Category Archives: Privatization

Our Carceral State

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French philosopher, Michel Foucault once famously argued that society operates as a vast prison. While Foucault’s concerns were with an individual’s freedom constrained in such a system, maybe a more direct analogy to our current situation is how our judiciary and police force is used to control and literally imprison a vast swath of our lower classes.

It is no secret that in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, much of the city’s income was derived from fines and court fees for minor traffic violations, essentially converting area police work from “public safety” officers to revenue collectors. These violations disproportionately fell on poorer individuals and minorities who may not have had the money to keep their hedges trimmed and their vehicles perfectly equipped. In effect, the tickets and citations amount to a regressive tax on members of our society least able to afford it.

In the wake of the Brown killing, Governor Jay Nixon signed a broad municipal court reform bill that capped court revenue and imposed new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill’s sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor. Good. The bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt, said people have the right “not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks … late on a fine for having a taillight out.” He called the current system in place in Ferguson, “taxation by citation.”

“Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops,” Nixon said.

This is all good, too, and certainly the caps on revenue collection by police is a step in the right direction, but in the larger scheme of things, I’m not nearly as sanguine as Governor Nixon is about “cops going back to being ‘cops.’”

…in Southern states groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same.

For one thing, the historical precedent that they might ‘go back’ toward isn’t exactly edifying, especially in Southern states where groups of designated white men would set out on patrols to round up runaway slaves during the antebellum period. The phrase for these men—paddy rollers, or patrollers — has come down to us as patrolmen or patrol officers and it’s not too much a stretch to suggest that in areas of the deep American South their function is much the same; that is, ensuring the safe keeping of property for the wealthy. In the North, police officers often functioned as barriers between the wealthy elites and the immigrant “hordes.” The history of industrialization and unionization in this country is rife with struggles between union supporters and police officers or private firm surrogates operating in their wake (such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency –fun fact, at the height of its existence, the Pinkertons had more agents than the standing army of the United States of America).

We like to think of police officers as neutral arbiters of the law, itself a neutral amalgam of well thought out rules for living, but whether rounding up runaway slaves or busting union organizers, the police have historically found themselves on the side of property owners. What this means in contemporary America is a focus on things like illegal drug use and sale, vehicle violations, public disturbance rules, and zoning laws that disproportionately hit the poorest members of our society first and hardest. If we run back through just the most noteworthy police shootings in the last year (topping 1,000 according to an unofficial list compiled by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/04/08/us/fatal-police-shooting-accounts.html?_r=0), most of the precipitating causes involved minor infractions, expired inspection stickers, broken signal lights, or tail lights, unpaid fines or alimony. Public service, protecting humans from harm to themselves or to others might be a nice ancillary outcome of a police officer doing his job, but it’s not the main event.

In fact, the idea that police are here to protect us is not much more than a happy slogan. In its landmark decision DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution does not impose a duty on the state and local governments to protect the citizens from criminal harm.” The United States Supreme Court, in the 2005 case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales upheld that decision and extended it to include a state or municipality’s police force– codifying what many folks in poorer neighborhoods had long since suspected: neither the state nor the police have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm.

Strictly speaking, the police are law enforcement officers, they are present to make sure the laws as passed by city, county, and state legislators are followed. Towards that end they write tickets, and citations for breaking the law, make arrest and testify in court about their actions. This narrow interpretation of their duties is often clarified in training on the so called ‘public duty’ doctrine that provides that a “governmental entity owes a duty to the public in general, not to any one individual.”

Police are also warned—constantly—to look out for themselves. According to ex-Officer, Seth Stanton, writing in the Atlantic Magazine, “police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance.” Rookie officers are taught what is widely known as the “first rule of law enforcement”: An officer’s overriding goal every day is to go home at the end of their shift. One slogan that is bandied about squad rooms sums up the mind set: “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”

Police are trained to fear the public they are nominally intended to serve. During their training “they are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance.” Writes Stanton, “in most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

“In most police shootings, officers don’t shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid. And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the message that that they should be afraid, that their survival depends on it.”

If you happen to peruse Police Magazine, you’ll find that the majority of the stories are about violence against police—and the weapons or tactics they can use to keep themselves safe. This month’s issue features a large photo of an Armalite AR-10 20-Inch Tactical Rifle that was initially designed for the US military. To drive home the point, Police magazine’s logo shows the O in policeman segregated by cross hairs, like a target.

Of course, in addition to the protect-thyself-first attitude, there’s also an underlying racial bias; probably because police officers fear blacks more than whites. In 2015, The Washington Post documented 990 fatal shootings by police, 93 of which involved people who were unarmed. “Black men accounted for about 40 percent of the unarmed people fatally shot by police and, when adjusted by population, were seven times as likely as unarmed white men to die from police gunfire.”

“The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal justice researcher at the University of Louisville and one of the report’s authors. “This just bolsters our confidence that there is some sort of implicit bias going on,” Nix said. “Officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.”

The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black…

The report noted that officers may unconsciously develop biases over time. “In other words, the police — who are trained in the first place to be suspicious — become conditioned to view minorities with added suspicion,” according to the report.

So we have a fearful police force, over trained for self-protection with an underlying bias against minorities whose main job is not to protect citizens but to enforce legal codes that order society for the benefit of property owners (that will likely make a poor person’s life more difficult). Add to the brew, the over militarization of our police force (do we really need armored tanks on civilian streets?) and the fact that most police officer shootings are investigated by the police departments themselves and it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how deeply dysfunctional the whole shebang is. I had one friend suggest that, given the stress our minority communities are under, it was surprising incidents like Dallas hadn’t happened more frequently.

