast following his release.  

After he left the halfway house, Danny moved in with his ex-wife and her boyfriend; eventually, she found him a trailer home located in the Upper Peninsula (six+ hours from Ann Arbor); the owner said he could live there rent-free if he fixed it up. He was alone, without friends, without colleagues, and had once again begun contemplating suicide.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Danny got a call from Janie – they’d stayed in touch since his release, and he would occasionally drove down to Ann Arbor to visit them – asking him to come and stay with them. Buzz had been diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) in 2014, and Janie was desperate; she could no longer care for him on her own.

Danny arrived at their home on Christmas Day 2016 after a 12-hour drive in a driving snowstorm, and not long after this he determined that he would stay “until the end.”

Caring for those in the latter stages of dementia is exhausting and psychically stressful – Danny had had no previous experience with caregiving, but he became Buzz’s full-time caregiver in the final years of his life. The title of the essay is taken from this brief anecdote, relayed by Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend:  

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

As the disease progressed, Buzz lost more and more cognitive and motor functions, along with the ability to express his thoughts in words, an academic and intellectual’s  foremost connection with reality. Danny seemed to sense, intuitively, what Buzz needed on any given day, and he devised ingenious methods of adjusting to his declining skills – for example, when he lost the ability to use eating utensils, Danny devised an entire menu made up of finger foods.

Dementia is both terrifying and puzzling as cognitive functions drop away in no particular order for any given individual – there’s no cure for FTD, it’s fatal, but there is oddness about its progression:

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head

In early September 2019, Buzz stopped eating and drinking – he could no longer swallow. A hospice nurse was called in, but Janie and Danny were always near him as well. Buzz passed away on September 19, twelve days after he’d stopped eating.

Now, Danny and Janie are together – theirs is not a conventional story, or even a romance, but perhaps it is something more precious, more profound. Their relationship seems to us to be a real-life example of a form of love we touched on in our Valentine’s Day post:

“Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.

This exceptional piece, by Kelly Loudenberg, opens with a quotation from 1 Cor. 4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Greek word, of course, is agape / αγάπη.

The Michigan Daily published a long appreciation of Buzz Alexander following his death which includes reminiscences by friends and former students who’d taken his classes and become involved with the PCAP. One of the testimonials:

Sara Falls, a high school English teacher in California, took Alexander’s “What is Literature?” and “Theater and Social Change” classes at the University, the latter involving improvisational theater in prisons. Alexander’s readings and discussions on prison justice got her thinking more deeply about how the education system can create a pipeline to prison, eventually compelling her to become a teacher herself. 

“He started to get me to think about what it means to be a teacher,” Falls said. “This is my 20th year teaching, and I don’t think I’d be a teacher if it wasn’t for him. It’s my life’s work, and I feel deeply called to it, because it’s about finding the power in young people and helping them to use their voices and helping them feel powerful in themselves to make change.”

Can there be a more eloquent description of the mission of a teacher? We think not.

2022-03-28 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Prologue: What Education Cannot Do

Before taking up the long list of public school crypto- (and not-so-crypto) privatization initiatives in our final installment concerning the consequences for public education in a time of pandemic, let’s clear the slate regarding the stated purposes of education and the reason/s these purposes have become controversial over the past 30 years.

Below, a sampling from several state constitutions, setting out the purposes of education and responsibilities of (four) individual states for providing such an education to all residents. [Note: Highlighting is ours.]

(1)

Article 14, §1 Arkansas Constitution

Text of Section 1:

Free School System

Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.

(2)

State Constitution, New Hampshire

Part 2, Form of Government, Encouragement of Literature, Trades, Etc., New Hampshire State Constitution.

[Art.] 83. [Encouragement of Literature, etc.; Control of Corporations, Monopolies, etc.] Knowledge and learning, generally diffused through a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government; and spreading the opportunities and advantages of education through the various parts of the country, being highly conducive to promote this end; it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this government, to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries and public schools, to encourage private and public institutions, rewards, and immunities for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and economy, honesty and punctuality, sincerity, sobriety, and all social affections, and generous sentiments, among the people: Provided, nevertheless, that no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.

(3)

ARTICLE VIII, Section 1. North Dakota Constitution

EDUCATION

Section 1.A high degree of intelligence, patriotism, integrity and morality on the part of every voter in a government by the people being necessary in order to insure the continuance of that government and the prosperity and happiness of the people, the legislative assembly shall make provision for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools which shall be open to all children of the state of North Dakota and free from sectarian control. This legislative requirement shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of North Dakota.

(4)

The Page Amendment, Minnesota Constitution (proposed 2022; not yet approved*)

“All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right. The duty of the state established in this section does not infringe on the right of a parent to choose for their child a private, religious, or home school as an alternative to public education.”

Democrats have backed themselves into a corner over the past 30 years by supporting education through claiming that a university degree represents the 21st-century path to the middle class, out of poverty and into the land of plenty. In other words, their argument for public education has been essentially an instrumental (as opposed to intrinsic) one of the sort, “Get an education and get a good-paying job.” The converse of this argument? “If you don’t get an education, that’s on you.” It’s somewhat analogous to blaming those who became ill with COVID-19 due to the nature of their work, or the fact that they live in multi-generational households, or because they suffer from underlying co-morbidities such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases: “Your bad luck is your own fault.”

It’s an argument that devalues and shames those without a college degree, who accounted for 62.5% of the U.S. population in 2020. How can one-third of the population look down on the other two-thirds when in fact this is not their fault?

How’d we get here? Here are some of the major economic and political transformations in the U.S. economy and political environment over the past generation:

  • The rise of heavy industrial production in the mid-to late 19th century up through approximately 1970 (mechanization / urbanization / two World Wars which ignited the economy)
  • This shift in the economic base (to industrial production) was accompanied by a long, often violent conflict between industrial workers and owners (“robber barons”), culminating in the National Labor Relations Act (1935) that inter alia guaranteed all workers the right to organize without employers’ exercising unfair labor practices. Formerly rural farmworkers became industrial workers, were unionized, and gained access to wages well above poverty level, enabling their entry into the post-World War II middle class.
  • Inflation and changes in individual and corporate tax structures after around 1980 (in part fueled by the oil crisis/embargo in 1973-1974, which had been partly caused by the falling rate of the USD) and the rise of industrial capacity outside the U.S. initiated
  • A process of deindustrialization, i.e. the movement of large production facilities to locations where labor was cheaper; this process involved both shifts from more costly, more heavily-unionized northern states to southern ones, as well as the shift to other countries (offshoring) including Mexico, China, and Southeast Asia, where labor costs were a fraction of what they were in the U.S.
  • This loss of industrial production in turn led to the U.S.’s transformation from a production economy to a human and financial services economy, accompanied by
  • A precipitous drop in union membership (down to 10.3%, from 20% in 1983), which in turn
  • Depressed wages for workers, while it simultaneously
  • Increased profits for owners, leading to
  • An ever-growing gap in earnings/savings between owners/the (higher) professional classes and workers/service providers. (Cf. for example the 70% increase in wealth for U.S. billionaires during the pandemic, whose worth soared from $2T to $5T since March 2020), which has
  • Resulted in 40% of Americans not having savings of $400 today to cover an unforeseen emergency (car repair, dental work, death in the family)

During the past 30-40 years, as (1) through (10) were occurring, the working middle class lost ground continuously. Factories closed and no comparable jobs came to replace them. There was a shift from a “production” to a “service” economy. Democrats, whose most powerful base – both in terms of funding and in terms of voter turnout – was falling out of the middle class and into the “working poor,” had to figure out a way to continue to attract the displaced and discouraged. The solution they arrived at was “go to college” – a university degree suddenly became the ticket (formerly provided by high-paying union jobs) to the middle class.

But many – most – of those to whom this new mantra was addressed couldn’t afford the cost of a college degree. And so, another “solution” was found: the college loan program.  

Given that this mantra was financially-motivated (“Go to college and you’ll get a good job”), colleges and universities obliged by gearing ever more programs of study to getting a job after graduation. Many degrees have ended up as what was once referred to as “technical training” with a much higher price tag. In consequence, the humanities and social sciences have seriously declined in terms of enrollment and offerings; entire degree programs have been cancelled. Many university graduates have only rudimentary (or no) knowledge of the subjects which once formed the foundation for an educated human being – philosophy, history, literature, foreign languages. All have fallen out of favor because they don’t automatically guarantee a decent job.  

Today, about 37.5% of the U.S. population has college degrees; 13% has a master’s degree, and 1.2% has a PhD. Although many graduates don’t enjoy middle-class salaries, one thing both higher- and lower-end graduates share is upper-class debt. In 2021, 43.4 million students (sixty-two percent of the total) were burdened with $1.6 trillion dollars in debt; average debt held by individuals for undergrad student loans is $28,950, and $57,520 for families where both partners carry debt burdens (2019 figures). Loan totals increase considerably at the professional degree levels (e.g. medical school: $201,490; law school: $145,500). Sixty-two percent of students graduate with debt weighing down their future – the prospect of owning a home, for example, diminishes considerably for those with student debt, which is nearly impossible to discharge in bankruptcy (thanks, Senator Joe Biden).

The dream of gaining admission to the middle class through education, which has for a generation been touted as the solution to the loss of manufacturing and production jobs as the latter were being offshored has not materialized, nor will it.

Of course there were other means of steering the economy in new directions in the wake of offshoring, and there were other tools in the political economy toolkit to address the drastic decline in prosperity of the former blue-collar middle class. Medicare for All, a permanent Child Tax Credit that applied to all incomes, even those too meager to be taxed, a progressive taxation system for the top 1-5% (remember – it reached 90% during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency), tuition-free study at all public colleges and universities are a few that come to mind. And the specter of climate change, the urgent need to transition to renewable/sustainable energy, to retrofit the entire U.S. housing stock for extreme temperatures, to rebuild our infrastructure and urban cores sustainably – all of these needs have been known for the last 20 years, we just haven’t implemented them on a scale that would have both gainfully employed former industrial production workers and made the U.S. more resilient in the face of what is coming in the next half-century. Creating a sustainable and resilient new national infrastructure to ward off at least some of the consequences of climate change would have compensated for the working class prosperity which has been lost.

But none of the above happened, and there are only faint prospects of action before it’s too late, both for the working class and for the climate and natural environment.

Education must walk in lockstep with the overall goals of a society – and in societies where the greatest possible profit for the smallest possible number of beneficiaries, without regard to economic externalities that harm both people and the environment reigns above all, there is little chance for education to accomplish what the business class, the financial class, and the political class do not want it to accomplish.

Neither K-12 nor college education can put food in hungry children’s mouths (in 2019, 10 million children, around 20% of school-age children, were living below poverty level), nor money in their parents’ pockets when they’re earning $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage since 2009). Education cannot pay their own or their caregivers’ medical costs in case of a major illness or life-threatening accident; it cannot clean up the air they breathe, or the water they drink, or the food they eat. And in the absence of all of these, teachers cannot do their job, which is to teach.

What we are left with, then, are the idealistic promises and goals (today more honored in the breach than the observance) set forth in the state constitutions quoted above. More than 40 million students/graduates are burdened with debt that will never permit them to enter the traditional middle class, symbolized perhaps most conspicuously by home ownership following World War II (the U.S. is now in the early stages of a seismic shift from a home ownership society to a rental society, as we will discuss in the post on Housing and Homelessness later in this series). Our population has been gravely harmed by the coronavirus pandemic, from which an estimated 10%-20% of those infected will suffer from “long COVID” for an unspecified and unknown period, and with as-yet unknown costs for the economy. And we confront a K-12 public education system which, already weakened over the past 30 years, is now being subjected to a brutal frontal attack on its very existence.

In our next – and final – post on Education in a Time of Pandemic, we will consider the push towards privatization which is threatening a foundational institution of the United States: free public education for all.

