“Lift from the Bottom”—not “Race to the Top”— Is the Moral Imperative

Four years ago I listened as the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined what is wrong with today’s policies that shape the public schools.  His formulation was so pithy and so perfectly pointed at the real problem that I will never forget it.  Here is what he said: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Our deepest problem in public education is not really about some kind of technical solution to a teaching problem. Neither is it primarily a governance problem relating to elected or mayoral-appointed school boards. Neither is it about the advisability or use or administration of standards and tests, though that (very real and problematic) subject is dominating the press right now.  Our great dilemma these days is one of public morality—how we think about ourselves in community—the degree to which we care for one another—whether we address that concern in the public institutions that  serve the whole community not just individuals one at a time.  “‘Lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Blogger and Pennsylvania school teacher Peter Greene captures this reality in a recent and very prophetic blog post: “Charter fans brag about their successes.  They tell the starfish story.  They will occasionally own that their successes are, in fact, about selecting out the strivers, the winners… and allowing them to rise.  And it is no small thing that many students have had an opportunity to rise in a charter setting… Those students are able to rise because the school, like the pilot of a hot air balloon, has shed the ballast, the extra weight that is holding them down. It’s left behind, abandoned.  There’s no plan to go back for it, rescue it somehow.  Just cut it loose.  Let it go.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We dump those students in a public school, but we take the supplies, the resources, the money, and send it on with the students we’ve decided are Worth Saving… This is a societal model based on discarding people.  This is a school model based on discarding students… I repeat: It is no small thing that some students are carried aloft, lifted high among the clouds in that basket of high achievement. But I keep thinking of the ballast.”

The notion of “lifting from the bottom” has historically been at the heart of America’s understanding of public education.  In 1899, philosopher John Dewey declared, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” (The School and Society, p. 1)  Public education has been central to our definition of public responsibility.  We have believed that we are all responsible for the children who are the future citizens and leaders of our democracy—everybody.

That the idea of “race to the top” seems to have replaced the ideal of “lift from the bottom” says something about our culture’s current love affair with individualism and competition. We admire the individuals who win the race, but we don’t worry so much about everybody else. In a piece last week, the Rev. John Thomas, the former president and general minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, describes The Shrinking Public: “One of our great national stories is the flowering of public institutions—public libraries, public parks, public schools, public services, public highways, public office, public transportation, public universities, public health agencies…. Yet today that public is shrinking… Privately operated charter schools replacing closed public schools.  Tax credits for private donations to private schools, financed by public dollars.  Reduced staffing and hours at public libraries.  Rentals of public parks for the exclusive galas of private individuals.  Decaying public infrastructure, especially for public transportation.  Toll roads sold to private enterprises.  Slashed funding for public universities and, in places like Wisconsin, attempts to transform the intellectual underpinnings of higher education with the pinched goal of merely serving the employment needs of private business… Today’s wars are being fought not by a public army but by private contractors like the infamous Blackwater Corporation.  And as is obscenely apparent across the political spectrum, political campaigns for public office are being financed by an elite group of extremely wealthy private donors who will expect winners to serve their narrow private interests.”

Edwardo Porter, writing for the NY Times, describes the consequences of the substitution of an ethos of “racing to the top” for an ethic of “lifting up the bottom”: “Three or four decades ago, the United States was the most prosperous country on earth.  It had the mightiest military and the most advanced technologies known to humanity.  Today, it’s still the richest, strongest and most inventive.  But when it comes to the health, well-being and shared prosperity of its people, the United States has fallen far behind… (B)laming globalization and technological progress for the stagnation of the middle class and the precipitous decline in our collective health is too easy.  Jobs were lost and wages got stuck in many developed countries.  What set the United States apart—what made the damage inflicted upon American society so intense—was the nature of its response.  Government support for Americans in the bottom half turned out to be too meager to hold society together… Call it a failure of solidarity.  The conservative narrative of America’s social downfall, articulated by the likes of Charles Murray… posits that a large welfare state, built from the time of the New Deal in the 1030s through the era of the Great Society in the 1960s, sapped Americans’ industriousness and undermined their moral fiber.  A more compelling explanation is that when globalization struck at the jobs on which 20th-century America had built its middle class, the United States discovered that it did not, in fact, have much of a welfare state to speak of…  Call it a failure of solidarity.”

