Category Archives: Education

A Few Notes on The Irish Famine for St. Patrick’s Day ~ Jack Johnson

Let’s Begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,”

… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak

December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive

Us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed

English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old

Skibbereen.

St Patrick’s day might be a good time to reflect on the economics of austerity in the midst of plenty that the Irish had to endure.  Neoliberals who advocate ‘austerity’ measures while poor countries teeter on the brink of economic collapse might pay a bit of attention, too. The so-called Irish “famine” has a few useful lessons for everyone nowadays.  First, although a potato blight is commonly blamed for the Irish famine from 1845 to 1852, it might be more accurate to blame an economic system that demanded payment–and food exports– from the Irish peasantry even as their own subsistence crop was rotting on the vine.

Thomas Gallagher points out that during the first winter of the Irish potato famine, as many as 400,000 Irish peasants starved while landlords exported 17 million pounds worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet profit hungry landlords forced exports to markets abroad.

Like latter-day American Republicans, the Whig administration in England, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, believed that the market would provide the food needed and refused to intervene against these food exports to England. To top it off, the Whig administration then halted the previous government’s food and relief efforts, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food.

According to Peter Gray, in his book The Irish Famine, the government spent £7,000,000 for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product”, considerably less than what they provided to slave owners in the West Indies. Irish Nationalists John Mitchell famously wrote,  “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.”

Mitchel was convicted by a packed jury under the newly enacted Treason Felony Act and sentenced to 14 years in the then Irish prison colony of Bermuda. The English policy of exporting food from Ireland while the Irish died of starvation by the thousands continued until 1852 with the engineer of this policy, Charles Trevelyan describing the Famine in 1848 as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”  The social evil Trevelyan is referencing is Ireland’s overpopulation. The Famine, he affirmed, was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected [the ‘cure’ was reducing Ireland’s overpopulation]. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”

But, alas, in the end, just under a million people died while around 2 million Irish were forced to emigrate, as Nassau Senior, an economics professor at Oxford University had sadly predicted. At the time, Nassau wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”

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The Losing Streak

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Top of the ninth for the Mayor and things are not looking great. His no good, very bad losing streak started a few weeks before the month began in late April when the Wing Nut Collective posted an odd item regarding Mayor Jones’ real estate taxes. According to the City of Richmond’s Property Search and Tax Assessment data, the assessed value of the land that Dwight Jones’ house sits on has dropped $64,000 in the past year. No big deal, only all of his neighbors’ land increased in value–which makes you wonder. A city ‘revaluation’ was called in. That’s just a little awkward note to preface the streak to be, but it gives you the general flavor.

Meanwhile, last Monday, April 28th, Open High students Levi Bane along with Aaron Greene, Isabella Arias, Quante Barnes and Gillian Hogg organized a walkout of the student body over the lousy condition of Richmond Public Schools. Roughly 200 students altogether ended up leaving their classroom as part of a “Walk Out” protest—most of them from Open High, the remainder from Thomas Jefferson , John Marshall, Community, Albert Hill, Lucille Brown and Maggie Walker . They headed straight to City Hall to talk with Mayor Jones. The structural problems for the schools—covered nicely in this Style Weekly article – include tar diluted water oozing in “foul-smelling drops” into classrooms and hallways in Thompson Middle School, and black water-soaked ceiling tiles dropping from the ceiling. School Board Vice Chairman Kristen Larson said the environment there made her “want to throw up.” At Carver Elementary School, the skeletal remains of dead rodents crunched underfoot. Worse was Armstrong High where there were so many live rats that “snakes have become a problem as well.” It’s the kind of thing no one should have to deal with, much less high school students.

So the Open High folks organized a walkout last Monday in protest. The walkout is strikingly similar to a boycott organized nearly half a century earlier by Barbara Johns, when she took it upon herself to publicize the loathsome conditions in Prince Edward County public schools. Her actions eventually led to the Supreme Court decision overturning the specious doctrine of separate but equal. As a consequence, integration was enforced across the country—something white Virginians in particular opposed organizing themselves behind the banner of Massive Resistance. This ultimately led to white flight, which subsequently turned the screw on budgets for the Richmond Public School system. Why? Because when integration threatened, the General Assembly removed the city’s ability to annex surrounding communities, stifling its tax base and piling on a mountain of debt. Henrico and Chesterfield counties were left to enjoy the region’s economic growth alone. Richmond public schools were left to starve.

Underneath this movement, of course, lies the logic of gentrification. Something you would think Mayor Jones would be hesitant to embrace, but you would be wrong.

By way of background, a little over two weeks ago, Mayor Jones made the mistake of echoing Louis Salomonsky in a Sunday Richmond Time-Dispatch article. In an interview with Open Source (WRIR.org), Salomonsky openly lamented the city’s “ghetto of people making $30k-50k a year”, suggesting it’s the reason the city keeps asking developers for more and more luxury condos. Salomonsky, it should be noted, has done time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit extortion for bribing a City Council member and also, notably, has a stake in the Mayor’s baseball in the bottom plan. Politically tone-deaf, the Mayor essentially seconded Salomonsky’s opinion arguing that minorities moving to the counties because of a “declining school system” would finally bring rich, childless empty-nesters into the city. Or, put another way, get rid of couples interested in quality schools for their children. Too late, the Mayor realized that political acuity wasn’t his strong point, but he did manage to get the newspaper to pull his quote from their website—though it’s still available in the printed edition.