Further Reading

I Am Not a Proof of the American Dream

If You Think Republicans Are Overplaying Schools, You Aren’t Paying Attention

Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice

Moral Relativism and the Bottom Line

*“The Page Amendment Is a Trojan Horse to Destroy Public Schools

2022-03-25 Education in a Time of Pandemic III

Governance & Education Policy: Where Have All the Grown-ups Gone?

It’s just not one or two people here — there’s a mind-set coming from the governor on down to ban conversation and to segment communities and to erase life experiences from classroom discussion”(Hedy Weinberg, director, ACLU Tennessee)  

The sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical schisms in the U.S. which we observe daily on the national front cannot avoid being reflected at the local level. And one local governance body which has been especially vulnerable to spillover conflict is the school district.

School districts are representative government at its best (and worst): members are elected for set terms, and, at least traditionally, have tended to be individuals with children who were or had studied in the district schools, former teachers or other district employees, or civic-minded individuals inclined to involvement in les affaires educatives.

Boards set general policies for their districts (remember: there are 13,000 districts across the nation; Illinois alone has 859 – a fact that deserves a post of its own), and the degree to which individual boards become involved in the day to day running of schools varies from extremely hands-off to way too hands-on; Superintendents (who are hired by the Board and answer, ultimately, to them) are de officio members of the Board, although they may not be voting members.

The “Great Unraveling” of civility and civic-mindedness has not occurred in all 13,000 districts, of course. One of the most strife-ridden districts, Loudoun County, is next-door to another district in Alexandria which has experienced a conflict-free pandemic.

Most media reporting contends that the civil war that’s erupted in many school districts was caused by the pandemic. In contrast, we believe that the pandemic simply hastened a process of “unraveling” that had been underway for decades. The initial triggering event was, understandably, school closings (March 2020) and the almost-overnight shift to online/virtual instruction, for which many districts were, also understandably, unprepared.

Parents suddenly found themselves in the role of tutors-in-chief, or overseers of their children’s educational curriculum and day-to-day learning experiences, and there were not a few parents who didn’t like what they were seeing and hearing onscreen, whether it was how math was being taught (or not), or what books their children were reading, or how crucial racial issues in American history were being presented and discussed.

The early weeks and months of the pandemic have practically retreated to the status of ancient history two years on, but from March to September 2020, chaos reigned throughout the country. Schools, which in industrial and post-industrial societies serve in loco parentis for seven or eight (or more) hours each weekday so that children may be under adult supervision (i.e. “cared for”) during adult working hours, were unable to fulfill their twin role as community institutions of learning and looking after children before and after school. For those parents able to switch to working from home – by and large, middle and upper-middle class office workers – this situation was stressful. When both parents were working from home and trying to supervise / mentor two or three school-age children simultaneously, patience waned and tempers flared. But where were parents to direct their anger and frustration?

In late May 2020, George Floyd’s murder was captured by cell phone and the country erupted in horror. Protests and demonstrations continued for weeks, and millions of Americans began, perhaps for the first time, to awaken to the harsh reality of systemic (structural) racism in the nation’s justice system. Much of the background and some of the foreground of the School District Wars has been played out over What to Teach about Our Nation’s Racist History, and is currently before state legislatures (states have a major role in funding and dictating state educational policy, as a result of our diverse, non-federal system of public education) in the form of bills that would, for example, forbid schools to teach subject matter that might make students feel “uncomfortable.” Clearly, some state legislatures do not fully grasp the purpose of education itself: if you’re not feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably not learning.

Below we examine, in chronological order of their emergence, the issues which have made governing local school districts so difficult during the pandemic:

School Closures (March 2020)

When school districts across the U.S. began shutting down in March 2020, mostly within about two-three weeks, what ensued can only be described as chaotic. Among the issues children and their guardians confronted when schools shifted to virtual (online) platforms: (1) many families (poor urban, rural populations) could not afford or did not have access to high-speed broadband required for synchronous online learning; (2) Public schools offer meals to children of eligible families (those earning below 130% of the poverty level, or who are on TANF or SNAP), and emergency accommodations had to be made for meal preparation / pick-up / delivery so that children wouldn’t go hungry during the first few months of the pandemic; (3) Public schools, for want of a more flattering description, offer childcare services (aka “babysitting”) during the normal workday (8-4/ 9-5), and when schools closed suddenly, parents/guardians were left scrambling to make alternative care arrangements. At every socioeconomic level, knotty problems emerged.

There were two-parent, two-income families living in cramped urban apartments trying to work full-time from home while simultaneously supervising their children’s online learning – a “first-world” problem, but a problem nonetheless which drove thousands of professionals to seek somewhat cheaper and more spacious dwellings in the suburbs, and this problem, for which those with the financial means found a solution, is going to have knock-on effects on public school enrollments and thus, finances for years to come.

There were children of essential workers whose parents’ jobs couldn’t be performed from home; who was to look after the youngest of these, and who was to supervise the coursework of their older siblings? There were no adults at home, so inevitably, older siblings looked after younger ones, often to the detriment of their own learning. Families which had relied on older relatives (grandparents / great-aunts) for childcare when their children missed school due to illness could not responsibly expose elderly caregivers (many of whom were not comfortable using a laptop or iPad) to COVID-19. Of course, in multi-generational households, such exposure was unavoidable.

Parents of children under five who were in daycare or preschool programs had nowhere to leave them during the first months of the pandemic as daycare centers too were shut down (many, apparently, permanently). As a solution of last resort, some engaged friends/neighbors to look after the under-5s during the first several months, but we should remember that COVID-19 was running rampant in densely-populated urban neighborhoods, particularly those inhabited by POC. Everyone was fearful, and rightfully so.

It is understandable that many parents – often those parents who were financially able to confront the crisis in school closures – became upset and later, angry. They began writing emails to school boards, attending meetings via Zoom, and posting on closed Facebook groups, lobbying to re-open schools. Those most likely to become the object of anger were local school boards, populated by their friends, neighbors, fellow church-members – people they knew or knew of, people they might even have voted for in local elections.

This anger was expressed despite the fact that school closures were not the fault of school boards or districts; members / administrators were, however, a lot more accessible and vulnerable to attacks than the federal government, whose refusal to issue clear guidelines / explanations through the CDC will ultimately be seen as responsible for a pandemic whose end is not yet in sight. The CDC’s policies, while helpful after some months had elapsed (although by then it was too late), never clearly identified the coronavirus as aerosol, even though this was clear from the earliest superspreader events in Washington State and Boston.

Why did the virus’s airborne transmission matter? Well, it turns out it mattered more than just about any other characteristic feature of the virus, particularly in regard to transmission in congregate settings like public schools.

What’s the problem with our public schools? By and large, they’re old, and they haven’t been properly maintained and retrofitted during the past 30-40 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) most recently graded the U.S. public school infrastructure (2021) with a D+. Many urban schools in older industrial cities whose schools were built between 1900 and 1950 have outdated, malfunctioning ventilation systems and/or windows that hadn’t been opened in years. With aerosol viruses, ventilation is the key to successful mitigation; when the air in a school (both central areas like cafeterias and classrooms) can be changed every 10 minutes, the virus’s spread is significantly lessened. Air purifying systems producers made millions from contracts with school districts in 2020-2021, but many of these systems actually did not meet the requisite standard of air replacement classrooms required to be considered (relatively) safe.

Today there’s a DIY means for ventilating classroom-size spaces called the Corsi/Rosenthal box. It’s cheap (around $100 for all materials), and can be assembled by amateurs. And it works very well, even in spaces that are otherwise poorly-ventilated. Every classroom should have one.

In short: parents/guardians were right to be angry that schools were closed by the force majeure imposed by COVID-19, but their anger was misdirected. School boards and administrations could as a practical matter do little to ameliorate the virus’s spread in old, poorly-ventilated, over-crowded and under-staffed buildings. Furthermore, districts didn’t possess reliable information about the virus’s airborne spread.  

The George Floyd killing (May 25, 2020)

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer in late May, which was recorded on a cell phone, ignited a series of protests and demonstrations across the country (starting from Minneapolis itself on the day after Floyd’s killing). Suddenly, Americans “woke up” to the realities of structural racism in the U.S. justice system. During most of the summer, public and private institutions and organizations scrambled to step up racial justice programs (often referred to as DEI = Diversity, Equity, Inclusion programs). There is a highly profitable service industry devoted to training schools (boards, administrators, teachers, students) to be more racially aware both in practice (e.g. active recruitment of Black / AAPI / Hispanic teachers and senior staff) and in the classroom (e.g. through use of teaching materials which more accurately reflect the country’s racist history, including the 20th-century civil rights movement, etc.).

Cultural Conflicts (2020-present)

CRT

Not all districts reopened with in-person classes in the fall 2020 semester; many remained closed until spring 2021. Overcome by despair at their children’s prospective “learning loss” and concerned that precious teaching/teacher resources were being devoted not to the basics but to sociocultural initiatives, conservative parents in (primarily red/purple) districts directed their anger against an acronym, CRT, i.e. Critical Race Theory. Let’s clear up a much-misunderstood point: CRT is not taught in K-12 schools anywhere in the country. Rather, it’s a term plagiarized from legal analysis which was introduced in some law schools in the early 1980s. DeedSpeakOut is clear about this because the types of issues CRT actually considers – how persistent negative effects of earlier practices continue today (examples: redlining in housing, school segregation in education, environmental sacrifice zones, the school-to-prison pipeline in education/justice) -are precisely the sorts of issues this blog has been dealing with the last five years.

From a purely academic perspective, we believe that a 12th-grade AP American History or Sociology class could undertake incredibly useful archival research into these areas – we’ve often thought that high school seniors could, for example, study the original deeds for houses built between 1920 and 1960 in their neighborhood/city, or examine K-12 school boundaries as these were drawn and redrawn during the same period (or up to 2000; the process of gerrymandering school attendance boundaries continues), or examine publicly-available detainment/arrest/sentencing records of young juvenile offenders between 1960 and 2020, or partner with an investigative reporting group (the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting comes to mind; another group is ProPublica) to examine historical zoning regulations for residential/light/heavy industry within the boundaries of their district.

Such research projects, depending on how they were ultimately presented (and deployed), could legitimately be considered “critical race theory-related/relevant” (although their primary focus would not be on legal issues, which are graduate-level). But what angry parents are protesting isn’t this sort of student work. Rather, they’re disturbed by efforts to introduce more racially- and ethnically-sensitive texts and discussions of U.S. history. Nicole Hannah Jones’ The 1619 Project (which came out in 2019, on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia) has provided a lot of fodder to the anti-CRT movement, which has now spread to numerous state legislatures via bills outlawing the teaching of racism in various iterations, even going so far as to forbid the teaching of material that would make students feel “uncomfortable.” Such bills originate from a small number of conservative activist groups; in some states (e.g. Alaska), The 1619 Project is explicitly banned, while in Missouri, “Students must be presented with a positive picture of US history. Discussions of current policy issues are banned.” Many of these bills (not all have been voted into law; some remain pending and may be voted down) also include clauses forbidding classroom discussions of LGBTQ (or sex or gender) issues; Virginia has expanded on this with a bill that would require students to use their original “biological sex” bathrooms. Ah, Virginia.

Book Banning

When difficult and painful subjects are banned from K-12 education, whether by states or individual districts, can the banning of books which treat difficult and painful subjects be far behind? A small Tennessee school district board (McMinn County) enjoyed nationwide notoriety for several weeks over its decision to ban a modern-day classic, the graphic novel Maus, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize for author Art Spiegelman. The novel is a story of the Holocaust, and apparently the bones of contention were the use of “mild swear words” (as if students in 2022 had never heard them) and the depiction of a naked female mouse.