Porter cites statistics that demonstrate where our ethos of “racing to the top” has taken us.  Life expectancy has fallen for newborn girls to the degree that the U.S. now ranks 29th of 34 industrialized nations.  U.S. infant mortality continues to rise.  And in the area of public education, Porter presents the research of Stanford sociologist, Sean Reardon that, “the achievement gap between rich and poor children seems to have been steadily expanding for the last 50 years.”

Income Inequality Tears the Social Fabric and Undermines School Achievement

Inequality, Unbelievably, Gets Worse,” declared Steven Rattner two weeks ago on the op ed pages of the NY Times.  He points to data released by the Federal Reserve documenting that, “Inflation-adjusted earnings of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell between 2010 and 2013, with those near the bottom dropping the most.  Meanwhile, incomes in the top decile rose.”  Rattner attributes much of the problem to our tax laws: “And income taxes for the highest-earning Americans have fallen sharply, contributing meaningfully to the income inequality problem.  In 1995, the 400 taxpayers with the biggest incomes paid an average of 30 percent in taxes; by 2009, the tax rate of those Americans had dropped to 20 percent.

Rattner worries that dropping tax rates on the citizens with the greatest capacity to pay are tearing the fabric of our society: “Lower taxes means less for government to spend on programs to help those near the bottom… The United States, which is the only developed country without a national paid parental leave policy, also has no mandated paid holidays or annual vacation; in Europe, workers are guaranteed at least 20 days and as many as 35 days of paid leave.”  Rattner notes that even the International Monetary Fund has “suggested that a more equal distribution of income could… raise the growth rate because of the added access to education, health care and other opportunities.”

When people with the means to pay taxes are excused from that civic responsibility it does mean less spent on public education.  As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities continues to remind us, 30 states are, in inflation-adjusted dollars, still spending less on public schools than before the 2008 recession.  There is also substantial evidence that the growing divide between families with means and those in dire need is affecting public school achievement in other ways.

For one thing residential housing patterns track the growing income divide.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon, who studies housing segregation, has documented that by 2009 the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods had increased—to 33 percent (from 15 percent in 1970) and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods had declined to 42 percent in 2009 (from 65 percent in 1970), with increased segregation at both ends of the income distribution.  Both high-and low-income families became increasingly residentially isolated in the 2000s, resulting in greater polarization of neighborhoods by income.  The strongest trend is the increasing residential isolation of the rich.

Reardon has also demonstrated  that along with growing residential inequality is a rapidly growing income-inequality school achievement gap between the children in richest ten percent and the children in the poorest ten percent, a gap that is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.  Today the income inequality achievement gap is twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.  Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane, who have studied the educational consequences of income inequality add that, “Among children growing up in relatively affluent families, the four-year college graduation rate of those who were teenagers in the mid-1990s was 18 percentage points higher than the rate for those who were teenagers in the late 1970s.  In contrast, among children from low-income families, the graduation rate was only 4 percentage points higher for the later cohort than for the earlier one.”  Duncan and Murnane conclude: “By widening the gap in educational opportunities between children from low-and higher-income families, increasing income inequality jeopardizes the upward socioeconomic mobility that has long held our pluralistic democracy together.  Improving educational outcomes for children growing up in low-income families is therefore critical to the national’s future and requires a combination of policies that support low-income families and measures to improve the quality of schools that low-income children attend.”

In a Thanksgiving message on his blog at Chicago Theological Seminary the Rev. John Thomas, retired general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, lists some of the economic policies that have contributed to growing inequality and that could be adjusted to help those struggling at the bottom of our economy:  “The list of sins is long: Trade policy that moved jobs out of the U.S., refusal to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, deregulation of financial institutions that led, in significant measure, to the Great Recession, stripping rights from public employee unions and scaling back benefits of retirees to pay for the misdeeds of politicians who grossly underfunded pensions, the refusal of policy makers to provide adequate job stimulus or address the housing foreclosure crisis while bailing out large financial institutions, the explosive growth of the influence of money in politics…, the radical inequality of public school funding, tax codes that benefit investors over wage earners, corporations over individuals, the refusal of many states to expand Medicaid, and the continuing assault on the Affordable Care Act…  The descent of the working class into near or complete poverty is no accident.  It is willful policy and willful indifference—private and governmental—and as its corrosive effects creep across our economy the health of our democratic society is increasingly challenged.”