So it’s within this context that Mayor Jones deigned to meet with the boycotting Open High students; a PR moved that failed. That Monday afternoon (April 28th), Mayor Jones made his intentions clear: new schools are the way forward, maintenance of existing facilities not so much. He insisted that investments needed to be made in revenue generating schemes rather than existing schools: baseball stadiums, Redskin training camps, things like that. Only, the actual revenue generation part of such schemes falls abysmally short. As an example, the Redskins training camp has turned into a net loss for the city. In fact, activist and former School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf had to prod City Council to collect the $100,000 owed to them from Bon Secours for the leasing of the property—funds that were to be paid directly to the Richmond Public School system. By February of this year, Richmond School Board member Kim Gray said “We have yet to see a dime.” That eventually turned around, but the city tax revenue still falls far short. The promised boon to local business is pretty much a mirage. Retail sales in Richmond during August, the month in which the bulk of the Redskins training camp was held, declined 6.8 percent compared with the same month last year. Whoops. According to Style Weekly, “during the training camp, many restaurant owners complained that the camp had done little to increase sales, with only a nearby McDonald’s reporting a significant increase in customers.”

So Mickey D’s gets a leg up, but that doesn’t really translate into the 3.8 million dollar revenue shortfall that the mayor slashed from the school board request for fiscal year 2015. Last Monday, in face of the Open High protests, City Council finally promised to restore that amount. But even that promise had a hidden caveat. As structured in the budget, the money will not go toward maintenance needs, but rather towards operation funding, which covers day-to-day expenses. Rats, snakes and black water dripping from the ceiling will remain the foreseeable norm. The Mayor tried to cheer the students by suggesting that his other big idea, the Baseball Stadium in the Bottom, could help close the revenue gap. Unfortunately said stadium plan would require capital investments from the city of 76.5 million over the course of thirty years. And the revenue projections are shaky at best. Not to mention, the chosen location would bury historical slave sites that Preservation Virginia decided to list as one of the top endangered historical sites in the country – the day after the students’ walkout: Tuesday, April 29th. Ouch. But really, the students weren’t buying the happy talk, either way.

Said Levi Bane, “The children of our city are this city’s future and it is high time that they be treated as such. A stadium which will hopefully provide more money in the future is not what our money should be spent on or invested in. Richmond Public Schools have thousands of children to invest in and thousands of children who, if provided for properly, will benefit the city of Richmond much more than a baseball stadium could ever hope to do.” The students are right, of course. But that was only the beginning of Mayor Jones’ losing streak.

**

Last Thursday, May 1st, the other shoe dropped. What would be excellent news for the citizens of Richmond, was plain old bad news for the Mayor. Developers with The Rebkee Co. offered to fund the building of the Stadium privately on the Boulevard. All of it. No public funds involved. Under the broad outlines of the proposal, an 8,000-plus capacity stadium would be built entirely with private money on about 10 acres of Boulevard land. The first phase would involve a small amount of residential, retail and restaurant development. The developers also would have the option of building out the rest of the 60-acre Boulevard area. Now that’s a sweet deal. But the Mayor didn’t like it. Make your plans public, he said. After he kept his plans for a stadium in the dark for well over a year. Never mind that! Now we must have transparency in our projections! The Mayor’s good buddy at Venture Richmond, Jack Berry, sent out a nasty letter to Venture Richmond’s board where the Mayor presides as President: “Beware when a Chesterfield politician (Mr. Gecker) and a suburban strip shopping center developer from Midlothian (Rebkee) tell you they know what is best for your city,” Berry wrote. “Does Gecker’s involvement and approach strike you as a conflict of interest, and disrespectful of city leadership, even offensive?” Apparently, Jack Berry flunked out of charm school.

But there was worse news for the Mayor. That Thursday night, in light of the proposal, City Council voted 5-4 to remove $12.6 million of the $13.6 million that Jones had budgeted for infrastructure improvements needed for the publicly financed Shockoe stadium plan. The council kept $1 million for any infrastructure work necessary for the slave heritage site, “seeking to decouple the museum from the stadium proposal.”

In all, the council reallocated $3.25 million for school maintenance, $3 million for the riverfront plan, $4.5 million for projects in council members’ districts such as sidewalk repairs, and $1.5 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Jones would have none of it. He threatened to veto the move and said the council’s action last week sent the “wrong message” to the General Assembly, “The business community has said that they would help us raise a certain amount of money, but they’re not going to do it if it’s not going to be a part of the complete package,” Jones said. But it’s not like you can take his word to the bank. As Paul Goldman, former state Democratic Party chairman noted, “… the politicians have not leveled with anybody.”

Yes, that would seem to be the case.

**

The losing streak continued this week when Rebkee Co. responded to Venture Richmond and the Mayor’s nasty gram: “The mayor has made it abundantly clear that he does not need or want an alternative in the event the land acquisition and developer contracts for the Shockoe Bottom project do not materialize… While we don’t agree this is in the city’s best interest, we respect that decision. We also recognize that no plan can go forward without the support of those in control of the city. A transaction of this scale is difficult with parties who share the same goals; it is impossible between those that do not.”

So the alternative is scuttled, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. The Mayor equivocated. Shortly after his stern veto threat and Venture Richmond’s ill-timed letter, the Mayor tried to sound reasonable. Here’s what Jones had to say as of Tuesday, May 5th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “…. [the] administration is still open to receiving more information from the development team behind the recently floated proposal for a privately financed baseball stadium on North Boulevard.”

So maybe it’s okay, after all? That talk about being disrespectful of City leadership? Conflict of interest? Nothing to worry about! Jack Berry had a case of the bowels. And so it goes. The Mayor may be looking for a lifeline, or he may just be saving face. The next few weeks will show how his losing streak shakes out.

Meanwhile, at the School Board meeting at City Hall this week, Open High students were at it again.