Another book on the blacklisting list in 2021-2022 is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1988). Glenn Youngkin, then a Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia (now Governor), featured the mother of a former high school student who had been assigned the novel in one of his campaign ads. The controversy, which culminated in a book banning (or “explicit content warning”) bill that then-Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed twice, eventually was capped by McAuliffe’s infamous – and eminently quotable – quote “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – a statement which the national press believed cost McAuliffe the election. The main objections were that the book depicted violence, sex, and above all, the heroine Sethe’s killing of her baby daughter.

It should be noted that Beloved was taught at the AP level only (Morrison’s other classic, The Bluest Eye, was taught in regular English classes). The campaign to ban Beloved because the heroine killed her little girl so she wouldn’t have to suffer the depredations of slavery (in line with the conservative line that “all life is sacred,” which is honored by conservatives mostly in the breach) reminded us of another American classic, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1932). We checked to see whether The Good Earth had similarly been banned for its depiction of a mother killing her newborn daughter. Yes – it had been banned, but not in the U.S. It was banned in China because it depicted poverty in a way that made the Maoist-era Communists “uncomfortable.” The U.S. may want to think carefully about whether it wants to follow China’s example.

Having set the stage, we now proceed to a consideration of the havoc wrought by the pandemic – school closings – school re-openings on two school boards, one on the East coast (Loudoun County, Va.) and one on the West (San Francisco). The bitterness and successive controversies which rent both boards asunder (literally) were well-documented in the national and independent media, and illustrate the complex issues which each board confronted before and during the pandemic.

Case Study 1: Loudoun County, Virginia

“The core misread of the national press is an idea the Equity Collaborative essentially labeled taboo. ‘The culture war is not a proxy for race,’ is how Grim put it. ‘It’s a proxy for class.’” (from Matt Taibbi, “Loudoun County Epilogue”)

“‘Economic diversity across the county/division complicates the discussions about race, leading many people to steer the conversation away from race to focus on poverty,’ would be among their main initial observations about Loudoun.” (Taibbi, “Part 2: The Incident”)

Loudoun County lies in Northern Virginia; it is heavily populated by federal civil servants and high-tech employees (with many overlaps between the two groups; since the Clinton era, it has been known as “the Silicon Valley of the East”). Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the U.S., and that’s germane to the story of what happened there between 2018 and 2021, although it’s hardly ever mentioned by anybody.

Here’s how the MSM story goes: Terry McAuliffe lost the governor’s race in November 2021 because of white (i.e. racist) backlash against social justice movements within schools and over whether parents should have a say in what their children are taught.

But that’s not what happened in Loudoun County, which has for several election cycles been seen as a quintessential PMC voting bloc – i.e. Democratic. Matt Taibbi, an experienced and open-minded independent reporter, decided to go to Loudoun County and find out for himself what was going down.

Our summary of his four-part series (here, here, here and here): As noted above, Loudoun County is wealthy and predominantly white (67%). However, during the past 20 years, its population of Asian and in particular, South Asian first- and second-generation immigrants has risen to more than 20% of the total (Blacks, on the other hand, account for just 8% of the county’s population). This newly- and recently-arrived population have flocked to Loudoun for its well-paying high-tech jobs, and for its nationally-ranked public school system.

Loudoun’s School District has for years maintained an agreement with neighboring Fairfax County (also wealthy; it ranked no. 4 in 2020) so that 250-300 students from Loudoun could attend Thomas Jefferson High School (rank: no. 1 in the U.S.) in nearby Fairfax County. Fairfax’s accommodation of its neighbors doesn’t come cheap; the cost is more than $4 million a year. Each spring when it comes time for LCS to approve the upcoming year’s budget, there is grumbling, especially since Loudoun built its own state-of-the-art Thomas Jefferson clone, Loudoun Academies.  The Board was unhappy with allotting $4+ million for TJ when the district had spent a bundle on Loudoun Academies, and parents whose children were destined for admission to TJ – the biggest public feeder school in the country to the Ivy League (and MIT, naturally) – weren’t at all pleased at the idea that their children might have to attend a knock-off school which could take decades to acquire the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.

The grumbling grew worse over the past three years, and then racial justice initiatives entered stage left. The local NAACP and activist parents began maintaining that a blind admissions system based on examination was racially biased, although blind admissions were actually created to avoid racial bias (it’s a topsy-turvy world in racial justice land these days). They began lobbying for admissions based on criteria that would take into consideration children’s race, recommendations, and so forth. (One wants to say “and SES,” but that’s a bit of a stretch in a county were the average income is more than $150,000 a year).

The thing was, Black students were somewhat underrepresented in admissions to TJHS, but the group that was most seriously underrepresented was white students, whose parents were unhappy but have resolved the issue of non-admittance by sending their children to private schools in the wider area for some time now.

What was the irony here? The group that was over-represented (by a factor of +3:1 in relation to their population share) in Thomas Jefferson admissions was Asian / South Asian students, many of whose parents / grandparents had left South India to escape racism in their own country. As Taibbi notes, many of these students are darker than their Black peers, but in Virginia they are classified as “white.”

Indian and South Indian parents had moved to Loudoun County for jobs and its public schools. Their mantra was that by working hard and excelling at academics, they could succeed in America in a way their skin color would not have allowed them to do in India. In other words, they believed in the American Dream.

These parents, who had previously voted pretty solidly Democratic, were unfailingly polite but really, really angry, and in November 2021 they expressed their anger by voting – many for the first time in their life – Republican.

And this wasn’t all. The District had hired a consultancy firm to carry out racial sensitivity training on a no-bid contract ($500,000, an amount the Board would normally have had to approve). The firm, “Equity Collaborative” out of Oakland, California (its headquarters located not far from San Francisco, the wokest of woke school districts as we’ll see below) implemented something called the “Action Plan to Eliminate Systemic Racism” which was approximately like igniting a torch to the kindling of parent discontent.

By late 2020, Loudoun County still hadn’t reopened its schools, and with white-collar workers returning to their offices, suburban mothers were furious. Schools reopened in early 2021, but by this time parent anger had reached the boiling point – and the Board’s patience, particularly that of members who had fully and uncritically embraced the Equity Collaborative’s anti-racist training had come to an end. School Board meetings devolved into shouting (and more); parents set up small groups of “for” or “against.” A special security detail had to be hired to protect board members during meetings, and parents who wished to speak before the Board were let in one by one to avoid rioting.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ student rights had come to the fore in Loudoun County and Virginia as a whole, with a focus on bathroom choice. The national press, Taibbi documents, got a particularly ugly incident in spring 2021 wrong. This led at least indirectly to the arrest of the father of a 16-year-old student who was sexually assaulted by a fellow-student in a (girls’) bathroom. Her attacker was wearing a skirt, but was apparently not transitioning. The school transferred him to another school in the district, where he promptly assaulted another student. The incident was misrepresented as an attack on transgender student rights, when in fact it was a case of a sexual assault on a minor.

Finally, we come to Terry McAullife’s “gaffe” when he maintained in a late September 2021 gubernatorial debate with his opponent that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin took that statement and ran with it – and won.

On the surface, this sounds pretty extreme – and Taibbi (who should perhaps be forgiven since he has three young children of his own) got this one wrong, as did the national press.

Jennifer Berkshire, writing for the Nation in the wake of the November election, fills in the details: in fact, McAuliffe was correct when he said that parents won’t be telling their children’s schools what to teach in future. But neither the state nor individual school boards/districts will either. McAuliffe had several years previously (2017) signed away curricular privileges for Virginia public schools to Amazon when Crystal City was awarded Amazon’s HQ2 in 2018. Cue Berkshire: “Virginia is essentially retooling its schools to train an army of future Bezos employees …”. Henceforth, the state will be divided up into regional workforce development districts, and companies / curricular development businesses will present curriculums tailored to training students to work for local employers.

Here’s the most ironic thing of all: Youngkin (co-CEO of private equity firm the Carlyle Group before entering politics in 2020; est. net worth $440 million) and McAuliffe are in perfect accord regarding who’ll be telling schools what they should teach in future.  And it won’t be parents.

Case Study 2: San Francisco, California

And now for San Francisco, whose Unified School District has around 120 schools and 54,000 students (7th largest district in California). Like Loudoun and Fairfax Counties, San Francisco County is perched near the top of the income pyramid: it’s in 5th place in the nation, right behind Fairfax.

San Francisco schools closed early in the pandemic and reopened late (not until spring 2021); thus they remained closed for three full terms, only beginning to return in April 2021. This was in line with the county’s health department recommendations – San Francisco was more proactive about closures and required mitigation measures than most cities/counties in the state (or country), and as a result experienced a comparatively lighter incidence of COVID-19 during its first wave than other comparably-sized cities/counties.

But enough was enough. Parents wanted the schools reopened earlier than the Board did, and San Francisco being San Francisco, the City ended up suing its own School Board to force schools to reopen. Clearly, relations had worsened during the first year of the pandemic.

Given that schools were closed for a year+, how did the San Francisco School Board spend its time during this period? One issue that appears to have occupied it intensively (since 2018) was that of renaming no fewer than 44 (out of 120) schools in a gesture towards racial equity – not empty, admittedly, but not exactly geared towards solving San Francisco’s desperate housing shortage, not with even the business of reopening public schools safely. The Board’s decision, which included renaming Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln (yes, Lincoln) schools due to the racism of the three Presidents, had to be rescinded in the wake of public opposition (partly motivated by a host of historical mistakes by a presumptive “blue-ribbon” committee which undertook the renaming project), but for many, they’d crossed the Rubicon of racial equity extremism. In a recent (and very rare) recall election, three of the Board’s most outspoken anti-racism advocates were recalled by margins exceeding 70%.

There’s more – in fact, the story of the city’s various excursions into the tangled web of racial equity sans economic equality deserves a post of its own.

The next post in “Education in a Time of Pandemic” will look at how educational entrepreneurs seized on the opportunity afforded by pandemic school closures to hasten the process of school privatization on the public dime.

Further Reading: Governance & Education Policy

General

School Boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies

Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality

Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning

of ‘Divisive’ Subjects at School

 “This Is Not Transparency

Opinion: Cruz Attacks Jackson for ‘Critical Race Theory’ — But Sends His Own Daughters to Learn It

Book Banning

Where Have You Gone, Laura Bush?”

The Woman Who Wanted Beloved Banned from Schools Is Right about One Thing

 “Virginia Governor Highlights Irony of Banning ‘Beloved’ from Schools

Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’ Banned in Tennessee School District

The Fight over ‘Maus’ Is Part of a Bigger Cultural Battle in Tennessee

Loudoun County, VA

Loudoun County, Virginia: A Culture War in Four Acts

A Culture War in Four Acts: Loudoun County, Virginia. Part Two: ‘The Incident.’”

 “The Holy War of Loudoun County, Virginia

Loudoun County Epilogue: A Worsening Culture War, and the False Hope of ‘Decorum’

 “Corporate Democrat Goes Down to Defeat in Virginia” …

 “Fairfax Schools Request Stay of Judge’s Order Invalidating TJ Admissions System

San Francisco

San Francisco Sues its Own School District for Not Reopening

San Francisco recalls school board members seen as too focused on racial justice

The Radical History of the Murals at George Washington High School

What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All?”

2022-03-05 Education in a Time of Pandemic II

Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

Most American readers will be familiar with the euphemistically-termed “teacher shortage,” often presented in the media as an out-of-the-blue consequence of the pandemic. But just as we saw with nurses and nursing home workers, the teacher shortage has been decades in the making.

Like nursing, teaching is both a profession and a vocation. The best teachers are “called” to teach (cf. derivation of “vocation” > Lat. voco -are, “to call”); their knowledge is acquired through university attendance, honed through teacher training, and later, professional development courses which committed members of the profession continue to enroll in throughout their careers. As the parents of school-age children who were at home doing virtual classes in the early months of the pandemic have realized, teaching is not a matter of showing up and handing out homework at the end of the day. It requires an incredible amount of mental energy – even for the “natural” teachers among us – and the 20 or 30 hours of in-class time standard for most primary and secondary school teachers are accompanied by as many hours again of out-of-class preparation and grading. It’s easily a 60-hour week for a conscientious teacher.