But they haven’t– and perhaps that’s a testimony to what many police departments are coming to recognize—the necessity for retraining and community engagement. In fact, it’s a sad irony that the Dallas Police department has done an exceptional job in just this area. It’s obvious that Police Chief David Brown –whose own life is rife with personal tragedy—is dedicated to a community outreach program. Just hours before the killings began last Thursday night in Dallas, his officers took time to chat with protesters, even taking selfies with them.

“We saw police officers shaking hands and giving high fives and hugging people and being really in the moment with us,” demonstrator Sharay Santora said.

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting. All of this should tell us that police forces in this country are as diverse as their leaders and the communities that they serve. Our own city, Richmond, Virginia, much like Dallas, has done excellent work in reaching out to the various communities here—including, surprisingly, the LGBT community. So it’s not hopeless, but no one solution will fit all the municipalities across the nation, and maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how well our expectations of police service match the reality? After all, as Chief Brown has noted, “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve”

But then the shooting began, and, as if granted permission, police departments like those in Baton Rouge quickly reverted to form and began arresting activists on private property without cause or due process, much less warrants. In fact, they arrested the individual who provided video evidence of the Alton Sterling shooting

Many of our poor neighborhoods have a nearly round the clock police presence—from squad cars anyhow. Police appear, write up infractions, and arrest vagrants, keep an eye on shifty characters, “gangbangers” and the like. They do what they are trained to do. But the result isn’t a working society. The result, as I suggested in the beginning of this essay, is a carceral state.

Right now, if you are an Afro-American male, your odds of being in jail at some point in your life are 1 in 3. I doubt this is because 1 in 3 Afro-American males are genetically predisposed to periodic episodes of violence and criminal behavior. More likely, it has to do with the incredible dearth of job prospects made infinitely worse by a rap sheet and applying while black.

Police officers can’t solve that problem. They aren’t social workers or teachers or medical service personnel, as Brown correctly points out—but the nature of the system we have put in place allows all the problems of our society to flow downward to the cop on the beat whose one job is to enforce the law, but who we mistakenly believe can somehow catch all the detritus of a dysfunctional system and keep it working.

In Michel Foucault’s famous work, Discipline and Punishment, the ruling metaphor is society as a vast prison; a kind of panoptic nightmare—a word derived from Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon which was a prison designed so that every cell is view-able from a raised central location, like a watchtower plunked into the middle of a cell block. The point was to understand and react to the behavior of the individuals in the surrounding cells so as to control them. But even at this rudimentary level we are failing, for it’s obvious we don’t understand the individuals caught in our system and we aren’t really controlling behavior, we’re merely holding them in our prison cells precisely because we don’t know what else to do with them.

You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell.

Our criminal justice system is trying to repair something it simply isn’t equipped to mend. You can’t fix a mental health problem with an AR-10, any more than you can fix homelessness with a traffic citation, or drug abuse with an armored vehicle, or unemployment with a prison cell. Perhaps if we, as a society, decided that the carceral state was a bad idea; if we decided, instead, to fund jobs programs and provide secure housing for those in need, if, indeed, we provided drug treatment programs instead of felony convictions we might resolve many problems before they become statistics. We can tinker with police community outreach, provide stricter guidelines for engagement and the use of force and institute better ways of policing the police (oh, please let us have a uniform standard for conduct and an external agencies that review police shooting across the nation), but in the end the panacea we are looking for won’t come from a guy or gal on the beat– with or without a gun. They will come from providing adequate resources to all our public workers,  developing jobs programs and training for individuals from all walks of life, and from our own personal engagement with the community in which we live. Maybe it’s time to stop looking to the police to solve the problems of our deeply dysfunctional system. Rather, we should restructure the system so we don’t need the police—or not nearly as much. Maybe it’s time we all signed up.

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I Was an Eighth Grade Communist (and Other Reasons to Vote for Bernie Sanders)

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This really happened. In the eighth grade, prodded by Ms. Spiver, an enthusiastic teacher with an enlightened vision for an open classroom, I had the opportunity to research different governing systems.  I chose communism because the name sounded cool and appeared to frighten everyone. I read about Marx and Lenin and the proletariat of the state and the main idea which I glommed  was to ensure everyone’s basic needs were met. This seemed grand, generous and even beautiful. I quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica at length, and with a flourish, scribbled out three pages in long hand, ending the paper with a makeshift version of the iconic hammer and sickle.

I thought Ms. Spiver would be proud.

The next day I was called into a parent/teachers conference.  This was in Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976 when the rabid anti-communist Senator Jesse Helms graced the Channel six news editorial spot which my father listened to every. single. night.

Ms. Spiver was all ‘tender mercies!’ and ‘Lord child!’ and ‘where did you get such ideas?’ and I wasn’t sure if she was as concerned about my paper and my education as the possibility that Mr. Creigh, who  substituted as an insurance agent on days when he wasn’t playing the principal, might take serious offense. But I explained, and even defended as best I could the idea of equality, and everyone getting what they needed, these all seemed like fine goals. What was the problem?  Ms. Spiver, to her credit, did not try to correct my initial interpretation, but merely advised that my opinion on the matter was somewhat out of step with the adult population of Raleigh, North Carolina circa 1976. Mom and dad ushered me home, silent in their Buick. Dad finally parked the car in the lot and turned and proceeded to give me the low down. “Communists are bad because they represent a totalitarian system. They don’t allow freedom.  You understand?”