It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers

“It’s not OK to hate teachers.”  Those are the words of the Rev. John Thomas back in 2010, four years ago, right after he retired as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, joined the staff at Chicago Theological Seminary and started a blog.

“What’s going on here?” asked Thomas. “Certainly union busting is part of what’s going on.  Public officials see a rare opportunity to diminish the power of teachers’ unions in this climate and are doing what they can to discredit organizations that have done much to ensure that teachers are rewarded and protected at a level commensurate with other professions… And let’s be honest, for most people passionate interest in public schools begins when the first child enters kindergarten and ends when the last child graduates from high school.  How many of us know much of anything about what’s going on in our public schools when we don’t have our own children or grandchildren attending them?”

Well… on the cover of its November 3, 2014 issue, Time Magazine is trying to develop some passionate interest.  Or maybe that is not what’s happening.  What is Time really trying to accomplish on the cover of its new issue?  Here is what the text says: “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires have found a way to change that.”  The picture that accompanies this text is of a judge’s gavel poised above an apple.  That’s a hint.  This must have something to do with former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s new cause: to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states to outlaw due process job protection for school teachers.  This blog has covered the California Vergara lawsuit here.  It has covered Campbell Brown’s new endeavor to organize a legal attack on teachers unions here and  here.

This is actually the second time that Time Magazine has attacked teachers with a picture on its cover.  Valerie Strauss, in the Washington Post, reminds us that back in December of 2008, Time pictured Michelle Rhee—then chancellor of the schools in Washington, D.C.—poised to sweep out bad teachers with the broom she was holding.  “Rhee was,” according to Strauss, “the vanguard of a wave of ‘corporate school reform’ that has used standardized test scores as the chief metric for school ‘accountability,’ promoted charter schools and vouchers, and sought to minimize or eliminate the power of teachers unions and change the way teachers are trained.  Rhee was chancellor from 2007-2010, during which she fired hundreds of teachers and principals and started a program that used test scores to evaluate every adult in the building—including, for several years, the custodians.  She also collected enormous sums of donations from private philanthropists to start a merit pay system for teachers (even though merit pay systems in education have a long history of failure).”  Any test score gains during Rhee’s tenure were later shown to be related to gentrification; the racial achievement gap widened during Rhee’s years; and she left the District under the cloud of allegations of a massive test score cheating scandal that was never fully investigated.

Many have pointed out that Time‘s new article  (which is unfortunately behind a paywall), by Haley Sweetland Edwards, is fairer and far more nuanced than Time‘s cover.  Sweetland analyzes, for example, not only the likely impact of the California Vergara case, but the series of lawsuits anticipated by Campbell Brown and her funders including California’s David Welch (who bankrolled the Vergara litigation): “(Judge) True’s decision (in Vergara) holds no precedent-setting power and won’t affect any California law unless an appeals court upholds the ruling sometime next year.  Both the state and the teachers’ unions have appealed and are waiting a trial date.  But on another level, the Vergara case is a powerful proxy for a broader war over the future of education in this country.  The reform movement today is led not by grassroots activists or union leaders but by Silicon Valley business types and billionaires.  It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses.  And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions—judicial and otherwise—made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes.”

Toward the end of her piece, Sweetland calls into question the very kind of Value Added Measure (VAM) testing on which the Vergara lawsuit was based.  Sweetland lists several  significant pieces of research that challenge the very notion that Value Added formulas based on students’ test scores have validity for evaluating teachers—from the American Statistical Association last April, from the American Educational Research Association last May, and even, in July, from the U.S. Department of Education, whose study, according to Sweetland, “found that VAM scores varied wildly depending on what time of day tests were administered or whether the kids were distracted.”