But most teachers gladly give of themselves – their time, mental engagement, dramatic skills (yes), because that’s why they entered the profession in the first place. They chose to contribute to children’s growth through the acquisition of “book knowledge” as well as “social knowledge” – a fair amount of school time in the primary years involves socializing very young children to the idea that there are other people in the world outside their family. It’s not easy.

Througg the middle decades of the 20th century, teaching was still deemed a middle-class profession; salaries varied considerably by state (considering both cost-of-living differences between states/regions and the fact that wealthier districts / states paid higher salaries than poor districts/states), but in most states a teacher could maintain a decent lifestyle, particularly when they were one of a two-person working household. Of the three options available to lower- and lower-middle-class women in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was the most secure.

Today, there are two major national teachers’ unions: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) with 3 million members (it includes teachers and all others who work in education as well as future teachers and retired ones). The AFT (1.7 million members) has around 3,000 local affiliates and is currently led by one of the nation’s best-known public unionists, Randi Weingarten. Of the two, the AFT was from the outset a true union (militant, strike-ready), while the NEA began as a professional organization which only later acquired the characteristics of a true union (with collective bargaining, for example). Individual districts (recalling that there are 13,000 of these), when unionized, become “locals” – thus, the Chicago Teachers Union is “Local 1” of the AFT; that in NYC is the “United Federation of Teachers” (UFT). Since the 1960s, teachers unions have wielded considerable lobbying and ballot box power at the local, state, and federal levels.  

But teachers and the unions which represent them are not without powerful opponents. To some extent this has always been the case, its origins going back to the mid-19th century when teaching shifted from the home and into the institutional setting of the school room – often, throughout the smaller towns and rural regions of the U.S., the one-room school house [note: our blog’s masthead features an early 20th-c. one-room schoolhouse in Central Illinois]. Young women assumed responsibility for imbuing a small group of children (aged 5-18) with sufficient “reading, writing, and arithmetic” to enable them to function in adulthood as farmers and laborers, but their tenures were short – only until marriage, when they were normally required to resign – their ambitions seen as non-existent, and their “vocation” a temporary one which terminated once they had a husband and family of their own. The emerging professional class (white, male dominated), in its effort to professionalize office work / management of enterprises both service- and production-oriented, looked down on the nation’s teaching ranks as inferior, largely due to the profession being dominated by young women, whom they saw as docile and obedient but not really up to the job of educating the country’s youth.

For the past generation or more, teachers have been attacked by numerous organizations which have systematically downplayed / downgraded their work and its results, and which have lodged an equal amount of vitriol towards their unions; while men began entering the teaching profession in significant numbers after WW II, especially at the secondary school level, much of the activism that led to collective bargaining rights, decent pensions, health insurance, sick days – all the benefits of white male private-sector unionism, in other words – was conducted by women, and two of the most powerful unions – the UFT and the CTU – are or were led by women in the 2010s.  

Over the past 30 years, teachers have been systematically attacked by both political parties for the inadequacy of “outcomes” as these privately-backed groups began hacking away at the primacy of public schools through the introduction of the “Big Test,” VAM (value-added-model of teaching), charter schools offering parents “choice” if they were unhappy with their children’s outcomes in public schools, voucher (private) schools, online (virtual) schools, and home schools, of which the “pod” or “micro school” which gained some traction during the pandemic was but a recent variant.

When teachers themselves, their profession and their union are being assailed on all sides for decades, it’s hardly surprising that applications to schools of education decreased in the years leading up to 2020; in fact, what’s surprising is that applications didn’t fall even further.  Deeds have consequences, and the consequence of late 20th and early 21st-century “teacher bashing” was that when the pandemic arrived, it was already estimated the system would be 200,000 teachers short by 2025 out of a required 3.5 million to maintain fully staffed classrooms.

As we enter Year 3 of the pandemic (apparently having decreed that it is at an end), U.S. school districts across the country are struggling, often unsuccessfully, to find staff. One reason is clearly the pandemic: teachers at or near retirement age, considered to belong to a COVID-vulnerable group, took early retirement. Others were forced to quit because of family obligations – caring for elderly relatives who were vulnerable themselves, or for young children who were at home due to pandemic school closures or COVID. Similarly, the ranks of substitute teachers shrank as many districts’ substitute corps is made up of retired teachers.

Other staff essential to operating and maintaining our public school systems similarly decreased in numbers throughout the pandemic, including classroom assistants (aides), bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, and custodians. Many of these workers live in poverty, in communities hit hard by the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020, and in multi-generational settings with elderly relatives whom they were loath to expose to the virus.

How have states dealt with personnel shortages, which have not yet abated? Two states, New Mexico and Massachusetts, have called upon their National Guards to fill in for sick teachers (New Mexico) or for bus drivers (Massachusetts). Oklahoma has recruited police officers.

New Mexico holds the dubious distinction of having the highest child poverty rate and the lowest average teacher salaries in the nation (an argument could probably be made that these two data points are connected), although salaries are slated to go up 20% this summer. So the state, in collaboration with its National Guard, normally tasked with providing assistance in times of natural disasters and serving abroad in military missions, created the “S.T.A.F.” (Support Teachers and Families) program. The Guard was hoping around 70 of its members would step up; in the end, 96 did. This may not sound like many, but for some schools like those in rural areas featured in this NYT story, it meant that schools could stay open even when 10% of their staff was absent.

In Massachusetts, which in January had over 1,000 school employees out sick on an average day (20% absence rate in food/nutrition, 100 bus monitors, 30 bus drivers),  hundreds of school administrative staff went into classrooms, including the Boston Public Schools Superintendent herself. When administrators and clerical staff must enter classrooms, their work doesn’t get done in a timely manner; often, those teachers still working are tasked with additional paperwork and quasi-administrative tasks which add to the burden without benefit to children’s learning.

In 2021, 37% of all teachers were considering leaving the profession earlier than they had planned. Between July 2021 and January 2022, teacher retirements and resignations jumped 85% in Chicago Public Schools, in addition to 72 resignations by principals and assistant principals.  With a total workforce of 39,000, there were 1842 resignations and 524 retirements during the same period, up 50% from 2019-2020.  Percentage-wise, the highest turnover was observed among principals/assistant principals. While the stresses on school leaders have been different than those on teachers, they’ve been no less severe: the initial shift to online learning, reopening (or not) school facilities, ensuring the safety of students and staff through mitigation measures, resisting anti-vax and anti-mask activists (mostly parents, not students), dealing with the repercussions of the annus horribilis 2020 for our country’s race relations, managing massive amounts of federal coronavirus assistance responsibly, confrontational school board meetings, critical race theory, book banning,  and the list goes on.

But there’s more than the grievous effects of the pandemic at work here. We have often read about “teacher burnout” and “low morale” during the past two years, but teachers were burning out and morale was falling well before COVID-19. In a recent post, education writer Peter Greene suggests another name for the ill that has befallen our public school personnel: “moral injury.” He adopts the definition employed by Syracuse University’s Moral Injury Project: “Moral injury is the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct.” Greene – a long-term high school teacher in Pennsylvania who recently retired – gives an example of one classroom practice which he considers as having inflicted moral injury, viz. “teaching to the test.” He estimates in another post that between 6 and 10 weeks a year were devoted to practice, preparation, and taking standardized tests – when you have only around 180 teaching days, and 50 of those have to be devoted to “the test,” that’s a lot of valuable real teaching time lost, to nobody’s benefit apart from the testing companies’ bottom line.

But there are many other aspects of teaching today which contribute to moral injury, i.e. the sense that what you are being forced to do goes against your values and indeed against the very reason you entered the profession in the first place.

It’s easy to say “Well, let’s just all pull together and agree on our values so teachers can inculcate them in our students.”

The thing is, our country’s values are fractured along very deep fault lines today. And inevitably, these fractures are played out in classrooms.

Teachers didn’t create them, but they’re paying the price in moral injury.

Next up: Governance & Education Policy in a Time of Pandemic. Lots of misbehaving and conduct unbecoming to adults – stay tuned.

Further Reading:

 “Opinion: I see firsthand why teachers are burning out and quitting. We owe it to children to fix this.”

Teacher Voice: Why We Are Being Driven Straight Out of Our Classrooms

I’m Never Going Back

Who Wants to Be a Teacher?”

 “Burnout and Moral Injury

The Blame Game: 100 Years of Teacher Bashing

 (Episode #84, Have You Heard Blog)

 “Iowa Won’t Require Schools to Put Live Cameras in Classrooms after Republican Bill Dies

 “Who wants to lead America’s school districts? Anyone? Anyone?

In Chicago Public Schools, More Principals and Teachers Are Leaving

 “New Twist on Pandemic’s Impact on Schools

“‘We Are Losing Good Teachers and Staff Every Day’: Report Reiterates Pandemic Shortages

2022-02-26 Public Education & COVID-19

Part I: Why is Public Education Public?

“…it’s hard to think of an education-related policy that has effectively and sustainably worked, beyond the granddaddy of all ed policy: a free, high-quality, fully public education for every American child, no matter what they bring to the table.” -Nancy Flanagan, Teacher in a Strange Land

We return to our overview of what COVID-19 has revealed about systemic weaknesses in the various areas DeedSpeakOut covers, starting from public education.

Let’s start this group of posts with a question: What is the purpose of public schools? Sounds simple, right? But the answer has become more controversial over the past 30 years as the U.S. has been inundated by “school choice” (charter schools, expanded voucher/quasi-voucher programs for private schools, home schooling, virtual [online] schools), national curricular and assessment programs (Common Core, No Child Left Behind [2001], Race to the Top [2009], Every Student Succeeds Act [2015]), anti-union and anti-teacher agitation, and aging school facilities. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 with its drastic budget cuts have not been made up for in many states/districts by a return to pre-2009 funding levels. And then the pandemic arrived.

The almost-overnight shift to online learning did not proceed smoothly in many schools/districts. It particularly affected those already resource-strained before the pandemic, i.e. high-poverty inner-city and rural schools (a significant percentage of which lacked adequate [or any] broadband coverage).

By 2021, parents in better-resourced districts were lobbying for school re-openings. Working parents (particularly mothers, who still bear the burden of most child-rearing) were obliged to return to their offices but could not leave children at home all day without an adult presence; mothers of preschool-age children struggled to find day care facilities because so many such centers had closed. Lobbying sometimes turned into hostile confrontations with school administrations and boards; parents, goaded by frustration at lengthy school closures, continuing mask mandates, curtailed extracurricular programs and “learning loss”, accused boards/district leaders of infringing on their own and their children’s “freedoms” (to attend in-person class, to ignore mask mandates at will). For these parents, COVID-19 has devolved into a minor inconvenience to be treated as “endemic.” “We’re done with COVID,” parents and like-minded community members claim. How many ever pause to ask whether COVID is done with us?

To return to our initial question: Why is public education public?

The U.S. public school system is not a federal one, although federal funds are disbursed to support schools, for example through Title I, which provides additional support to poor schools in the amount of $16.7 billion (2020). But we have no “national” prescribed curriculum (the closest thing being the “Common Core”), and the various states are largely free to determine, in collaboration with school districts, the curricula, textbooks, and requirements for graduation from primary and secondary schools.

This, as we shall see in this group of posts, has proved a double-edged sword.

Individual states have enshrined their commitment to educate all residents within their constitutions. The fourth Illinois Constitution (1970) is typical:

Article X.

Goal – Free Schools

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Thus: “the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities” is defined as a goal, further elaborated as an “efficient system of high qualityinstitutions and services” It “shall be free.” And the State “has the primary responsibility for financing ….”