I nodded my head.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”  That sounded like something to avoid. And the tone in my father’s voice was enough for me to forget my flirtation with alternate political systems until high school when we began looking at the social democratic governments, and I found myself once again intrigued by the idea that a government would be based on people getting what they absolutely needed; regardless of their jobs, social stations or life situations.

Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, to a lesser extent, Germany and Spain. If all these countries pursued such programs, why didn’t we?

My father, with the patience of Job, once again explained what he thought should have been obvious.

“What if I just gave you a dollar every week instead of letting you earn a dollar by mowing the lawn? Hmmmm?”

“I’d have a dollar but I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn.”

Yes, he conceded, okay, but that’s not the point. The point is if you give people something for nothing they’ll take advantage of it. Like all those welfare queens.

By this time, Ronald Reagan was running for high office and was denouncing shady welfare queens that rode around in Cadillacs and bought caviar with tax payer’s money. This activity rankled the hell out of Jesse Helms who never missed an opportunity to denounce the welfare moochers.

Do you want to be a welfare queen?

I decidedly did not want to be a welfare queen. I gathered from my father’s tone that I was not supposed to like the idea of riding around in a Cadillac, eating caviar at the tax payers’ expense, no matter how much fun it might appear.

By the time I entered college, Reagan was in his second term. Taxes had been slashed and the poorer residents of mental homes were dumped onto the city streets.  Despite the loss of tax revenue, billions were being funneled into such patently absurd pursuits as an armed space shield; a so called ‘star wars’  shield that would provide cover for the Western Hemisphere by shooting down missiles aimed to blow up our cities. Since there were none and since billions were being funneled into a useless and unworkable program while the homeless and mentally handicapped were left to fend for themselves, (many times I stood in line with them at the local 7-Eleven), I wrote a few college paper editorials suggesting this kind of activity was ill-advised. I proudly signed my name.

My college Spanish teacher, a middle aged Cuban exile, caught up with me one day.

“I have read what you have written,” she whispered, “You are part of this nuclear freeze movement, too, no?”

“Yes.” I said. Sure I was. Who wouldn’t  be opposed to nuclear weapons lying around waiting to obliterate the world 200 times over?

“Are you a communista?”

Of course I wasn’t a communista! What had that to do with the nuclear freeze movement? But, for her, the nuclear freeze movement was loaded with fellow travelers and communist sympathizers and what not. I tried to ease her mind by telling her I wasn’t a communist, closer to a  democratic socialist, really. This did not appear to help matters.

“You know I come from Cuba. There, when Castro came to power, he forced my family into exile. We had a mansion and servants in Cuba, but when I came to this land, I had to cut my hair and sell it, just to survive. Can you imagine?”

I really couldn’t. “So you were very rich,” I said, “That must have been nice.”

“They stole everything!”

“Right. But now Cuba has much better infant mortality and death rates. It has one of the best medical systems even by Western standards. Cuban doctors help poor people all over the world.”

“So you are a communista!”

“No, I’m not. If I’m anything, I’m a social democrat, like in Finland.”

“It’s the same.”

“No, they’re really different.”

And so I went on to explain to her that one could be a social democrat without falling in lockstep with state run economies like in Cuba or the Soviet Union.  In fact, one of the best examples of social democracy operates as the capitalist heart of Europe: Germany. “They have what they like to refer to as a social market economy. They try to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system. You can get a free education, even free higher education, free healthcare and free retirement. Some of your basic essentials are guaranteed by the government, but other stuff, like where you work or what you make is dictated by a private sector economy. Of course, you pay taxes for these things, but the government operates to redistribute the money so it benefits everyone. That is social democracy in a nutshell.”

“It will never work,” she advised me, predicting Germany’s downfall by the end of the decade.

That was 1987. Germany’s still around. It’s 2015. Germany still provides free healthcare, free retirement and free higher education and it is still one of the strongest economies in Europe.  Our economy, conversely, is dogged by huge gaps of inequality, a dysfunctional healthcare system moderately improved by the ACA, insanely expensive higher education costs, and a retirement system whose paltry offerings are even now threatened by reactionary politicians. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Our homicide rate is one of the highest. Our infant mortality rate is higher than Cuba’s and is comparable to Serbia. You read that right, Serbia. None of these things are natural or necessary. They are by design because we refuse to grow up like the rest of the civilized Western world and insist on the fairy tale version of capitalism that doesn’t require any funding for public infrastructure or social services beyond the absolute bare essentials. The only thing we want to pour money into is our vastly over sized military which has caused many more problems in the last few decades than it has solved.

The  majority of the Western industrialized world embraces some form of socialized democracy. In our own country the most successful government programs are inherently socialized: Medicare, Social Security. And, of course, our own Defense Department is an almost entirely socialized bureaucracy.  We have patches of socialism all over the place, but the rightwing has done an excellent job demonizing the term. In fact, the last time someone claiming to be a socialist ran for President was nearly a 100 years ago.   His name was Eugene V. Debs. He famously said when he was convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1918, that “while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Ringing words that beautifully encapsulate a social democrat’s world view.

It’s become increasingly obvious that a strictly free market agenda is disastrous for a people and an economy. One only need look at Kansas under Brownback’s ideological leadership. The state’s surplus has been turned into a catastrophic black hole of debt through a combination of tax cuts for the wealthiest and slashing of public funds. One could see the same disastrous pile up under George W. Bush’s leadership.