Kevin Tyler: “The buildings are still in disrepair…Today a tile fell from the ceiling and almost hit a student in the head.” He said that when they had talked with the Mayor, he told the students they needed to speak with their School Board to make their needs known. Of course, weeks after an article about dead rats, live snakes and ceilings oozing with black goo you’d think the school board would have figured it out. But the Mayor likes this dance because after the students go to the school board, the school board gets to come back to City Council to ask for the funds the Mayor insists are earmarked for things like his Baseball Stadium in the Bottom. Which may or may not be funded any longer, depending on how willing the Mayor is to follow through on his veto threat. Is that clear, everyone?

Despite the bureaucratic maze, the students have remained persistent. “So here we are,” said Tyler, “asking the School Board to make our needs known.”

In a voice tight with frustration, Sydney Pollard asked, “How do we improve the conditions of our schools? How do we make them safe schools?…’Safe schools’…why is that a question we even need to ask?”

And finally, Isabella Arias insisted that everyone was responsible for the current impasse, but she ended on a cautiously optimistic note, “If government officials are able to work together then there is hope for Richmond public schools,” which may be less cause for confidence than she thinks.

~Jack R. Johnson

The Apex of Moronia

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H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”

This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”

Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”

Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”

But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.

Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.

God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.

Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.

According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”

The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.

Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.

Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”

In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.

H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.

~Jack Johnson

Note: HB 207  was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014

Of Educational Reform and Trojan Horses

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For a long while, Teach For America was the dazzling new kid on the educational reform block. All doors were opened for the program that recruits elite college graduates (many from Ivy League Universities like Harvard or Princeton), gives them about a month of intensive training, and places them in two-year termed teaching positions at low-income schools across the country. President Obama praised TFA corps members as “a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas — that people who love their country can change it.” Their political support crossed party lines, and just about everyone was on board, except, unfortunately, for the people who were actually affected by the program.

In Chicago, the push back originally came from the teacher’s union. Teach For America was initially instituted as a temporary solution to a temporary shortage of teachers. The five-week ‘intensive’ training program that substituted for a BA or MA in Education and much lengthier student teaching requirements was meant to fill an immediate need—to get teachers on the ground and teaching in poorly served areas. But that ‘temporary solution’ became a permanent fixture that displaced seasoned veteran teachers, many of whom had 20 plus years experience. When one teacher moved to New York after graduate school, boasting high grades and a teaching award, she found the district closed to external applicants. “But they had a contract with TFA where they were still taking college graduates with no training besides doing TFA.” The pattern is happening nationwide, she complained. “Meanwhile, they’re laying off highly experienced teachers.”

According to a recent article in the American Prospect, the criticisms come in triplicate. “The organization’s five-week training program is too short to prepare its recruits to teach, especially in chronically under-served urban and rural districts; corps members only have to commit to teach for two years, which destabilizes schools, undermines the teaching profession, and undercuts teachers unions; and TFA, with the help of its 501(c)4 spin-off, Leadership for Educational Equity, is a leading force in the movement to close “failing” schools, expand charter schools, and tie teachers’ job security to their students’ standardized test scores.”

What once looked like a kind of Peace Corps styled guardian angel for troubled inner city schools, more and more resembles a Trojan horse  designed to eviscerate unions, privatize schools and leave public school systems worse off than when they started. As with so many other things in the private/public debate in this country, the public side is wildly outspent. Indeed, the resources devoted to TFA alone go far beyond what most large school districts could ever dream.

“The organization’s total assets for the 2011 fiscal year topped $350 million. That includes eight-figure support from the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, leading bankrollers of campaigns to privatize school districts and ramp up standardized testing. The TFA orbit is also growing. It now has more than 10,000 corps members in 48 regions, as well as more than 32,000 alumni. Districts pay thousands in fees to TFA for each corps member in addition to their salaries—at the expense of the existing teacher workforce. Chicago, for example, is closing 48 schools and laying off 850 teachers and staff while welcoming 350 corps members. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans cut 7,500 school staff, converted the majority of its schools to charters, and, between 2005 and 2010, saw its share of black teachers drop from 73 percent to 56 percent. Over the past five years, TFA expanded its Greater New Orleans corps from 85 teachers to 375.”

In addition to the money bags approach, there’s something a little unsettling about the underlying ideology which insists that “singular change agents can overcome poverty.” As TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp likes to put it, successful teaching “requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires” The emphasis on the individual and the so-called ‘transformational leadership’ devalues and patronizes current staff, of course, and elevates a solipsistic view of the world where individual effort trumps community context and values. Perfect for the libertarian billionaire’s ethos, but rather a contradiction if you’re actually trying to build communities and community standards. Indeed, there’s a shallowness to all the sloganeering and when push comes to shove, many of the TFA darlings simply quit. The high turnover of trainees being dispatched to some of the country’s most challenging school districts—often without any long-term plans to be teachers—is a major problem. In a typical cycle, a school might lose about half of its corps members after their second year. By the third year, half of those who had remained after the second year would be gone. The root problem, of course, is precisely that lack of community context and commitment. Many—perhaps most– who join Teach For America don’t actually want to be teachers in the first place, instead using the program as a prestigious stepping stone for policy work, law school, or business school. According to the Prospect, “One study found that roughly 57 percent of corps members planned to teach for two years or less when they applied, while only 11 percent intended to make teaching a lifelong career. (TFA has claimed, however, that 36 percent remain in the classroom as teachers. But their recently announced partnership with Goldman Sachs, which provides TFA recruits with jobs at the banking firm after two years of service, doesn’t entirely help their cause.)”

Ultimately, the two years of service is an empty promise to communities who more than anything need continuity and long-term commitment. If you want a school to become a community hub, you necessarily need to minimize ‘churn’—the rotation of teachers and principals. “Their framework is about developing leaders, not teachers.”