To restate for the purposes of discussion:

– the public education system is for all persons, i.e. it is universal

the public education system shall be efficient and of high quality

the State shall provide primary financing

Defined in these terms – universal, high-quality, state-financed, free – public education is a public good. In this it resembles our interstate highway system, our bridges and dams, our public parks (national, state, local), our public libraries, our law enforcement personnel (local, county, state police), our fire departments, and emergency services. All of these are public goods for everyone who uses/needs them.

The guiding principle behind public goods is that they are financed by everyone (through taxes) and are equally-accessible to everyone. They thus differ from private – consumer – goods in that the latter are paid for by individuals, at their individual discretion, and consumption should not materially affect the availability or quality of public goods. Private consumption is a matter of individual preference in concert with financial means, and is sometimes referred to as discretionary consumption.

Applying the terminology and adopting the criteria associated with private, discretionary consumption to refer to public goods is intellectually disingenuous and deliberately misleading. Over the past 20-30 years, school reformists have insisted on using the term “consumers” to refer to public school parents. This is strange, because while parents (along with all other taxpayers, parents or not) are indeed funding public schools, if anyone is a “consumer” it is their children, not themselves. The appropriate term should be “beneficiaries” – you won’t see that term being bandied about – or simply “users.” (Think of “library users” or “highway users” – we’d hardly call people who check out books from the local library, or drive their autos on public interstates “consumers,” would we?)

Public goods are public because they demand massive investment, planning, coordination, oversight, long-term maintenance, and regular renovation/replacement, all of which are too costly for any private individual to fund. Not even billionaires could have built the Hoover Dam, or the New York Public Library; to take a recent example, not even Elon Musk could have funded the James Webb Space Telescope.

In the case of public education, both private individuals – students – and the public itself – “society” – are beneficiaries. Each student benefits to the “limits of their capacities,” and when those limits are attained, society as a whole reaps long-term benefits.

What sort of “freedom” is involved for parents here? Well, there is the freedom to opt out of the system entirely, for one; wealthy parents may choose to send their offspring to private schools whose tuition ($60,000 per year is not uncommon for an elite private school today) their fellow citizens could never afford. This doesn’t, however, mean that wealthy parents’ obligation to the universal good ensured by public schools can be abnegated; they can opt out of sending their children but they cannot opt out of the more general obligation to the common good. Thus, the rich continue to pay local property taxes and state and federal taxes, some portion of which return to states/districts in the form of public school funding.

Against this background of public schools as public goods supported by public funds as enshrined in our various state constitutions, we will examine a number of issues exacerbated by the pandemic but not caused by the pandemic.

First, we’ll consider personnel shortages. It’s estimated that 90% of public schools are currently short of staff, including administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians. What happens when 20% of a school’s bus drivers are out on any given day? Some students won’t get to school, or they’ll get to school two periods late. When 10% of your teaching staff is out, and there are no substitutes to call on? Administrators, secretaries, custodians are asked to fill in, or classes are combined and placed in a gym – in which case, gym classes are curtailed. Many districts depend on retired teachers for substituting, but because this population tends to be over 65, many were reluctant to serve during the pandemic.

Second, we’ll look at school infrastructure. The U.S. has 50,000,000 school-age children enrolled in 13,000 districts and around 100,000 separate school facilities. Many schools couldn’t manage to make their facilities COVID-safe because the buildings themselves were too old to renovate quickly or indeed at all. The great period of public school construction was the first third of the 20th century; many of these structures are still in use, but they have not been maintained or renovated to 21st-century standards. This is particularly true for our older industrial and commercial cities both large and small; when COVID struck NYC, for example, where more than 50% of all schools operate out of facilities more than a century old, many had non-functioning windows, or ancient ventilation systems that would have required gut renovations to upgrade to COVID ventilation standards. This had consequences for the virus’s dissemination.

Following infrastructure, we’ll take up privatization, which along with governance and policy form two of the most fractious aspects of public education today. Privatization of the public schools has been presented as a matter of “choice” and (personal, individual) “freedom.” Beginning in the 1990s, school “reformists,” funded by various private groups and individuals devoted their efforts to dismantling U.S. public schools and replacing them with charter schools (tax-funded private schools) and vouchers (for private, largely religious schools). Two states (Alabama and Oklahoma) currently have pending legislation that would essentially abolish public schools entirely – parents would be awarded a sum of money each year and left on their own. This isn’t easy (and that’s another reason we call public schools a public service): charter schools are often loathe (or refuse outright) to admit special needs students and English Language Learners (ELL), and in order to keep their test scores/rankings high, are prone to expel students each school year, leaving them to scramble to find a school that will accept them. Nor do charter schools offer any guarantee that they’ll remain open indefinitely; in fact, they sometimes close without notice over a weekend. Vouchers/quasi-vouchers (such as Education Savings Accounts and Tax Credit Scholarships) supposedly enable parents to enroll their children in private schools, but the amount doled out never covers tuition and fees at the private schools of parents’ dreams.  

Governance has become increasingly difficult for many school boards during the pandemic, partly due to controversial virus-related measures such as mask mandates and, during the first year of the pandemic, cancellation of athletics – not everywhere, but in many states/districts. Many school boards moved their meetings online and it proved a lot easier for parents to participate vocally via Zoom than in person. And then in the summer-fall of 2020, CRT hit the public schools like a spiritual-ethical pandemic. Some boards jumped on the pro-CRT bandwagon, others on the anti-, but few had any clear understanding of what CRT even was. Iowa’s governor now wants a camera in every public school classroom in the state to ensure that teachers aren’t teaching “CRT,” but what she means by that is that teachers will be forced to ignore key events in U.S. history and social life from the 16th – 21st century.

The fifth and final topic of this series of posts will be the more general crisis of public education towards which most states have been heading the last 30 years. But the crisis of public education is in fact only part of the crisis of American society itself – schools are microcosms of society at large, and their problems are mirrored in other public sectors. The U.S. never fully transitioned to the form of social democracy enjoyed by many European countries during the post-WW II era extending from the late forties to the late seventies. Its social welfare system remained anemic, universal healthcare was never implemented, daycare / preschool programs were never federally mandated or funded, university-level education was never free. And since the eighties, there has been a concerted assault on the working classes combined with a powerful anti-tax movement which has intentionally starved the public sector of funding to maintain public services at their 1970s level. Poverty has become more prevalent at both the individual and the public sector level. Many reformists and like-minded opponents of public schools – of public anything, really, except perhaps freeways and law enforcement – have for a generation now been engaged in a misdirected assault on public schools as responsible for a plethora of ills.

But social inequality, systemic racism, and a deliberately-underfunded public sector are not the fault of our public schools, and they cannot provide a full redress for larger social failings.

Above all, schools cannot be made to compensate for mass poverty. Nearly 17% of all U.S. children were living below the poverty line in 2020. One in 10 of NYC’s 1,000,000 school children is homeless at some point throughout the school year. No teacher and no school can compensate for such social tragedies.

 In the remaining posts in our “Public Education & COVID-19” series, this stark and shameful reality will serve as backdrop.    

2021-04-05 The Pandemic and the Commons

The Social Discourse Commons

In an increasingly class-stratified and politically-polarized society, whose values reign supreme? And where do those who disagree with those values go to dispute them?

The values of traditional liberalism, including among others the freedom to live as, where, and with/among whom we choose; the expectation of fairness in the dispensation of social goods and social sanctions, and a basic tolerance of those whose beliefs differ from our own are being sorely tested both by the isolation imposed on us during the year-long pandemic series of lockdowns and by our self-selected presence/absence on what was once touted as a substitute for the “commons,” the Internet (the “digital commons”).

In real life (“IRL”), how many of us are in a position to live anywhere we choose, with whomever we choose, and in any way we choose? How many of us genuinely believe that jobs are awarded (sic) to those best qualified and most “deserving” (and “deserving” in what sense, exactly?) of them? And how tolerant are we IRL of those with whom we disagree – often, sharply – on fundamental issues involving our shared polity?

As we continue to endure masking, social distancing, the ins and outs of (sometimes inequitable) vaccination, openings and shutdowns of both businesses and public services, many of us – those of us not providing essential pandemic services – continue to seek human interaction and discourse through online means, whether Skype, or Zoom, or FaceTime, or FB Messenger. I have initiated regular meet-ups (some complete with each of us consuming their own glass of wine and slices of cheese, or sushi or dessert, separately but together) with old friends, and it’s been a real boon to my morale. With old friends, we can laugh and joke, discuss current events, share our latest COVID-19 complaints, even proceed to engage in more substantive discussion as I do with one bi-weekly meet-up, where we have an assigned topic-of-the-evening and where there’s homework involved in preparation. Initiating such meet-ups was the most positive thing I’ve done during the pandemic in support of my personal mental well-being.

Make no mistake, however, about such get-togethers: they’re a good thing, but they’re not the real thing. And I assume that holds true for most of us – what we most miss is actual human contact. An education podcast we follow, HaveYouHeard, recently asked a previous guest to recruit her students and ask them what they felt they’d lost over the past year. In stark contrast to what administrators and Department of Education officials are bemoaning (“Learning Loss”), what the students feel they’ve lost is almost exclusively related to the social nature of school. Student after student said, first off, that they missed their friends; that they missed their teacher’s physical presence; that they missed their team sports, their drama club’s activities, even the sense of hanging out – or, to put it another way, of not being alone.

Not that school is perfect, far from it. Concerned teachers who’ve been paying attention the past year are entreating administrators to take heed of the lessons learned from remote teaching. For one thing (and this has long been known), school starts too early for children and adolescents – if school bells rang at 8.30 or 9.00 each morning, there would be many fewer students asleep during the first and second periods. For another, children get hungry at odd – and different – hours during the day; why not allow them to snack as needed? And it turns out that some children are doing better with remote learning than expected from their classroom past histories because, well, thirty other students in any given class is too much stimulation – it’s distracted them from learning, rather than helped them learn. We need – we must, both for the sake of public and mental health – reduce class sizes by at least one-third.

The overall message is that what our leaders are trying to force students and teachers back to – what they call “normal” – is not all great. Many things will never be truly “normal” again, and rather than bemoaning this, we should seek to implement what we’ve learned from a year of far-from-normal. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that students go to school to learn, yes, but they love school because it offers them a social commons, a place to engage with their peers, a place where they can learn to be. One student noted that a year of non-engagement meant that they had “lost my sense of self.” Truly we learn to define ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how young we are.

Human beings, it need scarcely be repeated, are highly social animals. We spend our lives once we emerge from infancy and dependency on the primary caretaker with others – our peers, be they as young as 2 or as old as 92. We play together, we explore together, we collaborate, we learn – I mean, part of the thrill of being a 3rd-grader was when the whole class understood a new concept in concert – we were all excited, each of us an individual with greater or lesser intrinsic abilities but in that moment learning as one, together – the sum of us all was greater than our individual selves.

The same holds true for most adults. Millions of members of our Professional Managerial Class (the “PMC”) have worked remotely throughout the pandemic. Some fared well, others poorly. Those who fared well tended to be in stable relationships where they were isolated, yes, but not entirely alone; those who fared poorly were either entirely alone, lacking family or friends with whom to create a pandemic “bubble,” or in failing/failed relationships which provoked much unhappiness and provided little comfort. Understandably, the latter are hankering to return to “the office,” to a social world which provides interest, stimulation, distraction, and at least some solace from troubles at home.

In the absence of real-life social interaction, both children and adults have resorted to a simulacrum of fractured, interrupted relations: online communities. Here, however, we have duplicated and unfortunately exacerbated a significant pre-pandemic social issue, i.e. a tendency to gravitate towards forums/spaces where we feel most “comfortable.” Liberals subscribe to liberal online publications/news feeds and survey liberal websites; ditto for conservatives, of course, and for progressives and far-right conservatives – the overlap between progressive/liberal sites/sources and between conservative/far-right sites/sources has gotten smaller, not larger, throughout the last year. How many of us spend significant time checking out what the other side is making of current affairs, what they’re focusing on, what they feel is most important today, this week, this month, this past year?