The Spanish teacher who accused me of being a communist told me that I needed to ‘grow up.’ The nice thing about Bernie Sanders candidacy is that it  is already grown up.  It assumes responsibility for everyone in the nation, not just those that manage to make the cover of Forbes.  He has tirelessly advocated for the poor and the underclass and, unlike the vast majority of American politicians, assumes it’s okay to travel coach class.  But don’t take it from me that Sanders knows what he’s talking about or that social democracy is a mature governing principle. Take it from that flagship of capitalism, the Economist. In a 2013 article, that magazine declared the social democratic Scandinavian countries, “probably the best governed in the world.”

So there’s no need to carry on with this charade that the ‘socialist’ option cannot win.  We can. Actually, in many areas, we already have. Si, se puede, baby. The only real question is, how soon before the rest of us grow up?

City for Sale! Everything Must Go!

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The main event in Richmond last Monday wasn’t, as one might suspect, at the National, nor at the Mosque, nor even the Diamond where the Squirrels played baseball well past 9 p. m. No, if you wanted real entertainment Monday evening in this ex-capital of the Confederacy, nothing could beat the exquisite interplay of egos and angst, and downright old town villainy that was on display at City Council Monday eve.

At issue was a resolution put forward by the council at the behest of Mayor Dwight Jones and certain powers behind the scene (hint: VCU) that wanted to ‘better’ Monroe Park. The idea was to lease Monroe Park (the city’s oldest park) to an entity called the Monroe Park Conservancy and thus create a private/public partnership with 3 million coming from the city and another 3 million that the Conservancy will “attempt to raise from private sources” to spruce up the place. The lease would run for 30 years. Sounds great, except the lease, that is the money the city would get out of this act of singular munificence runs to—wait for it –one dollar a year. Let’s repeat that for those of you just joining us: that’s one dollar a year, for thirty years. Or, thirty bucks. Or the price of a dinner for two at one of Richmond’s less stellar establishments. Without a bottle of wine, either.

So city real estate, assessed at 9 million dollars, or so, is leased to a private conservancy in a deal that will net the city exactly -2,999,970. Note that this is a negative figure.

There’s more, of course. The Checkers House which will be renovated to accommodate a restaurant/cafe will in turn be rented out….and that rent (possibly $100,000.00 or more per year) will not go to the city to help pay off the 3 million the city chipped in for renovations, but rather, it will go to –wait for it– the Monroe Park Conservancy! And no, even though the Conservancy will be sitting on real estate valued at 9 million dollars, it will pay exactly zero (0) in property taxes back to the city. Now, in all fairness, Mayor Jones, in a rare display of fiscal sanity, actually tried to work property taxes into the deal, but VCU, et. al. said ‘meh’ and so sadly, he folded because there was no other entity besides the Monroe Park Conservancy that would happily take such a deal, right?

Well, no. That’s not right, either, actually. There are probably hundreds of entities that would take such a deal. I would, for example. So would Enrich Richmond. So would Renew Richmond. So would activist, Mo Karnage, who tried to put in a bid on the park to delay the vote. The competing bid(s) for Richmond’s oldest park were all summarily rejected without explanation or notable delay. So there is the faint whiff of a sweetheart deal here, which, of course, tends to embolden activists. Or, just citizens concerned that the city is selling their public wares off faster than a street hooker who has decided to pay a really high price for the privilege of getting screwed.

Nevertheless, City Council President Charles Samuels assured everyone at the meeting that the park will remain open for all. As a passing note, Samuels is the district councilman for the park and he co-patroned the resolution to lease Monroe Park to the Conservancy along with Mayor Dwight Jones who is, yes, on the Board of the Conservancy himself, soon to be joined by councilman Samuels, if he so chooses. Funny how all this works out.

Despite such assurances from Samuels about public ‘openness’, the writing on the wall (and in the lease) is not nearly so blithe. The Conservancy will establish a list of “acceptable activities” in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit to pursue said “acceptable activities” which costs $35 per event/activity. The Food Not Bombs folks, represented by activists like Mo Karnage, who regularly feed the homeless in the park, are not especially rich and $35 a pop to do volunteer work in a quasi-public park is not exactly a step in the right direction for them. That is, of course, if the Conservancy views their humanitarian efforts as an “acceptable activity” which it may very well not do because many on the board consider the presence of the homeless in the park to be a “security issue”; one of the main reasons for establishing the Conservancy in the first place.

Now, if you were to read the press accounts of these events you would be forgiven for taking a dim view of the activists who were reported to have ‘disturbed’ and ‘frustrated’ the smooth running of our erstwhile Democracy. Here’s Channel 8’s big takeaway: “Richmond City Council was supposed to vote on the future of Monroe Park, but people continued disrupting because they didn’t like the plan. Things got so out of order that at one point, council members got up and walked out.” Right. And the reason for this unruly disturbance of order? “All the commotion stemmed from disagreement over a plan to allow a non-profit to manage Monroe Park. People against the ordinance are worried about what will happen to the homeless people who live in the park.” Well, yes, that and the fact that the city is once again involved in an alliance with private entities to strip away control of public property for the satisfaction of the already quite well to do; and they are using approximately 3 million dollars worth of public funds to do it. And the fact that the City of Richmond apparently has yet to have a successful audit of property it’s already leasing and may be as much as a million dollars or more in the hole. And that the Mayor’s budget cuts the city parks’ budget by 7%. And that every single public commentator allowed to speak was against it, including ex-council person Martin Jewel who said, “You are creating an environment in which the people will revolt… And I’m going to join them.”