Gary Rubinstein, a veteran teacher, TFA alumni, and prominent critic of the program explains his motivations in joining as many do: “It [TFA] sounded exciting. For once, I’d be doing something ‘real.’ I’d be doing something valuable for society. I’d be making a difference.” But in its mission to enact progressive education reform and eliminate the cycle of poverty, TFA has advanced a conservative agenda that doesn’t seek education reform so much as its privatization. Like many others, he’s become acutely aware of the difference.

Now, of course, never one to let a bad idea go to waste, Richmond wants to join forces with TFA.

With a vote of 5-2 (with two members absent) the Richmond School Board has decided to contract with Teach For America to hire up to 30 teachers. Since TFA ‘teachers’ are paid an additional $5000 dollars for their services, Richmond taxpayers will need to pay out over $150,000 extra ($5,000 per corps member = $150,000) to TFA to hire folks who have had all of 5 weeks of training.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch,“During Monday’s (November 4th) work session, two board members and half a dozen members of the audience — including Christine S. Walther-Thomas, the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education — vehemently opposed the idea of bringing Teach For America to Richmond.

“What we know is that they are talented young people but they don’t get a lot of preparation,” said Walther-Thomas, who spoke in favor of a 3-year-old teacher residency program VCU runs with Richmond Public Schools.

Jacqueline T. McDonnough and Kurt Stem-hagen, associate professors at VCU, were more direct. McDonnough said she would “lay down in the door” before she would allow Teach For America into city schools. Stemhagen said “poor and minority students deserve the best.”

Mamie Taylor, 5th District, and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, were also vocal in their opposition, and both voted against the proposal.

On Tuesday, Taylor said the school system can’t afford Teach For America’s fee of $5,000 per teacher. And even if it could, she said she would still oppose it. “You can’t show me data that supports it,” she said. “Everything I’ve heard has been individual people’s experiences. I don’t see anything that tells me this is a direction Richmond Public Schools needs to go.”

At the November 4th meeting, Alliance for Progressive Values’ Deputy Kirsten Gray also pointed out that the rationale for hiring 33 TFA positions because of a shortage of teachers didn’t make a lot of sense, “… the city needs 33 positions filled but the openings aren’t advertised on the Richmond Public School system website.  We were told there is no money to hire teachers and that “quality” teachers are hard to find. 8 licensed long term subs have been hired but we cannot afford to hire them full time. It was recommended that the School board work within budget and not ask the city for more money. ….but when the subject of Teach For America came up, all of a sudden almost half the board is willing to pay $5,000 more plus salary for a TFA teacher. I can not wrap my head around this. How can a system claim it is hard to find “quality” teachers when the RPS website claims zero openings?”

Teacher, parent and public school advocate Rachel Levy posted on her own blog that she had problems receiving a timely response from the Richmond Public School systems when she applied for an ESOL position. She was ultimately notified that a position might be available, but the reply came so late in the season — a month after school had started — that she had already accepted a position at another school.

“The problem there is not lack of “creativity” or lack of qualified applicants; it’s lack of competence, disorder, and a lack of, um, hiring. TFA’s presence won’t change that.”

Kirsten Gray said, “I believe change in the Richmond Public Schools needs to start with the people, not from above in the form of Corporate Reform. We know what works in this city, but it is a slow process, one chosen by the people. Look how many good elementary schools we have compared to just over a decade ago. Look how long our alternative schools such as Open High School and Community High School have been around. … These schools did not form out of corporate interests. This organization [TFA] is being used as a tool of the privatization movement.”

Kirsten added that when you looked at the rush of local events, it was hard not to see a concerted push toward privatization. She said that a Style Weekly piece recently noted public school closures and the possible inclusion of additional Charter schools.

“This is not sheer coincidence. It is happening in other cities… All of the measures that have been implemented so far have been fought against in the General Assembly by citizens and organizations such as the PTA.”

Public school advocate Sarah Radcliffe Gross added, “TFA teachers are not the answer for our hard-to-staff schools and most challenging students. But they are an easy out for a school board bent on reforms– for the sake of reforms.” Richmond’s public schools need strong committed teachers and leadership determined to address the needs of all students, but contracting to hire a revolving door of less qualified personnel from Teach For America barely gives the appearance of solving problems.

It does, however, assist a deeply conservative agenda that seeks to deconstruct our public school system -one teacher at a time.

Elementary School Magic

Overby-Sheppard Elementary School

(Updated below)

Here’s a magic trick. Tear down an old school (in this case Overby-Sheppard Elementary School in Richmond), build a new one in its place using nearly all allocated capital ground funds for school improvements across the city, and argue that this will help everyone in the entire school system. Magic, right?

It’s the kind of trick School Board members Glen Sturtevant, Kimberly B. Gray, Kristen N. Larson and Mamie Taylor don’t think the Richmond City Council should get away with.

The problem is relatively simple. Out of a 22 million dollar budget, 21 million dollars is going to rebuild one school, while all the remaining schools must somehow manage on what remains.

In an open letter to the council, the group of school board members wrote:
“… on Monday night you allocated less than $1 million for the facility needs of 50 schools and $21 million for the Dove Court School.”
….
“The allocation of the Dove School project is at the expense of the vast needs of our other 50 school buildings and the remaining 23,000 students that occupy those buildings ….”

The letter was necessary, says Kristen Larson speaking with Richmond Magazine reporter, Chris Dovi, in light of the state of the district’s other buildings. She noted that the currently proposed capital budget for schools works out to about $43 per child – a pittance.

And there are relatively dramatic needs that go well beyond the Overby-Sheppard Elementary School: a collapsed ceiling at Carver Elementary, holes in the roof at Fairfield Court Elementary, and exposed, overheating pipes at George Mason Elementary that gave one student there second-degree burns when he accidentally leaned against one.