And what does this narrowing of focus signify for our return to the physical commons, once we return to work and gyms and clubs and church groups and school board meetings and restaurants and cultural events and … well, wherever we choose to go once we’re able, once COVID-19 has been tamed by natural means or once we reach herd immunity through mass vaccination programs?  

Are we returning in the belief that the game’s not rigged against us (i.e. with the expectation that the dispensation of society’s goods / sanctions will be reasonably fair), or that it’s even more rigged than before? Are we returning with more tolerance for the Other – be that the irritating person whose desk is next to ours at the office, the show-off at the gym who worked out for two hours daily over the past year, or the shrill mother complaining because “some” students can no longer “keep up” with the curriculum, and that’s harming her child?

When the pandemic struck the West last March and it became clear that students – and millions of adults – weren’t going to be able to return to school/the office anytime soon (the West’s generalized failure to respond in a timely/appropriate/decisive manner to COVID-19 should by now be obvious), we believed that the most appropriate response-in-lieu-of-any-effective-response should have been for those in charge of education to hit the “pause” button.

That, of course, didn’t happen, but the decision by newly-inducted Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that the yearly “Big Test” would be administered as planned this spring is pointless and in some sense cruel. Who believes that children who have lost loved ones (nearly 600,000 deaths now), whose parents have been largely absent because they – in contrast to PMC parents – were deemed “essential workers” (essential, but not really deserving of recognition by enhanced pay and benefits), will do as well as the children whose parents hired tutors, or formed “learning pods,” or rushed to exclusive summer enclaves to enroll their offspring in private schools that remained more-or-less open? The Department and its collaborators in the high-stakes, for-profit testing industry claim that the tests are necessary so that students’ “learning loss” can be assessed and remedial programs designed (in many cases by these same for-profit companies or their offshoots) so students can “catch up.” Does anyone doubt what the test will demonstrate, viz. that students in our poorest districts, whether urban or rural, whose parents didn’t have the luxury of staying home and supervising their remote learning experience, whose access to remote learning may well have been negatively impacted by inadequate or non-existent broadband connections, will not do well on the standardized tests? And for that matter, what does “well” even mean in such unprecedented circumstances?

Thousands of the 13,000-odd school districts across the country are already engaged in planning for remedial summer sessions (hoping against hope the pandemic will retreat in the next eight weeks, as if they’ve learned absolutely nothing from its course to date), but students don’t want to go back to school this summer. They want to go back to each other – to re-connect, to re-socialize, to re-discover their lost sense of self. There will be plenty of time to get back to school work and formal learning once social bonds are re-established. And the learning that takes place will be all the more effective once communal ties are re-established.  

Adults should heed what students claim they need, given that our needs are not all that different from theirs. When the pandemic passes – or when, as seems more probable, it retreats to a level deemed “acceptable” to the powers that be – we should re-connect with one another in person for any number of reasons every chance we get, even if masking and some degree of social distancing continue to be de rigueur.

Why? Because American adults’ social discourse commons, like our children’s, has been damaged in the pandemic. Already fractured and split into sharply-divided camps before the pandemic, some writers are now questioning whether our commons is already beyond rescue. These pessimists believe that the latest iteration of the liberal class (the PMC, the “Mandarins”, the “credentialed classes” – pick your pejorative) and the now-vast socio-economic divide are so great that there are almost no occasions for the working class – 70%-75% of the population – to interact with the top 25%-30% except in relations of dependency. The well-off, well-educated, and well-paid live apart and play apart; their code of behavior (based on purported “values”) is different, and not insignificantly, their children often exist separate from everyone else’s, whether in elite private schools or elite public ones protected from the poor (and their parents) by income segregation, which has now become a useful stand-in for racial segregation.

Where is the social commons? Well, it’s everywhere in the real world, but the locus where it’s critical we all return with a renewed commitment to tolerance – not performative tolerance, but actual, demonstrated tolerance – is the public commons, that raucous, contentious place where issues large and small deserve to be discussed, openly and respectfully but honestly, even perhaps in loud tones, over the months and years to come. There’s going to be plenty of contention, because we’re discussing issues critical to our survival, but it’s vital that everybody show up for the discussion. This means direct involvement in the life of the polis – politics – and breaking through the barriers now protecting and segregating decision-takers from those who have to live with their decisions.

How did we all learn to participate in this commons? Where do we all come together as children, to make friends and enemies (to embrace the former and tolerate the latter), to share in the joy of discovery, creativity, friendship, companionship – togetherness – to collaborate, succeed and sometimes, fail? Where’s that place where for 12 years American children come together to learn, including learning how to become full-fledged members of the social discourse commons?

Yep – public school, the training-ground par excellence for a well- and variously- informed, rational, tolerant citizenry, the bedrock prerequisite for the continued existence of an open and lively public discourse commons.

The success of the adult commons depends directly on its predecessor, and that’s one reason the stark income disparities that increasingly characterize the U.S. don’t bode well for the future. If our children don’t play together, learn together, and collaborate/compete together when they’re very young, the chances they’ll be able to do so as 30- or 40-year-olds become significantly impaired. When rich and poor children study and learn and play – and quarrel, yes, that’s part of life – with one another from the age of five, by the time they’re 25 they understand one another far better than if they’d never come in contact. They speak one another’s language – and as any good rhetorician knows, if you don’t speak the other’s language there’s no hope of ever finding common ground.

Public school is the most egalitarian social institution societies have hit upon to induct their members into what it means to be full and equal participants in the social commons. Public schools remain the sole effective preparation we know of for active, life-long membership in the body politic by the majority of citizens/residents. And said schools should be integrated and reflect both the racial and socio-economic demographics of their locale, with every school appropriately funded by its district, state, and the federal government to ensure that the poorest student in any school is deprived of no opportunity offered.  

Here’s how an education blogger we admire but have not had occasion to cite put it:

“Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

“Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.”

When we emerge from our pandemic silos, we must rejoin the social discourse commons to preserve both that commons itself, which makes liberal democracy possible, and its foundational institution: public schools.  

2021-02-09: Rest in Power

One Person Can Make a Difference: Karen Lewis (1953-2021)

The great Chicago labor leader Karen Lewis has passed away. Many – most – readers won’t recognize her name, but may recall seeing the vast “sea of red” that covered the nation in 2018 as teachers’ unions in states like West Virginia, Arizona (whose teachers actually adopted “Red for Ed” as their slogan) and Oklahoma rose up.

Well, Karen Lewis, who in 2010 became the President of the Chicago Teachers Union (“CTU1,” affiliated with the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers), was the person ultimately responsible for the re-awakening, re-invigoration and renewal of teachers’ unions across the country over the last decade. She had the background (daughter of Chicago teachers, native of Chicago [Hyde Park]), the education (Dartmouth ’74), the classroom experience (20 years as a high school Chemistry teacher – she had started medical school and then re-trained in Chemistry and gotten her teaching degree), and the union training (member of CTU since 1988) to give her leadership, once she attained it in 2010, hyper-authenticity.

But Lewis had more than all this; from all descriptions, she had a personality which dominated any space she was in, whether it was her classroom, her union, or a boardroom negotiating with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team. She was brilliant and articulate; she was a polymath who spoke French and Italian and revered the opera; she was a gifted organizer who knew how to stay focused on making the union strong, making it speak with one voice, and making that voice speak truth to power.

Lewis was completely fearless. When she became President of CTU (a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate), she set to work building ties with parents and the greater community, knowing that when conflicts arose, CTU would need allies. Indeed, “Lewis’s leadership and vision turned the Chicago Teachers Union into one of the nation’s most democratic and militant unions, remade the political fabric of our city and nation, and touched hundreds of thousands of lives in the process.”

In September 2012, CTU went on strike for the first time in 25 years, ushering in a new chapter in teachers’ union activism. Her opponent was Rahm Emanuel, the city’s ultra-neo-liberal Mayor who favored education reform, i.e. closing public schools, particularly in the city’s urban core (he closed 50 at once in 2013) by implementing the so-called “portfolio” system of evaluating / ranking schools (Chicago’s program was ironically entitled “Renaissance 2010”).

The CTU model for teacher unionism has been adopted by many other teachers’ unions in a movement referred to as “social justice unionism” or “social movement unionism”. This more expansive unionism vision supports:

  • Unapologetically defend wages and working conditions of public school educators. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
  • Stand up for students, the teaching profession, and an equal and nurturing education that embraces the whole child.
  • Defend public education—the only educational institution in our communities that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all children.
  • Forge alliances with parents and community organizations to work for better schools and for social justice in the entire community.
  • Build democratic union structures that encourage members to be organizers and active participants.

Lewis, who was in the early 2010s contemplating running against Rahm Emanuel in 2015 (his second term), was forced to withdraw due to brain cancer in 2014; she subsequently suffered a stroke and became incapacitated.

She was replaced in 2015 by Jesse Sharkey (re-elected 2019), who lacks the charisma Lewis possessed but makes up for this by a wonkiness and doggedness towards the Mayor, the Board (which is appointed by the Mayor), and the CEO of CPS (Janice Jackson). Sharkey comes from a more leftist and militant background than Lewis; a native of Maine and graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, he worked after college for the United Steelworkers in South Carolina before beginning his teaching career in Providence, where he received his MAT and was teaching in the late nineties. His wife Julie Fain, whom he met in Providence, is a former associate publisher of the progressive labor publication In These Times, and is now a publisher of Haymarket Books.

Sharkey – who taught Social Studies at Senn High School – has ensured that CTU continues its activism and organizational work along the model Lewis had adopted and implemented so successfully.  

This is clear from the course of negotiations over the re-opening of CPS schools in the past few weeks. The union’s website provides a chart of all core issues that were under negotiation (link “Bargaining Movement”), and shows what the union’s stance was prior to the start of negotiations, and what CPS’s position was; it also shows the progress of negotiations during the last 10 days in particular.  

At the start of negotiations, CPS had “no plan” at all for the following:

Health Metrics (i.e. determining when to shut down a classroom, school, or the entire system on the basis of school/City of Chicago positivity rates)

Vaccines for staff

Accommodations for remote teaching (CPS offered the option only to some staff in high-risk categories)

Testing

Ventilation

Workspaces (i.e. determining which spaces could not safely be used at all)

Remote Learning Improvements

Safety Committee

Simultaneous Instruction (the union opposes teachers teaching both in-class and remote students simultaneously)

Sustainable Community Schools (the union asked that $2 million left over for support of SCS from the 2019-2020 school year be employed for additional support / Covid relief)

Rent Abatement

The last two issues remain unaddressed in the latest form of the agreement (probably anticipated by union negotiators), but they form part of CTU’s larger social justice agenda to support students both within and beyond the classroom. They are now always on the agenda – and this is also a legacy of Lewis’ expansive and militant leadership.

Another legacy of that leadership: democratic votes on all issues pertaining to the members – and that means that CPS’ offer to CTU, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Sunday had tentatively been approved, had not in fact been approved.

It’s not over until the rank-and-file members say it is. Yesterday (Monday), the union’s 600 delegates voted (85% in favor) of recommending the agreement for a vote:  

The vote of the union’s 28,000 members is expected to take until midnight Tuesday. A vote to ratify the deal would greenlight the return of approximately 70,000 preschool and elementary school students who have told district officials they want to return to classrooms for two or three days a week.

However, rank-and-file members could reject the deal, sending the two sides back to the bargaining table.

If the 28,000 members vote to ratify the agreement, that would signal another significant win for CTU – and not only. Karen Lewis believed that what was good for teachers was good for students, and what was good for students was good for students’ families, and what was good for families was good for communities.