If you are one of Time Magazine‘s 3,289,377 subscribers, consider carefully the cover of Time‘s November 3 issue.  Why would a major news magazine make an editorial decision to promote the scapegoating of an entire profession?  Why is Time Magazine urging you to fixate on what it calls “the bad apples”?  The American Federation of Teachers urges us all to sign its petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine“Time’s cover doesn’t even reflect its own reporting. The Time article itself looks at the wealthy sponsors of these efforts. And while it looks critically at tenure, it also questions the testing industry’s connections to Silicon Valley and the motives of these players.  The cover is particularly disappointing because the articles inside the magazine present a much more balanced view of the issue. But for millions of Americans, all they’ll see is the cover and a misleading attack on teachers.”

Four years after his column, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers, Rev. John Thomas just last week published a new column lamenting the corporate attack on public school teachers, on their unions, and on public schools as democratic institutions: “Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governors’ offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well-connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in. Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases able to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault. Is this what democracy looks like?”

The Rev. John Thomas Decries Attack on Democracy in America’s Big City School Districts

The Rev. John Thomas, the retired President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes a blog on that institution’s website about issues of the day.  His prophetic post this week considers Democracy Under Attack in urban public education: “In 1785, John Adams wrote, ‘The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.’  In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance set aside one section of each township for a school.  Most of us grew up never calling into question these foundational principles of our American republic.  Today, these notions seem to be turned on their heads.  The whole people is barred from meaningful engagement in the education of the whole people, and the responsibility to bear the expense is increasingly scorned by those who view public dollars as a piggy bank for their private ventures.”

Thomas’ blog post couldn’t be more timely.  Just two days ago New York’s Alliance for Quality Education and several partner organizations released a report, Good for Kids or Good for Carl?, that begs for public scrutiny of the likely conflict of interest involving Carl Paladino, the Buffalo, New York real estate developer who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 2010, and who subsequently has joined Buffalo’s board of education.  According to the Alliance for Quality Education, Paladino is making lots of money from the charter schools that benefit from his votes on the board of education. When questioned about this matter by the Buffalo News, Paladino defended his right to make a profit: “If I didn’t, I’d be a frigging idiot.”

The Alliance for Quality Education explains: “Carl Paladino is the chairman of Ellicott Development, one of the largest property developers focused on the Buffalo area.  Paladino’s companies are the leading charter school developers in Buffalo.  Ellicott Development has worked with the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools, either flipping property to the private operators of those schools or financing school construction through pricey ‘leaseback deals’…  As the preferred real estate developer for Buffalo’s charter schools, Paladino is well-positioned to secure more business for himself as a result of using his position on the school board to bring more privately run charter schools to Buffalo.”

The report accuses Paladino not only of profiting from his dual role as school board member and real estate developer but also of failing to honor his own promise to recuse himself from school board votes about the charter schools connected to his business.  “He has a conflict of interest.  Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board.  He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.”

In his new blog post, the Rev. Thomas writes: “In city after city the story is the same. Control and management of our public schools is being systematically removed from parents, teachers, and ordinary citizens, and placed in the hands of mayors, their political allies in state legislatures and governor’s offices, their wealthy donors, the operators of charter schools, and politically well connected entrepreneurs and vendors eager to make money from contracts for things like technology or maintenance with the charters they themselves have invested in.”

Profits siphoned from tax dollars are a big part of this problem.  The story of Carl Paladino’s real estate ventures in Buffalo is only the latest in a long series of tales of business tycoons making money from the tax dollars flowing into poorly regulated charter schools.  Earlier this week this blog covered Baker Mitchell’s schools in North Carolina and the national charter management organization, Imagine Schools, that operates in 11 states and conducts a real estate profit scheme through SchoolHouse Finance, its own real estate subsidiary.  Then there is the enormous charter mess in Detroit that was exposed in a week-long investigation last summer by the Detroit Free Press.  And in Ohio, David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT)—who has made over $100 million since 2001 from the two privately held companies he owns that provide all services for ECOT—have been very openly purchasing public policy.