“So if something breaks at Westover Hills [Elementary], I’m basically going to have to show up with my checkbook,” Larson told Richmond Magazine. “Westover Hills is slated to get a new roof in 2014 at a cost of about $400,000. What am I going to do if something happens?”

It’s not like this information should take City Council by surprise. Three facilities studies have been conducted over the past 10 years to help keep City Council members abreast of the current infrastructure needs for the school system. Studies they have apparently chosen to ignore.

For example, Overby-Sheppard opened in 1978 and is relatively young by the standards of the city’s public schools. Carver Elementary, conversely, dates back to 1886. Forty-one other schools were built prior to 1970. Only seven schools have been built since Overby-Sheppard. In the district’s maintenance plan, it ranks 22nd of 27 elementary school buildings in terms of expected building needs.

Michael Paul Williams writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch was even more pointed:

“Whatever the objective behind the push to demolish and replace Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, it comes down to an indefensible case of preferential treatment.”

“The Richmond City Council — in allocating $21 million to rebuild a relatively new facility in better condition than the vast majority of Richmond’s public schools — has decided that the middle-class families it hopes to lure to a new Dove Court-area development count more than the children in deteriorating school buildings in other neighborhoods.”

The full letter to the council is linked here.
Infrastructure plans can be found at this link.

Update:

Kirsten Gray spoke to City Council last night regarding the school budget. These were her comments:

“Good evening. I am Kirsten Gray speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Progressive Values.

APV acknowledges the good work of the School Board and their efforts to balance the budget and close an 11.5 million dollar gap.

In February, we urged the School Board to ask the city for additional funds to cover any shortfall, and they have done so. But that is not enough. The school’s basic needs still have not been met.

In support of our city schools, we ask you, our city council, to allocate more money to Richmond Public Schools – the $25 million dollars for facility maintenance needed for the upcoming year, and the $8 million requested by the School Board for programming needs.

We question the Dove Court School project.

Why tear down Overby-Sheppard, slated for cosmetic repairs only, to build a new school costing $21 million when we have 50 schools needing $25 million in maintenance and repairs? A collapsed ceiling at Carver, mystery black substance leaking into classrooms at Fairfield Court and Thompson, overheating exposed pipes at Mason which caused a student’s second degree burns, and that’s only to mention a few. Ginter Park alone needs $1 million in upgrades to remain open. To give 50 schools $500,000 for maintenance is unjust and an insult.

In addition to our schools being in disrepair, we have a supply and staff shortage. My daughter’s 9th grade language class has 15 books for 38 students and not enough desks to go around. From the guidance department, I hear they lack paper. In an elective course, there may be over 30 students, half with Individualized Education Programs and only one teacher – no aides.

We are talking about basics here, a sound roof over students’ heads, books and desks for every student, and a school fully staffed so that teachers can do their jobs and students can learn. These are needs, not wants, of our city’s schools, and until those needs are met, rebuilding a school that doesn’t need it doesn’t make sense.

You might say the Dove Court School is a done deal, however, if the city is willing to front and shuffle money at a moment’s notice for the Redskins, certainly you are capable of reallocating funds to cover the needs of the city’s students.”

A little Memorial Day history

The cemetery had been built on the grounds of the Race Course by two dozen men, groups that identified themselves as the “Friends of the Martyrs” and the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.”

Memorial Day- how former slaves reburied the Union dead for our first memorial day – Podcast

According to The Charleston Post and Courier, on a Monday morning, May, 1865, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there and were buried in mass graves…

For two weeks in April, former slaves worked to re-inter the Union soldiers in proper individual graves. On May 1, 1865, they sought to give them a proper funeral. The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing “John Brown’s Body.” Former slave children strew flowers on the graves as they walked past. After “John Brown’s Body,” they sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Round the Flag.” By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.

Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865 — they called it Decoration Day, but on that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.

~~~~~

Jack Johnson’s podcasts are a wealth of information in the tradition of “the first grassroots media project of its kind on the internet”. APV thanks Jack, as always, and we hope you will continue to enjoy his series, Hidden Histories.
DCKennedy

National Teacher Appreciation Week – Last Call

Today is the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week for 2012, but it shouldn’t end. Our teachers earn appreciation from the American people every day. Collectively, they shape our nation and the world, preparing us for every crisis on earth. Individually, they do everything from wiping runny noses and spending their own money on school supplies, to forfeiting more gainful careers for a life of helping the rest of us improve ourselves. I think there is no calling more noble or worthy of our constant praise than that which falls to the devoted teachers who enrich our lives – all year, every year – in every imaginable way.

In recent years, with the help of  ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, our school system has been under attack like never before in our country. So much blame has been placed on our hard-working, dedicated educators it is ridiculous. It comes from misinformation and faulty logic, and it’s just as wrong as saying all parents are to blame for failures in the school system, so we need to demonize parenting.

To honor our teachers this year, take a close look at what’s really happening with education.

Why Isn’t Closing 40 Philadelphia Public Schools National News?

So the carving up of Philadelphia public schools IS a national story. It’s just one that corporate media won’t tell. Not in Philly, not in LA, not in Kansas City or anywhere, for fear that ordinary people might try to write themselves into a leading role. Polls show that the American people don’t want their schools privatized, and don’t believe education should be run by business people like a business. People want to take the money we spend on wars and bailouts and use it on education. Telling the story might give people the notion that the ultimate power is in their hands, not of mayors and chambers of commerce or the so-called “CEOs” of school system. It’s time that story was told, and more of us heard it.

Changing the way we educate America’s students is a priority for three groups – parents, educators and corporatist-neoliberals. And the legislation to change our system is being pushed through by the wrong group – the ones who want to implement their corporate control fantasies. Every benefit of a school system that actually educates the people flies in the face of their profit-driven goals.

They’ve done their best to ruin our schools through neglect, defunding, the demonization of good teachers and by eliminating the protections that allow them to keep teaching. So much disinformation has been spread about it that many good-hearted American parents can only see their children as the “trees”, and are helping to burn down the forest for every American student to come.

Privatization, vouchers, choice, corporate scholarships, internet education – it’s all about neoliberals deconstructing the public good. They want it; they want to control it; they want to sell it; and eventually, they will decide who is entitled to it. What they’re doing is typical: 1) break it 2) get paid to privatize and rebuild it 3) and then funnel the money up to the top. It’s always the same pattern for these people. You can see it in everything they do.

What Matt Taibbi so aptly said about Goldman Sachs applies to neoliberalism in general: It’s “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

We’re turning the education of America’s children over to the same group – the likes of Goldman Sachs – who destroyed our economy with impunity. They’ve already come so far with higher education that extreme personal indebtedness now stunts the beginning of independent life for most students who graduate from college. And typically, they pushed through legislation to remove all the reasonable American protections against bankruptcy and credit abusers for these same students.

Will a Young Generation’s Dreams Be Rescued – Or Bundled and Sold On Wall Street?
Jobless or overextended college graduates aren’t even allowed to declare bankruptcy – a privilege that’s extended to every reckless investor and mismanaged corporation in the nation. Once they finally find work, college graduates face years of garnished wages to repay the loans that funded their often-overpriced educations. If they haven’t repaid that debt by the time they grow old – a very real possibility at the cost of a college education today – they’ll even be forced to surrender part of their Social Security benefits.

That’s indentured servitude.

Meanwhile banks have been slicing and dicing student loans into derivative financial instruments called “SLABS” – student-loan asset backed securities. We’ve seen this movie before – the one where big banks mass-market loans to a population with stagnated wages and dwindling economic prospects, then bundle them and sell them to investors who haven’t reviewed the way they were underwritten and sold.

SLABS for Wall Street investors are a big red flag waving in our faces. And when they jack up the interest and cut the grants while increasing the salaries of college presidents, it’s neoliberalism and it’s not going to end well for the American people.

As neoliberals find it reasonable to cut food money from hungry people – which is what they are doing now, how long will it be before they refuse tuition loans to anyone who might be a financial risk? This brand of corporate interference is what has happened to healthcare, the Post Office, the prison system – and everything else their blood funnels have jammed into … and it’s a long list. It always starts with “breaking” something they want to take from the public good to be controlled by corporate players for maximum profit.

While America still has the finest educators in the world, why aren’t we listening to their advice about the needed changes for our education system? This opinion by Chris Hedges from last year is the best answer I’ve found to that question. Please read it. Our teachers have earned and deserve America’s wholehearted protection in the fight for better education, last week, next week, every week … they simply are not the culprits.

Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

~~~~~~

Off topic, here, but to drive the point home, consider another recent and shocking example of planned privatization. Last year, the Chief Economist at Citigroup, Willem Buiter, announced a similar neoliberal vision for our drinking water!

“I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments—puts, calls, swaps—both exchange-traded and OTC will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”

Chris Saladino: “This only has the worst possible outcomes. The attempts at water privatization have so far created far more problems than solutions and in most cases have actually failed. To make it worse, this kind of corporate intervention in yet another essential component of human survival has been just as unfairly dominated as food, health care, and energy.

The Cochabamba riots in Bolivia are a telling and frightening case study. The police actually arrested people for illegally collecting rain water. It’s just a bit too much like the fear of Jack T. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove…”
Water Privatization Case Study:
Cochabamba, Bolivia (pdf)

We thank our new APV member, Chris Saladino, Professor of International Studies at VCU, for commenting on the privatization of fresh water and look forward to more of his contributions in the future!
DCKennedy

Teach your children well – Hearts and Minds

Crosby Stills Nash and Young
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.

I found a safety pin in the carpet and remember being surprised and delighted when I got it open. I used it to scratch the paint off the face of my sister’s new dolly. After the tear fest that followed her outrage, torrents of Bible verses and lectures about jealousy fell on my young ears and then Daddy got home to teach me several other consequences of destructive behavior. I remember it well.

Feelings about fairness are rooted in every social problem.

A sense of fairness, whether innate or learned, is something I imagine most parents attempt to highlight in their children, and learning to respect the property of others is basic. Understanding why we wouldn’t is more subjective, requires empathy and addresses the feelings of persons negatively affected. When authoritative consequences drive home the point that punishment follows for those who disobey the law, it only works if the laws are understood, reflect society’s morals and ethics, and if the punishment is applied fairly across the board.

“Do as I say, not as I do” and “Do what I say without question” are old style authoritarianism, ineffective leadership, and not the least bit democratic. We need to get that mentality out of our government. When the American people react en mass out of feelings of unfairness, we don’t need to have the sin spanked out of us. We need representatives willing to listen first, ask and answer questions, and attend to our needs – whatever we say our needs are. Their secrecy and the favoritism they show to corporations is abhorrent. They need to keep their religion to themselves and legislate in fairness with the hearts and minds of the people as their priority. That could begin with laws that respect the peoples’ property.

When young lessons are twisted up in a mix of religious and economic self-righteousness, the result is confusion, then anger, then rage. The same goes for a nation with laws that allow corporations to abuse or destroy our property while others are subjected to jail time.

If my factory emissions cause your emphazima, loss of employment and homelessness, even death – that’s too bad. Illness, cancer, toxic waste, the destruction of our environment – it’s all the same. Erin Brockovich was popular because our hearts and minds were with her in a desperate struggle to right a wrong, but the rarity of her success is what made it a story.