CPS teachers and students (approximately 20% of the district’s 350,000+ students are expected to return to classes) will be safer as a result of the union’s relentless push for metrics, vaccination schedules, better ventilation systems, PPE for all staff who need it, and school safety committees. And because teachers, staff, and students will be safer, their neighborhoods – their parents and grandparents, neighbors, cousins – will be safer.

This was an excellent outcome; in fact, it’s probably the best outcome any big city union has achieved for its members before returning to in-school teaching. It should become a model for others in negotiating with their city administrations and school board leaders going forward. And if it passes, it will pass because the members themselves have determined that it will make it safe to return to their schools.

Will the agreement protect all staff and students from becoming ill? Probably not; in fact, Chicago (and Illinois) really shouldn’t be opening up again. Most of the state is now in something referred to as “Tier 4” mitigations, which permit indoor dining. That’s a terrible idea, especially given a) the slow and highly inequitable pace of the vaccination rollout in Illinois and b) the appearance of the far-more-contagious B.1.1.7 variant and its E484K mutation. But the agreement provides for automatic closure (minimum duration: 14 days) and return to remote-only instruction should the city’s positivity rate increase by 15% over the previous week, or be higher for 7 straight days in a row than for the same day in the previous week, or if the city’s community rate reaches 10% – a sort of fail-safe.

CTU’s statement on the passing of their leader (published on Monday): 

Our union is in deep mourning today at the passing of our sister, our leader and our friend, President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis. We are sending heartfelt condolences to her husband, John Lewis, and her surviving family and friends. She will be dearly missed.

Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of our local. Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education. She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor.

She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day.

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete — filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni — to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people’s champion.

Our hearts are heavy today, but it brings us joy to know that Karen has joined Jackie Vaughn, Marion Stamps, Addie Wyatt and Willie Barrow as the vanguard of Black women who have forged a heroic path of labor, justice and civil rights in our city. Karen now sits among them, still guiding our every move, and still guiding our vision for the schools our students and their families deserve.

Lewis and the union she helped re-make knew – and know – the truth of these words:

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.”

A great woman has passed. May she rest in power.  

2021-02-06: CPS vs. CTU

Who Do You Trust?

For those who follow education and Illinois politics, the past couple weeks have been dominated by the story of Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to force the re-opening of in-person classes. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents around 24,000 teachers in the system’s nearly 400,000-student system (third-largest in the U.S.), has continued to bargain for better in-school safety measures, more frequent testing of staff and students, and better-defined (and lower) metrics for when schools/the entire system will shut down due to an increase in community spread, among others.

Those who haven’t been following the negotiations closely believe that CTU is being unreasonable, that its members are “spoiled” or “lazy” (many parents and members of the public don’t understand how time-consuming and ultimately frustrating online teaching has been for the past 10 months), and there’s now a vocal contingent of parents who absolutely demand CPS re-open immediately. In fact, this group has decided to put their grievances in writing and take CTU to court if classes don’t start pronto, benefiting from the legal support of the Liberty Justice Center, which brought us the JANUS vs. AFSCME SCOTUS decision of 2018.

As astonishing as it may seem, CPS appears not to have undertaken serious pre-planning for re-opening schools, which nevertheless began on a tentative basis on January 4 for pre-K and special education (SPED) students. It had been anticipated that around 30% of eligible students would return; in the end, only 19% did – a similar percentage to that expected to return when the other elementary grades are added to the phase-in process (20%, with 80% remaining remote). That 19% was equal to just 1% of the district’s total student enrollment pre-K through high school; the total number of teachers involved in the re-opening of pre-K through 8 is over 10,000.

Teachers not granted an exemption for health-related reasons will be required to teach onsite, even if they have no students in class; those with students will be required to teach in-class and remotely synchronously – an extremely challenging task and one that even many colleges and universities decided not to attempt last spring.

When limited on-site instruction began in early January, some teachers refused to return to their classrooms; instead, they set up outside school buildings, their laptops atop collapsible tables, and attempted to continue to teach remotely from onsite (in freezing temperatures). CPS locked them out of their electronic platforms, blocked their (school) email accounts, and docked their pay. A request by CTU to make these teachers “whole” has been refused.

CPS has rejected 75% of requests for exemptions from the on-site requirement by teachers who live with individuals in particularly high-risk groups, even if none of their students have opted for in-person instruction.

Before negotiations began, CPS had no ventilation plan – it has come round on ventilation in the past couple months, thankfully, and classroom air will be switched out five times per hour through a system of portable air purifiers. (Classrooms and other school spaces that are not deemed amenable to air purification won’t be used.)

Before negotiations began, CPS had no plan for the regular testing of faculty, staff, and students. Now, CPS has committed to testing all symptomatic staff and students, and 100% of staff working in the 134 most at-risk public schools (weekly), 50% of staff per week (so, twice a month) at other schools, testing students at the 134 schools in highest-risk districts, and more.  

Before negotiations began, Chicago had made no commitment towards a vaccination plan for teachers; now, the city is committed to 1,500 doses for teachers each week; CTU is insisting that CPS (the City of Chicago, viz. the Mayor) commit to additional vaccines as supplies increases. In addition, CPS won’t commit to a priority system for vaccinating those teachers who are required to return first, or for those who live in households with high-risk members. And they’re demanding that vaccinated teachers return to classrooms after a single dose. The Mayor and Director of the Chicago Health Department (Allison Arwady) responded that there aren’t enough vaccines for all high-priority eligible candidates in Phase 1B (currently, only about 5,700 per day for the entire city are available; the rollout isn’t going quickly in Chicago or, for that matter, Illinois).

As of Friday night (yesterday), the City was insisting schools stay open unless there were outbreaks in more than 50% of all operating schools (meaning that even with outbreaks in over 200 schools, CPS classrooms would remain open); with respect to community metrics, schools would continue in operation until the community positivity rate reached 25% (i.e. 2.5% of randomly-tested students, which corresponds to a 25% community rate).

Lightfoot keeps repeating that parents want schools to re-open, and that the impediment is CTU. In recent days, she and others in the Administration have referenced the CDC’s supposed announcement, viz. that it’s safe to open schools (although the CDC certainly wasn’t using CPS as a baseline school district)*.

*From a WH Press Briefing held on Feb. 4 (Press Secretary Jen Psaki), disclaimer: “‘the CDC hasn’t issued the formal recommendations or requirements on how all schools across the country can open. They did a report, as they do reports frequently, based on an area in Wisconsin,’ stressing the report had extremely limited applicability to urban areas such as Chicago.”

The obligation to reopen is presented as crucial for achieving education equity in a system that’s heavily enrolled by Black and Brown students. But the truth is that it is middle- and upper-middle white parents, who reside with their children in single-family homes in majority-white neighborhoods with low community positivity rates, who are demanding schools reopen. Black students’ parents are less likely to see sending their children back to in-school classes as desirable or advisable, partly because they know their children and families are most at-risk (twice the death rate of whites), partly because they don’t trust Chicago government officials, starting with the Mayor and Janice Jackson, the CPS’ CEO (Chicago doesn’t have a “Superintendent,” because it doesn’t have an elected school board; all the board members are appointed by the Mayor). This, despite the fact that these are the parents who most need their children to return to in-school classes, which appears to be a contradiction.

But why should they trust the city’s administration in a time of great risk and uncertainty, amid a health and healthcare crisis inextricably linked with economic hardship, both of which have harmed them and their community more than any other demographic group?

Consider the following charts of Chicago neighborhoods:

See those purple neighborhoods? They’re majority white and middle-to-upper-middle class. See those light pink and nearly white neighborhoods? They’re poor, minority neighborhoods. See:

As of 30 January, only 19% of vaccinated Chicagoans are Black and just 19% are Latinos v almost 50% being white.

The need is dire: despite Black people only accounting for 30% of Chicago’s population, Black Chicagoans make up 60% of all Covid-19 cases. And lack of hospitals, prominence of food deserts, and other inequalities has turned Covid-19 into an even more lethal health crisis for these communities. But even during Chicago’s Phase 1A, when only healthcare workers and longterm care facility residents and staff were eligible for vaccination, the majority of those vaccinated were from more affluent areas such as downtown and the North Side.”

Chicago has announced a special program to deliver more vaccines to the city’s majority-Black neighborhoods, but the fact that many of them do not have a CVS or Walgreen’s (they are not only “food deserts”, but “pharmacy deserts” as well) means that in-neighborhood vaccination services may be slow to get off the ground and insufficiently staffed:

Chicago’s plan to use pharmacies to distribute vaccines (vaccines are being supplied directly to pharmacies [note: CVS and Walgreen’s] via the federal government) may mean that some Chicagoans struggle with access as Chicago contains several ‘pharmacy deserts’: a term coined to describe a community with limited access to a pharmacy. The majority of ‘pharmacy deserts’ are concentrated on Chicago’s West and South Sides, correlating with the same communities hardest hit by Covid-19.”

In Chicago, only about a third of Black families have indicated they are willing to return to classrooms, compared with 67 percent of white families, and the city’s teachers’ union, which is hurtling toward a strike, has made the disparity a core part of its argument against in-person classes.” [Note: of the one-third who expressed willingness to send their children back to school, only a little over half this number actually did on Jan. 4.]

Comparable percentages hold fairly steady across the U.S., as the historical inequities separating white and Black and Brown neighborhoods – and their schools – have been heightened everywhere by the pandemic.

As of this writing (Saturday morning, Chicago time), when pre-K and SPED teachers are required to return to their schools on Monday morning, many (all?) may not return, and will instead attempt to continue teaching remotely. The Mayor has threatened – there’s no other word, it’s an outright threat – to lock them out of their online platforms / email and dock their pay if they don’t show up. At that point, it seems likely CTU will move towards a strike vote, and it’s almost certain a motion to strike will pass. The result? 100% of CPS students will be deprived of any form of instruction whatsoever.

As uncomfortable as it would have been, Chicago’s Mayor and the CPS’ CEO should have found the courage to admit what is by now obvious:  CPS schools are highly inequitable, not just in a time of pandemic, but historically. And admitting this is so doesn’t make them less inequitable, it means that we must consequently admit the corollary to this inequity, that CPS cannot safely reopen its brick and mortar schools until the population of Chicago has achieved herd immunity.

Instead, the most likely outcome of what must be considered a failed negotiation process (capped on Friday by CPS presenting CTU its “last, best and final offer” – code for “we’re through negotiating, take it or leave it”) is a strike.

Whereas, had the Mayor, her public health department, and the Governor of Illinois and state health department been willing to collaborate and prioritize CPS staff in the current round of vaccinations (Phase 1B), jumping them to the head of the 1B line – which is what you do when you genuinely prioritize education and educators, rather than paying lip service to both – in six weeks, all 24,000 teachers + support staff could have received their vaccinations (both shots) and been immunized.

CTU’s leadership and its members are not the villains in this struggle with the Mayor:

Teachers who are fighting against an unsafe return to work are acting on behalf not only of their own interests, but of the interests of society as a whole. Any rational social order would shut down schools and nonessential business until the pandemic can be contained through a combination of mass testing, contact tracing and vaccination, while providing full pay for all employees and allocating the social resources necessary to ensure that children can be educated from home.

This was a tragically short-sighted, poorly-strategized attempt by the Mayor (who feels beholden not to Black students and their parents and families, but to her largely white donors) to force schools to open in absence of the courage to pay the political price for doing what was required to render schools safe.

Further reading

Bargaining Movement Chart (CTU Website)

Mayor, CPS leadership walk away from bargaining for safe return to school buildings

Chicago Teachers Union Dismisses CPS’ ‘Last, Best and Final’ Offer for a Reopening Deal

CTU Says CPS’ ‘Last, Best and Final Offer’ ‘Cannot Stand’

Chicago Teachers Might Strike. A Group of Parents, Backed by a Right-wing Law Firm, Stands to Sue

How Chicago’s vaccine rollout is inhibited by longstanding inequality

Missing in School Reopening Plans: Black Families’ Trust

The ‘Reopen Schools Now!’ Debate is Rooted in Racism

What the science really says: Closing schools is vital to containing COVID-19

2021-01-19 Charter Schools: A Public Good?