Activists shouted, one person was handcuffed and dragged away. Disruptions occurred throughout the meeting. Mo called council person Samuels a dingo or dingus when he tried to cut off her public comment, and council person Mosby pleaded for the attendees to show more respect, accusing them of wanting people in Richmond to remain homeless; which honestly made no sense at all. Not that the rest of the meeting was a profile in lucidity.

In the end, none of it mattered. City Council finally went on to approve the plan. Unanimously, I might add (which brings up another oddity: why were there no dissenting votes? Not one?)

At any rate, the evening was quite entertaining, in a gallows way, for a Monday, that is; a kind of opéra bouffe which was much better than the Squirrel’s game, whose stadium, by the way, the Mayor wants to move to Shockoe Bottom through another public/private partnership, I hear. Yes, Virginia, there are many people making money on these deals, but it’s not the City of Richmond.

So, maybe in lieu of all these ideas about private partnerships taking over our historic urban parks and plunking stadiums on slave auction sites and slave jails and draining our public coffers for the benefit of a very few, maybe we could just sell tickets to City Council meetings?

Ten dollars a head. Ten dollars and you, too, can bear witness to great theatrics, deep lessons on human greed and venality and cowardice. All in one night.

Now there’s a public/private partnership I could get behind.

~Jack R. Johnson

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.

Intelligence Gathering 101: Ask the Right Questions

NSA-PRISM

A long time ago, before 9/11, analysts working for the NSA used to quip that the letters stood for “No Such Agency.” Their veil of secrecy was the counterpoint to what they did for years which was to lift the veil of secrecy on everybody else. The aborted program that John Poindexter put forward shortly after 9/11 was slapped down, probably for being too honest about its premise, as honest as the NSA ever is. They called the program ‘Total Information Awareness’ and the image that represented it on the PowerPoint that hit the web was the Masonic Pyramid with the single all-seeing eye. Although rejected, the NSA pretty much went ahead with the program under a new name: PRISM. In CNN’s latest “thought” piece, a leading question frames Edward Snowden’s release of information regarding the NSA’s PRISM program. It asks whether Snowden is a Traitor or a Hero?

But it’s the wrong question. And Snowden, I feel relatively confident, would be the first to tell you that it’s the wrong question.

Less than a year ago at a Senate hearing, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, nominal director of the hydra-headed National Intelligence Service, another question. “Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” To which Clapper replied: “No, sir.” After a head scratching pause (one helluva tell, I must say) he also added, “Not wittingly.”

At another hearing, General Keith Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., denied fourteen times that the agency had the technical capability to intercept e-mails and other online communications in the United States.
Of course, they were both lying.

Here’s another question. At what point do constraints of secrecy become lies in spy bureaucracies like the NSA or in our government in general?

Let me explain. At least one way the PATRIOT Act can subvert your average American is by forcing them to lie. The Act allows the FBI to not only request your records without a warrant but to forbid the provider of the records from ever revealing that the request was even made. This is 1984 territory: you must tell the truth to us, but you must never tell the truth to anyone else about us. Put less abstractly, it turns librarians and internet company officials into liars and stool pigeons under a legal seal of silence; a kind of legal blackmail. The threat to democracy lies not only in the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process, the rights against self-incrimination and coerced confessions, and other rights that form the backbone of the criminal justice system, but also in eroding freedom of the press, seeing journalists and reporters as “aiding and abetting” the criminal telling of government secrets. Secrets, by the way, that shouldn’t even be secret. Steven King’s assertion that Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian should be jailed for his article on Snowden is but a crude manifestation of the ultimate logic of such ‘rules’.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has known about PRISM for some time and been appalled, but could not speak openly about it because it is classified, and his pleas to fellow senators to do something about it were shamefully deep-sixed by his colleagues.

Here’s yet another question. Who actually benefits from all this ‘intelligence’? The Boston Bomber plot appears to have come off without a hitch, despite multiple emails, Facebook posts, tracking of Jihadi websites and the like. They left a trail your average Cheetos huffing hacker could have tracked with his eyes closed. Yet we have amputees and at least three dead. Hello, NSA? Seems we have a problem. You might make the argument that Osama bin Laden was successfully assassinated thanks to our super surveillance state, only that’s a lie too. His compound was a digital black hole, no internet access from there at all. Why? Because they knew all about electronic intercepts and wisely didn’t believe a word of James Clapper’s testimony. In some ways, the PRISM program is an exercise in intellectual masturbation. One ex-intelligence official, Coleen Rowley, put it succinctly, “it does not make it easier to find a needle in a haystack if you continue to add hay.”

Programs like PRISM and the tautologically named Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD) don’t work because the hard work of analysis to figure what information is relevant and what is dross becomes continuously more difficult and longer with each new scoop of excess data. According to Rowley, “Researchers long ago concluded that the NIMD-type promise of detecting and accurately stopping terrorists through massive data collection was simply not possible.”

So why continue? Because there’s another answer to the question of who benefits from this intelligence.

Consider the following: Roughly 9-10 billion dollars a year are spent on the NSA’s electronic surveillance capabilities. That money doesn’t go to Federal employees however, or at least not the lion’s share. No, the vast majority, about 70% of that kingly sum goes to private firms, like, for example, Booz Allen Hamilton for whom Snowden worked. James Clapper, that magnificently lousy poker player, just happens to be the pioneer who helped Michael Hayden oversee this amazing privatization campaign.

Here’s a little history. According to the Nation, in the late 1990s, faced with a telecommunications and technological revolution that threatened to make the NSA’s telephone and radar-based surveillance skills obsolete, the agency decided to turn to private corporations for many of its technical needs.