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

It’s role reversal. The people are the teachers, not the government. And the parents of America’s children have their hands full trying to convey that message, I’m sure. It must be tough, for example, teaching children that their bodies are their most precious possessions, to be cared for and treated with respect by all. This, at the same time the state of Virginia among others have the audacity to force medical procedures on unwilling women for a purpose clearly not covered in the law – a future mandate for women to endure unplanned pregnancy and bear unwanted children.

Another thing I know parents struggle with today, because it’s getting difficult for everyone, is providing and modeling healthy nourishment. Having compromised the standards for the most fundamental requirements of the human body – in favor of corporate profits, government agencies have made a mockery of our basic needs. Body, heart and mind – it takes clean air and water, healthy food.  John Prine suggests,
“Blow up your T.V.
throw away your paper,
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches”.
And while you’re at it, exercise the freedom to make your own spiritual choices. The religious doctrine of others is healthy food for thought and a joy to study and consider – during the process of independent, personal resolve.

I jumped off the track with John Prine, but while I’m here, I’ll say what I’m thinking: there’s nothing reasonable about making smiles illegal. “Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun.” Try explaining that one to your kids, but you might hold off on the drug war. They’ll eventually see through it like everybody this side of “Just say no”, another authoritative instruction from the old school that never worked and never will.

Back to religion – by their very nature, spiritual choices are unregulated; they come through a variety of life and family experiences. Legislation that favors your experience over mine is categorically wrong, but a good example of the confusing religious and economic self-righteousness being dished out by ‘Daddy’ these days.

Among various other discrimination, Virginia’s new adoption law allows state agencies to say, “You may adopt this child if you’re a Christian, but not if you’re a Jew”. If you live in America, have a brain cell and are raising a child, that’s another one that should be difficult to explain, especially for Christians. Subjecting the soft skin of children to the warehousing of orphanages when they deserve, have a right and an opportunity to become a family member in a safe, protective and loving home, is not exactly ‘witnessing’. If I were an orphan under those circumstances, I can’t think of anything that would drive me away from Christians more completely.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

The point is, good parents are what we need and I hold them in the highest esteem. Having the know-how, intuition, courage and stamina to make positives from negatives and prepare young minds for a go at the world ahead is more than I can grasp, but I appreciate them and the challenges they face.

One of the most important lessons in fairness and how our children will work toward it is in our Bill of Rights. The First Amendment enshrines the right to assemble peaceably, to speak freely, and to petition for governmental redress of grievances. In light of what happened at the Capital in Richmond on Saturday during the rally for women’s rights, I’ve wondered how parents are supposed to teach their children to be good citizens who practice healthy, peaceful redress efforts without being afraid or intimidated. (If you don’t know what happened, here’s March 3rd, 2012 – Of Protests and Bitch Slaps, by Jack Johnson, and excellent account of the rally and of the arrests that followed.)

The following is an example of good parenting that I think fits the bill. I saw it earlier today, and don’t know the mom who posted it, but see if you don’t agree that she has the “hearts and minds” of her children in full view of their future and our needs as a nation:

“Since Saturday I have been wondering about an appropriate role in the re-surging women’s rights movement. As I watched civil disobedience play out on Saturday I kept wondering, what can/should I do? What is my role in this?

I am a mom.
I am needed at home.
My life is busy.
You are too.
But…………………..

I sometimes wonder if some elected officials count on us being so busy as to not pay attention to what they do. I am not *that* busy anymore. But what, given the requirements of being a mother, should I be doing?

I am a mother.
I have two daughters.
I will teach.

Today I called the Capitol Tour Desk to inquire about having a picnic with my children on the grounds. I am told that we are allowed to bring food or purchase food at their underground café and eat anywhere on the grounds except inside in the historical part of the building.

I plan to take my girls for a field trip to discuss civil disobedience, democracy, and the women’s rights movement. I may do this more than once and I am putting the intention into the universe that other mothers will feel the strength of this lesson for the next generation. The erosion of personal freedoms is not to be tolerated. This Thursday I plan to sit on the steps in the same spot that the protesters were sitting and bring my laptop with the YouTube video of what happened in that spot.

Think of the tremendous life learning opportunity we have before us to teach the next generation. I am not looking to turn this into anything other than what it is… mothers teaching their children and remaining visible even while handling our busy lives.

I was thinking I might head over there this Thursday a little before lunchtime. Anyone care to join me???”

(That will be tomorrow, March 8, 2012)

~~~~~

DCKennedy

Some News from APV, Virginia:

Today Governor McDonnell signed HB 462 (the Mandatory Ultrasound Bill) into law. We are deeply disappointed by his decision, but not deterred. There is no doubt that our voices have been heard ‘loud and clear’, not just by our representatives, but by the press and therefore the country. We have gotten our message out there. We have been remarkably successful in fighting some of the worst legislation out of the GA this year with the odds against us. We have forged alliances and gathered people who will not forget, and we will continue to build momentum to take this state back. We’re in this for the long haul. Make no mistake, we ARE winning.

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The Invisible Hand Pummeling Public Schools

 

I can’t think of a more despicable or far-reaching example of ideology being forced on Americans than the money-grabbing obsession with dismantling our time-honored public school system. School choice, vouchers, corporate scholarships, educational freedom – call it what you like – the privatization of public schools is a movement on steroids. Every day the states are hit with new bills to aid neoliberals in their goal to educate Americans “their” way. The means to that end vary for different blocs of support, but all roads meet where powerful people control and market information.

A generation or two down this widening road to schools with selective entry and exit for students, religious indoctrination and poorly regulated online learning for the masses, the real people of America, our strength, will rely on the free market crumbs that fall from the learning opportunities available to the elite. Trickledown education is in the making.

Bit by bit, new interpretations change the meanings of our laws. Remember how that happened in Orwell’s Animal Farm?

No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.
No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.
No animal shall kill any other animal without cause.