One More Tragedy of the Commons: Charter Schools

Education writer Rachel Cohen spoke with Pete Davis recently, and the podcast transcript is available here. Cohen provides a good short summary of the rise and (possible) fall of the charter school movement which will serve as background for the second piece we consider today, published in Forbes by Peter Greene and offering a relatively in-depth history of one profoundly-troubled, charter-dominated school district in Pennsylvania.

During the 1970s, when de-regulation started to gain favor, critics of public schools (well, critics of property taxes, which funded public schools) began a campaign that would bear fruit 15-20 years later in the so-called “charter school” movement.

Albert Shanker, himself a teacher and the head of a union, proposed in the late ‘80s that districts open what were basically magnet schools as “charters.” They were to be schools which experimented with new teaching methods, new materials, etc. – new, innovative approaches – which could in turn be adopted by public schools in their district.

Never has a basically good idea been taken up with such enthusiasm by so large a number of “reformers” to result in so much harm and so little good to a core infrastructure service.

Charter schools, which may be legally set up as either non-profits or for-profit businesses, have been strongly anti-union – given that teachers unions were (and still are) one of the more vocal and powerful voices representing public servants, have been a major goal of the privately-funded movement which seeks to strip all government goods and services down to its bare bones.

Charter schools operate exclusively with public funding – tax dollars appropriated for education, in most states coming from local property taxes + some percentage from state budgets (depending on the state). However, because they experience little oversight, they remain largely unaccountable to the public itself. One feature of charter schools which mimics the practices of business is the typically low pay for those who do the actual work, i.e. teachers, and high pay – sometimes, astronomically high – for administrators and “managers.”

So, after around 30 decades of charter schools’ presence in the public school sphere, how’d the experiment work out? One thing can be said right off: Albert Shenker’s vision of charter schools experimenting with new and innovative approaches to education which could be adopted by public schools hasn’t happened. Some charter schools have registered success; Cohen brings up the example of charter schools in Boston, which enjoy a high reputation for good “outcomes.” But she also notes that Boston charter schools are subject to an above-average degree of control and regulation by their overseers.

Along with the rise in the fortunes of charter schools, there rose to prominence another late-20th-century business practice: an obsession with data/numbers. Thus we saw a rise in testing, including the so-called “Big Test” for which students need to be prepared on an ongoing basis throughout the school year. Testing satisfied the craving for “accountability,” of which the Obama Administration and its Department of Education Secretaries were so enamored.

“Accountability” could be used to weed out “bad” teachers (i.e. teachers whose students performed poorly on the Big Test) and eventually, “bad” schools, schools whose overall performance ranked them in the lowest percentiles of their district/state. Such “bad” schools, the majority located in urban cores beset by socioeconomic issues not under teachers’ control – poverty, unemployment, homelessness – in turn became candidates for closure / replacement by newly-created charter schools which touted their ability to “do more with less.”

During the same period, the idea that education was a panacea for all the problems noted above – that it could serve as the main agent for lifting people out of poverty – also became a mantra within education reform circles (which, we note, included both Democrats and Republicans). The thing is, if everybody goes to college, if everybody gets a law degree, if everybody becomes a physician, downward wage pressure just dictates that a lot of degree holders will be working as Uber drivers, burdened by student loans they can never hope to pay off. What lifts people out of poverty? Money – it really is that simple, and the interview rightly notes that the single thing that did the most for eradicating poverty in the first third of the 20th century was the Social Security Act (1935).

Today, the whole charter school “experiment” is starting to be examined from a more critical perspective. For example, what is the role of a local school in civic education? Its real value lies not just in the information-knowledge acquired inside the classroom, but in the social connections and bonds it provides beyond the classroom and throughout life.

If your neighborhood is marginalized – if it’s poor, if its infrastructure is decayed, if businesses and jobs have fled to greener pastures – then the social benefits of schooling are severely impacted. And that holds equally true of charter schools, which are often distant from the students they enroll, may open and close with alarming and disruptive frequency (charters are granted for specific periods, e.g. 5 years, after which time they’re supposed to be evaluated for re-awarding, but there are many charters which have closed their doors literally overnight, leaving students and their parents in the lurch). Charters, in other words, put down no roots in the community which provides their profits, and feel no loyalty to those they enroll. This doesn’t augur well for civic education or the body politic in the medium-to-long run.

To all of the above must be added the impact from the 2009 financial crisis, after which many (most) states were forced to slash their human services budgets, and in many cases state/district education budgets haven’t managed to recoup the losses they suffered between 2010 and 2016. Charter schools siphon money from already-stressed public school budgets, as the loss of students doesn’t mean that a school can fire half its staff, or stop doing maintenance, or cut off heat in the winter (although poor districts, e.g. Baltimore, may indeed not be able to heat their schools in winter).

No one knows how the Secretary of Education nominee will lead the Department; Miguel Cardona’s rise from 4th-grade teacher, to principal, to Connecticut Commissioner of Education has been little short of meteoric (he was born in 1975), and so his views on charters (and vouchers – a related but separate topic), testing, accountability, and other pressing problems remaining from the “school reform” movement are not fully known. Generally, though, education scholars and writers believe he will be supportive of teachers. President-elect Biden has already committed to tripling Title I funding for the country’s most distressed and poorest schools, and to establishing universal pre-K nationwide, so we assume Cardona will advocate for these important initiatives.

When charter school initiatives went wrong, they went thoroughly wrong and in many cases, rather than pulling back and re-trenching to shore up support for existing public schools, districts have simply continued, under various threats and administrators, receivers, and overseers, to continue doing what had utterly failed in the past.

Such is the tragedy of Chester Upland School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, a few miles southwest of Philadelphia and just over the New Jersey and Delaware borders.

Chester was founded in 1644; William Penn suggested its renaming. Chester reached its demographic apex just after World War II, when it had a population of 66,000 and an economic base that relied on industry/ manufacturing.

But Chester had a longstanding problem with race:

Through the first half of the 20th century, the schools were segregated as a matter of policy … In 1946, the school board finally agreed to a plan to desegregate students (but not faculty). But then the board instituted a policy that allowed students to request transfer to a school outside their assigned boundaries. Most applications by whites were approved; most by Blacks were denied. By the 1953-54 school year five elementary schools had almost entirely Black student bodies, even though white students lived within the schools’ boundaries.

In 1953, the board floated a $3.5 million bond issue intended to finance a redrawing of school boundaries. “The bond issue was,” McClarnon writes, “in fact, a $3.5 million re-segregation project.” Shortly afterwards, the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but the school superintendent noted that the decision wouldn’t have any legal ramifications for the county “where segregation is admittedly a fact but not a policy. [Emphasis added]

The CUSD was finally ordered to desegregate in 1967 (so, 14 years after Brown v. Board of Education), but by then an economic collapse and associated white flight to the suburbs was well under way:

Meanwhile, middle class white flight from Chester continued; the 1960s saw an exodus of major employers like Ford Motor and Baldwin Locomotive. People and solid middle class jobs were both leaving, and the school district’s tax base was evaporating.

Fast forward to the present, where the past continues to reside:

Today, Chester Upland shares boundaries with four other districts. Chichester has a C rating from Niche. Penn-Delco, which seceded from Chester Upland in 1960, and Ridley are both rated B, “above-average” districts. Wallingford-Swarthmore has a Niche rating of A+. Chester Upland is rated D+. All four adjacent districts are wealthier and far whiter than Chester Upland. Chester Upland covers just five square miles, packed in between the four districts that each cover less than ten square miles, with fewer than 25,000 residents. Segregation in Delaware County remains a “fact but not a policy.”

Having lost both its tax base and its wealthier white students (and parents), CUSD began a rapid downward trajectory in the 1980s and 1990s.  In 1994, it was named the worst-performing school in the state and in 2000, it was declared financially distressed, which meant it was placed under a state-appointed Board of Control.

Three companies were hired to “manage” the district’s schools; the best-known of these was Edison Schools, Inc. But this first effort to essentially privatize the district’s schools didn’t go well, and Edison withdrew in 2005. The Governor called on members of the Board of Control to resign, and in 2007 (what happened in 2006?), another “State Empowerment Board” was appointed; in 2012, a Chief Recovery Officer was appointed to oversee the system.

During this period, Chester saw the creation and rise of home-grown charters of both the non-profit and for-profit genres, owned and operated by one and the same man, Vahan Gureghian, a local attorney and businessman. Both Gureghian and his wife have made a great deal of money over the past two decades out of these “ventures” (because really, what they most resemble are adventures in venture capitalism), and the couple, who are major political donors, have not been free of financial scandal (as so often happens with charter owners-operators – turns out that rigorous control and accountability, when they are absent, open the way for questionable practices).

In the past several years (skipping over the scandal by which Gureghian’s two charter schools have managed to skim off millions of dollars of student funding for disabled students), the situation in the district has further deteriorated. In 2015, teachers and staff worked without pay (for the second time in a decade). By 2017, the district was in such chaos (all those boards, all those administrative changes, absence of continuity, absence of ongoing accountability) that the state Auditor couldn’t even conduct a proper audit.

In short:

Chester Uplands has been on the losing side of all of these issues, with the added impact of repeated, failed state takeovers, using a receivership model that puts the court-appointed receiver in charge with huge powers and who is, as attorney Michael Churchill (Public Interest Law Center) put it in an interview, “accountable to no-one.”

Where things now stand:

Since 2012, four recovery plans, four receivers, three chief recovery officers. Constant turnover in staff and faculty. The school district had “failed to maximize potential benefits from” previous plans, aka the previous plans hadn’t worked. 100% of student body eligible for free and reduced lunch; 89% Black, 7% Hispanic. Substantial amounts of “deferred maintenance” and “underfunded capital improvements budgets” were blamed for dropped enrollment. “The morale of the workforce,” noted the plan, “is highly strained.”

And now (as of 2020-2021), it looks like the CUSD will be entirely “charterized,” at least for K-8 education – they don’t handle high schools/students, there are too many challenges and too little profit to make it worthwhile.

At the moment, it seems hopeless:

Local control has failed them in the past. State-mandated takeovers have been disastrously unsuccessful, and the state itself has left the district woefully underfunded (low test scores did not lead the state to target resources to aid the district). Bad charter laws have stripped them of funding they could not spare, and returned results that seem no better—and in some cases worse—than the public system provides.

The state of Pennsylvania (which has a decades-long history of problems with charter schools, mostly but not exclusively stemming from the way its charter law was framed) could have helped CUSD, but it foisted off responsibility – responsibility which was twofold from the beginning: racial and financial – to state-appointed bodies, all of which have manifestly failed in their fiduciary, educational, and social duties towards Chester Upland residents and students.

The most poignant detail in this dispassionate, scathing piece? A small public school, Stetser Elementary, has actually been doing pretty well – better than the charters, and well enough to be considered a high-performing high-poverty school. And it’s being ignored in all this discussion.

Greene’s conclusion:

When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers. And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers even more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfil the promise of a free public education for all of its children. Chester Upland seems less likely to have a happy ending and more likely to end as a tragic cautionary tale.

And that’s the story of CUSD – only it’s not over. If the district is fully charterized (Greene uses “privatized,” but really charters are an example of that most unholy alliance, the PPP extended to education) without including its high school, that will spell financial ruin for its 9-12 school /  students.

Across the U.S. there are hundreds of stories like this one unfolding; the Network for Public Education now runs a regular feature sub-site (spearheaded by Carol Burris) called “Another Day Another Charter School Scandal.” I could literally cover a scandal a day in an entire post, and post about nothing else.

Our education commons are literally being stripped away by charters and vouchers, and by the time we realize what’s happened, public education could be a relic of the past.