The outsourcing plan was finalized in 2000 by a special NSA Advisory Board set up to determine the agency’s future and was codified in a secret report written by a then-obscure intelligence officer named James Clapper.

“Clapper did a one-man study for the NSA Advisory Board,” recalls Ed Loomis, a 40-year NSA veteran who, along with William Binney, Thomas Drake, and J. Kirk Wiebe, blew the whistle on corporate corruption at the NSA.

(By the way, they too are being prosecuted by Eric Holder and the Attorney General’s office.)

“His recommendation was that the NSA acquire its Internet capabilities from the private sector. The idea was, the private sector had the capability and we at NSA didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Hayden, who was the NSA director at the time, “put a lot of trust in the private sector, and a lot of trust in Clapper, because Clapper was his mentor,” added Loomis. And once he got approval, “he was hell-bent on privatization and nothing was going to derail that.”

Clapper, of course, has denounced Snowden’s Guardian leaks as “reprehensible.” He called the disclosures, “literally gut-wrenching” and said they had caused “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence capabilities. But this is dubious at best: Al Qaeda was well aware US intelligence service intercepts. Really, even the extent of domestic spying isn’t a surprise to those of us who have been paying attention.

As the inimitable Charles Pierce has noted, “All Snowden did was tell us what we’d been paying for, and (maybe) remind “our adversaries” to use disposable cellphones, which they could have picked up from any episode of Law And Order after 1995. Maybe we should indict Jack McCoy for treason.”

None of this has to do with ‘effectiveness’ of responding to ‘threats’ or gathering information against those threats. It has to do with the appearance of effectiveness, and, naturally, money. Privatization is an ideology which is also a path to riches for pliant officials–one reason they have such a fervent faith in the free market. And, as with Wall Street, the officials feeding at the trough are entirely bipartisan.

According to the New York Times: “As evidence of the company’s close relationship with government, the Obama administration’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper Jr., is a former Booz Allen executive. The official who held that post in the Bush administration, John M. McConnell, now works for Booz Allen.”

That’s the revolving door in its purest form, flipping between private and public troughs, depending on the party in power. And there’s a lot of money to be made. Last February Booz Allen Hamilton announced two new contracts with Homeland Security, worth a total of $11 billion, for “program management, engineering, technology, business and financial management, and audit support services.”

Yet Booz Allen is only eighth on the list of the top 100 government contractors. Think about that.

Dana Priest and William Arkin conducted an intensive two-year investigation of national security for the Washington Post. They identified 1,931 private companies working in “about 10,000 locations” around the country, with 854,000 of their employees holding top-secret clearances.

They also found enormous redundancy and waste, along with an inability for human beings to effectively absorb and use all the information produced. Analysts were then publishing some 50,000 intelligence reports each year. And since this report was completed nearly three years ago, things can only have grown worse.

The huge drain on public coffers is only one of the downsides of this intelligence behemoth. Another is the lack of accountability when private employees do government work. According to the New York Times:

“The national security apparatus has been more and more privatized and turned over to contractors,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group that studies federal government contracting. “This is something the public is largely unaware of, how more than a million private contractors are cleared to handle highly sensitive matters.” Even the process of granting security clearances is often handled by contractors, allowing companies to grant government security clearances to private sector employees.

All this is significant and should raise concerns, but it’s not the important question. The important question came from a writer named David Foster Wallace who in 2007 began to see the shape of things to come and asked this:

Is it worth it?

“What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”

Wallace goes on to argue that we willingly accept 40,000+ domestic highway deaths each year as the price of a mobility in our society. In terms of concrete deaths for abstract ‘rights’, we appear to love the Second Amendment to such a degree that we’ll accept 30,000+ deaths by guns and still not demand a simple universal process for background checks, much less a gun registry.

Wallace continues: “Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

There was no debate because no one asked permission. Because the relevant agencies kept their program shrouded in secrecy (No Such Agency!), even when their first efforts were soundly rejected. But now we have an opportunity to have this discussion. To answer this last question:

Are we willing to sacrifice our constitution on the altar of a dubious national security state in a pyrrhic effort to feel safe?

The question isn’t whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. The correct question is, what are we?

To Istanbul, with Love

Turkish Uprising

Despite four days worth of intensely concentrated buzz on social media, the Turkish uprising from Gezi park and surrounding Istanbul barely rated a mention in the US mass media market. By Saturday evening, there were more than 200 active demonstrations across 67 Turkish cities, but that only warranted a short flicker on the front of CNN’s website at around 11 o’clock Saturday night, and that was the end of it. The protests were swallowed in the great maw of distraction and neglect that often greets news events on this side of the Atlantic, even if they’re happening here. The Monsanto protests over Memorial Day weekend were equally ignored, for example, despite a great deal of colorful activity. After all, how many demonstrations have bee “die-ins” in the middle of DC, complete with yellow and black striped youth folding over themselves in mock convulsive deaths? How many protests are international in scope, touching over 400 cities in 52 countries across the world? Not to be outdone, the US media equally ignored the Blockupy protests against the ECB in Frankfurt over neoliberal austerity measures, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens converging on one of the oldest cities in the world to defy a ruling party that has tried to turn the last green area of Istanbul into a shopping mall. All three of these events have somehow avoided the attentions of our ever hungry mass media market. All three of these events are also connected in another way: they are all, at bottom, protests against a neoliberal economic order whose ‘free market’ orthodoxy ignores the will of the people.