~~~~~

No public school shall proselytize except by students.

Remember when public schools were not missionary fields? Just yesterday, the Florida Senate advanced a bill to allow prayer led by students. Proponents of religion in schools call this one “a God-given loophole” – peer evangelism. And of course, as religion gains ground in public schools to appease the religious right (a targeted voting bloc), separation of church and state, a main and valid objection to privatization is being overcome. As the separation objection loses its punch, vouchers allowing taxpayer money to be funneled into private schools become six of one, half-dozen of the other.

In How religion is infiltrating public schools, Katherine Stewart highlights this Animal Farm type “modification” made by the Supreme Court differentiating school-sponsored speech from student speech, allowing students to proselytize on federal property.

In New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, South Carolina:

School-sponsored prayers routinely opened and closed assemblies and performances. Religious messages made their way into lesson plans, and religious iconography decorated the walls. Students were punished for minor infractions by being told to write out sentences proclaiming their faith in God.

A number of these activities … appear to be violations of the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution intended to maintain separation between church and state. And the school board admits as much in its proposed settlement of the ACLU case. Yet an even greater number of religious activities in public schools have recently become legal as a result of novel interpretations of the Constitution handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Ironically, had the administration of New Heights been a little smarter, it could have achieved its apparent goal of using the school’s position of authority to spread the word of God among its captive students without running the risk of being sued. Thousands of other schools across the country do just that.

All taxpayers shall contribute to public education unless they don’t.

Diverting funds away from the public schools through vouchers and other means will exacerbate every problem in the system, effectively breaking it. Defunding, attacking teachers and unions, etc., is the means. The golden rule in the neoliberal sweep to privatize the public good is: First, break it. Second, get paid to rebuild it in your own image. Third, funnel the money and benefits up to the top.

Money talks, regulation walks – The Cash Cow for Now  

How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools by investigative journalist Lee Fang, points out the astonishing amount of investment capital flowing into online education. The rush to privatize in this way by businesses and “philanthropists” like the Koch brothers, is pretty transparent. Rupert Murdoch called it “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network (SPN) have been the pivotal organizations aiding in the campaign for virtual schools.

Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. (…)

SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories.

It’s not a leap to assume that when corporations are in control of education, so will be information.

Typical of neoliberal fancy, virtual schools lack regulation and public debate. And without sufficient oversight or quality control, most online learning companies receive the same amount of taxpayer funding per-pupil as brick and mortar schools. Saving on the teacher-to-student ratio, costs for classrooms, transportation, meals, security, equipment, maintenance and other building support staff – and many other expenses associated with traditional learning, the profit margin for virtual education companies is so seductive that obscene amounts of their money is spent to lobby our lawmakers.

“Moe has worked for almost fifteen years at converting the K-12 education system into a cash cow for Wall Street. A veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, he now leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education.” (…)

“In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.
State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish.

Online learning in K-12 schools is still growing explosively, and public support for this arm of privatization is just baffling. Early on, it was promoted for computer literacy and otherwise unavailable courses, but that’s a distant memory. In 2006, Michigan stepped forward to become the 1st state requiring online learning for high school graduation, regardless of need.

If the public has been reticent in its opposition to online education, it may be because information on its success or failure to actually educate is hard to come by and often skewed. Its promotion has been framed to cover the bases, appealing to the voting blocs of rural communities, urban communities, home schoolers, the parents of children with special learning needs, and a myriad of “bully” and other social issues, including student acne. But the bottom line is profit for the few, poor education for the many.

While different issues continue to plague the most basic requirements for virtual schools to actually educate, they are not without some easily understood merit in the cases of some students. But one-third of our high school students drop out, and truancy issues usually precede throwing in the towel. Obama would like for the states to enforce education requirements to age 18. I think that would force many students into online study (a boon for business) where truancy is already a problem for students who have left traditional schools in favor of virtual classes, and where there’s no viable way to track online attendance.

To me, this doesn’t sound like an honest effort to educate; it sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme at the expense of education and the taxpayer:

“By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
(…)
The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.

With retention a problem, some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.
Students need simply to log in to be marked present for the day, according to Agora teachers and administrators.” (emphasis mine)
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

So, yes. Online learning would reduce class sizes in traditional schools. But as the public school system is being privatized, who is that intended to benefit? Corporations! And another neoliberal offering we hear a lot about these days would have the same effect: repealing child labor laws. I think it’s clear that the motive behind these efforts aligns less with the people of America caring for and educating our children, and more with washing our hands of the responsibility. Every relationship of ‘hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship. ~A. Gramsci

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~DCKennedy

Going into 2012

As things settle down after the holidays, we get back into gear by planning for a new year and contemplating the time that’s rushing past us, so I think both of these articles are good.

Why Libertarians Must Deny Climate Change
George Monbiot highlights the dichotomy between the ideology and practice of conservatives dealing with property rights and environmental issues. They can’t have their cake and eat it too. “This is the point at which libertarianism smacks into the wall of gritty reality and crumples like a Coke can.”

In Commemorating Our Soon-to-Be Lost Vernacular, David Sirota thinks of his one-year-old son and considers the loss of a “harrowing 10”. Starting 2012 with a list like this is to say we have our work cut out for us!

Welcome back. I hope your last two weeks were great!

By the way, APV is having a January fund drive to raise $1,000. Click here to see how well we’re doing, and donate if you like!
DCKennedy