In their effort to disregard the obvious, the Turkish media has outdone even US media’s best efforts. Turkey’s version of CNN displayed cooking shows and happy penguins while the streets of Istanbul were filled with tear gas and water cannons. The US might be forgiven for not covering the Turkish uprising with as much interest as the protests against the WTO in Seattle, but Turkey can hardly escape blame. Reports of 3G networks being blocked and internet access throttled to a crawl, coupled with a vicious police presence that has killed two and injured thousands– many deliberately—bring to mind the worst acts of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. So much has been used in the way of tear gas and a strange ‘orange’ gas that activists have a new nickname for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan: Chemical Tayyip. In fact, there are reports that the police have used so much tear gas that Istanbul’s police force has had to ship in more from the nearby city of Bursa. As of Sunday evening, June 2nd, the situation escalated and there were reports of live ammunition being fired against activists in Antioch.

The catalyst for the events was a new mall to be built in Gezsi park, one of the last green spaces in Taksim square in the center of Istanbul. But even after days of rioting, Prime Minister Erdogan of the ruling pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), stressed that he would not seek “permission from marauders” to implement the building plans for Taksim. He called the protesters “ideological” and suggested that they were manipulated by the opposition “unable to beat [the government] at the ballot box.”

But that’s more wishful thinking than the full story. As Jason Cassano reports at Jadaliyya.com, Erdogan’s plan for Taksim Square’s redesign is part of an overall neoliberal turn the party has taken. According to Cassano, this protest is the latest manifestation of a movement that has been stirring for some time now.

“The shopping mall is only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center. Mass protests have also taken place recently to stop the closure of the landmark Emek Cinema, located on I.stiklal Avenue off Taksim Square, which is also being converted into (no surprise) a shopping mall.”

The initial seventy or so folks who camped out at Gezi park called themselves a ‘Right to the City’ movement—and what they are, in the best sense of the word, is a Democratic movement to ensure that the people who live in the city and are affected by the machinations of the ruling party, have their voices heard.

“Istanbul’s city center has been undergoing a rapid process of gentrification, especially in the historic neighborhoods of Sulukule, Tarlaba, Tophane, and Fener-Balat, which housed the poor, the immigrants, the Kurds, and the Roma (gypsies). The goal of this so-called urban renewal is to make room for more tourist attractions, or to—at minimum—clean up the neighborhoods, removing working class urban dwellers who might scare off tourists. The idea is that this new and improved city center will attract foreign investment in Istanbul, which is to be further developed into a financial and cultural hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East.”

“In short, it will be reduced to a photo-op for tourists who pass through for five minutes and then continue on with their tax-free shopping.”
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy the Hood in the US could talk in great length about such plans, and how devastating they are to the communities involved.

In addition, the AKP has implemented recent restrictions on the sale of alcohol and certain other Islamic rules regarding dress and even lipstick that stewardesses might wear. Although onerous, it’s only part of what defines the fight in Turkey. In fact, Friday, the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) tried to co-opt the uprising by turning the movement into a symbol of culture wars between a secular youth and an older Islamist generation. But when “CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, came to Gezi Park to speak, protesters sang over him, preventing him from being heard.”

But if it’s not a bunch of environmentalists, and not a secular versus religious/traditionalist struggle, what is it?

The struggle in Turkey is not only about environmentalists concerned with the green space or the manifestation of secular vs. religious tensions, it’s about people of a region controlling the destiny of their public spaces, their commons—controlling if there will, in fact, be any public spaces left, or if every last inch of societal space will be given over to private profit. It’s Occupy Wall Street coming to Istanbul, with love.

Let’s hope Istanbul’s ‘Right To The City’ movement–and the hundreds of thousands of activists that have joined them– holds tough and, in the process of struggling to save Gezi park, they start to transform the way such decisions about urban blight and renewal get made: not just in Turkey, but all around the world.

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

Ground Zero – Benton Harbor

We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back – never. ~ John Steinbeck, America and Americans

What do you think Steinbeck would have to say about Benton Harbor, Michigan? I think he would say democracy is in a tailspin looking at ground zero. Grab the joy stick and pull!

After 9/11, we, as a nation, raised up patriotically and militarily and challenged the entire world against any act that would imperil the American people or the assurances of our democracy.

So, what happened to that?

The people of Benton Harbor have to be wondering where all those patriotic people are today, and the rest of the world must be wondering too. What could ever make democracy expendable in America?

The answer is poverty. Not just any poverty, but the sort that is planned in advance. The takeover of Benton Harbor and the concept of “financial martial law” was implemented by Michigan lawmakers in cooperation with corporate leaders while other local stakeholders organized a public land grab.

Political commentator, Rachel Maddow, a recent recipient of the The John Steinbeck Award, has championed this cause, but the national public outrage it deserves has yet to be seen. Consider what she has to say in this video:

The one thing we seem to hold most dear, that which ensures our freedom, is being considered expendable in Benton Harbor, and the same neoliberal pattern being used to privatize the public good across our nation is clearly observable in the process.

First, break it –

Sucked Down the Whirlpool
Whirlpool, which has its global headquarters in Benton Harbor, has long controlled the city. In 1986, at the behest of business leaders, Benton Harbor was designated as an “Enterprise Zone” to give tax exemptions to the private sector. Whirlpool quickly ate up the exemptions.”

“By 2010, nearly 99 per cent of Benton Harbor residents were receiving food stamps, while Whirlpool reportedly banked more than $18 billion in global annual sales.”

Benton Harbor’s population is 92% African-American and deeply impoverished by the de-industrialization of the city and surrounding area. Whirlpool’s plant shutdown is the most recent, crushing blow as the corporation continues to expand significantly in low-wage plants in Mexico, despite taking $19 million in federal recovery funds. Benton Harbor is plagued by the lowest per capita income in Michigan ($8,965), with 42.6 percent of the population living below the poverty line, including a majority of kids under age 18.”

Get paid to rebuild it in your image –

To skeptics of the redevelopment of Benton Harbor, Whirlpool looks less like a good corporate citizen than another company manipulating the system, leveraging its power to maximize its tax breaks and taking advantage of the town’s access to federal and state grant money. (It’s worth noting that Whirlpool hasn’t paid any federal corporate income taxes in the United States for the last three years (…)
The juxtaposition of Benton Harbor’s impoverished population and its two rising monuments to wealth — all wedged into a little more than four square miles — make it almost a caricature of economic disparity in America.
“I felt almost as if I were at a resort in a third-world Caribbean country: beyond the boundaries of Harbor Shores is the poorest city in all of Michigan. (…)

The contrast is deliberate, part of a strategy of social engineering that’s central to the plan to save Benton Harbor.” (Mahler, NYT)

Then, funnel the money to the top –

Whirlpool’s central role in the town and redevelopment plans has led many Benton Harbor residents to feel that the corporation views them as distinctly disposable and mainly a barrier to their plans.

“It’s being converted into a resort town for wealthy weekenders and Whirlpool employees that, when all is said and done, its struggling black population will either be driven out by the development or reduced to low-wage jobs cleaning hotel rooms, carrying golf bags or cutting grass.”(Mahler, NYT)

If elections and representation are now just a passé sort of thing, tolerated in some places but not in others – fine. We’re set. But if we still value the democratic process that we raised up and swore to protect, the people in Benton Harbor need help. They’ve been stripped of every semblance of democracy and left with no voice of their own.

I think it’s safe to assume that if corporations manipulating our government can successfully take over one little American town by getting democracy out of their way, they will expand that effort and try to “save” the rest of our country in due time.

This is a non-partisan fundamental issue. When powerful people and elected officials of any political persuasion decide to slap our hands and take the democratic process away from us, we have to find the courage to stand up to corrupting power and protect democracy with the utmost vigor.

Harbor Shores Golf Course, Benton Harbor, Michigan (photo, Mark Peterson)

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Prisons, an ALEC forte

If you build it, they will come. ~Justice Policy Institute on prisons

What’s happening to the prison system at the state and federal level is completely over the top and being questioned on both sides of the aisle as seen in the Florida senate last week.

Is it possible that members of the Republican Party are rethinking their extreme neoliberal aims, or are they concerned about re-election as the public becomes more aware of their preference for all things “profit” over the needs and concerns of the American people? Maybe it’s a little of both. But the Florida Senate President sent a clear message to their dissenters when he removed Mike Fasano from the budget panel, took him off the main budget committee, and stripped him of his Senate Budget Committee Chairmanship. All that for opposing the party plans to privatize 27 Florida prisons.

It’s not about housing violent criminals anymore, or saving or creating jobs either. It’s about corporate money and the influence it has in Washington and elsewhere. While the state prison population is in decline, there’s been a 1,700 percent increase in the federal prison budget since 1980.

President Obama’s 2013 budget request cuts Medicare and Medicaid but it adds an additional 4.2 percent increase to the already ridiculous federal prison budget. At this time, that is a gross misuse of scarce federal dollars, especially as they know they’re cutting back on every program and service known to ease the problem. This is another example of the neoliberal mantra: First break it, then get paid to rebuild it in your own image, and funnel the money up to the top.

It’s a clear indication that something is haywire when 6 out of 10 federal prisoners are non-violent drug offenders. Cutting diversion programs that keep kids from entering the corrections system, along with community-based substance abuse and mental health services is a sure-fire way to increase the population prisons are concerned with, and that’s what they’re doing. Evidence-based programs for youth violence prevention, employment, job skills, and education resources for underserved communities have all been on the chopping block. What they’re doing is building more places to put more problems – after they create them. So … why are they doing that? Well, a lot of it has to do with ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Pragmatic men of power have no time or inclination to deal with . . . social morality. ~ Kenneth B. Clark

At the state level, privatization of prisons has spread across the country as ALEC’s secret corporate writers promote “templets” as model legislation for our now seemingly inept legislators. Of course, that process funnels money into political and corporate coffers with no regard for the people at all. To the contrary, the aim appears to be to fill all the prison cells they can build, since many of the laws involve new and innovative ways to do just that.

NCR did a good two-part expose’ last year on the effects of the GEO Group in Texas and Mississippi – the same company that was voted down in the Florida Senate last week. It’s a great account of where we’re headed with ALEC at the helm:

Part one: Town Relies On Troubled Youth Prison For Profits
Part two: Private Prison Promises Leave Texas Towns In Trouble

ALEC Exposed is an August 2011 series by The Nation, something I’m sure everybody will eventually get around to reading as ALEC continues to gain strength and influence. It’s an excellent series of articles – I think it’s in 5 parts. The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor is one part of it and explains, I think, why we have all this conservative focus on prison building and privatization and the subsequent need to fill those prison cells with able bodies. See what you think.

Also, on February 29, Occupy Portland has a call to action targeting corporations that are known leaders and funders of ALEC.

#F29 Shut Down the Corporations

Here’s the official page, and Common Dreams did a good piece on it yesterday:

DCKennedy

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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.

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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