But graft, corruption, and influence peddling are only part of what the Rev. Thomas is describing.  His greater concern is the threat to urban public education as a democratic institution.  Rev. Thomas describes Philadelphia, where an appointed School Reform Commission recently abrogated the legal contract the School District of Philadelphia had established with its teachers union. “Local school boards are vanishing and the collective bargaining rights of teachers, one of the few remaining countervailing power bases available to challenge the privatization of our schools, are under assault.”  He writes about New York City where Eva Moskowitz, the Success Academy Charter School diva, has been able to turn “her wealthy friends loose on the governor and legislature” to ensure that New York City redirects public funds to pay for rent in the private market for her schools if there is no empty space that can be found to co-locate her schools into public school buildings themselves.  And he describes Chicago, where he has been watching as political maneuvering blocked “a non-binding referendum that would have provided the citizens of the city an opportunity to offer an opinion on whether Chicago should return to an elected school board.”  There are other examples.  There is Newark, New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them,”  and where his appointed superintendent has imposed a massive choice plan on the school district while quashing public protests including the outcry of the mayor. There is New Orleans where the schools were seized by the state and charterized after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and there is Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder has imposed state-appointed emergency managers with the power to abrogate union contracts, turn over school districts to charter management organizations, and even shut down whole school districts experiencing financial problems.

“We have always imagined our schools to be the formative institutions of our democracy,” writes the Rev. Thomas. “What happens to all of us when that is no longer the case?”  I urge you to read Rev.Thomas’ fine column.

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year.  So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out. A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

New York City’s New Teachers’ Contract Matters—To All of Us

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, where he writes a blog.  Last Thursday, the 1st of May, the Rev. Thomas posted the following:  “May Day commemorates the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that began as a march by workers in support of the eight hour workday.  It continues to be celebrated in many places as a day to honor workers and to rally workers to the labor movement.  But these days May Day is perhaps more aptly described as a collective “Mayday!” on behalf of workers who have been under assault for decades—lost jobs, suppressed wages, broken unions, attacks on collective bargaining, reduced benefits, and on and on it goes.”

It is therefore particularly fitting that last week on Thursday, May 1, 2014, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on a contract that will end a bitter, long running dispute.  The NY Times covered the agreement, noting that “The teachers’ union has been without a contract for four and a half years…. The retroactive pay granted in the deal is the same pair of 4 percent raises that most other municipal unions received in 2009 and 2010.” In an earlier article, the NY Times reported that New York City’s 100,000 school teachers and other school employees represented by the United Federation of Teachers had been without a contract since 2009.  (Members of the United Federation of Teachers will be taking a vote soon on the agreement.)

Many of you who read this blog may live far from New York City and may wonder if New York City’s new labor agreement with its teachers is relevant to you.  Consider that New York’s previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a leader in the national wave of hostility toward teachers and their unions. The NY Times editorial board, which has not always been complimentary to the new Mayor de Blasio, praised him this past Saturday in an editorial: “Dispensing with the unproductive tension that tarnished the Bloomberg administration, the two sides showed that real progress can be made—on both the fiscal and the educational sides of the contract—when there is good will instead of disdain.”  Bloomberg’s active disdain for New York’s  teachers’ union provided cover for too many leaders across the country to attack teachers and their unions. It is to be hoped that  New York’s new contract with its teachers will become a symbol of the beginning of a national change of heart about school teachers.

Four years ago, the Rev. Thomas posted another blog that seemed so significant to me that I have kept it right in the front of my clipping file of articles about school teachers.  Rev. Thomas titled his piece, It’s Not OK to Hate Teachers.  Here is what Rev. Thomas wrote on June 3, 2010: “Earlier this year Arne Duncan and Barack Obama publicly affirmed the decision of a Rhode Island school district to fire every teacher at a failing public high school.  Do we really think every teacher at that high school deserved to be fired?… This spring the governor of New Jersey, angry at the pace of negotiations with teachers’ unions, publicly urged citizens to vote down their school levies knowing full well what kind of devastating impact that would have on public school classrooms in his state.  This Sunday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a front page report on the teachers in the Cleveland Public Schools that, at least to me, seemed designed to paint teachers in the worst possible light as overpaid, underworked, intransigent about reform, and not overly competent.”

And since 2010, the attacks on teachers have only worsened.  Although the majority of  teachers’ contributions to the lives of their students can be named only with words grammarians would call abstract, non-count nouns—learning, reason, discernment, creativity, character, encouragement, support, perseverance, discipline—school teachers have now seen their work quantified with value-added-measures—econometric formulas based on students’ scores on standardized tests.  In fact to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, states had to promise to incorporate students’ scores on the statewide test into their teacher evaluation systems.  Teachers are being blamed for shortfalls (due to the recession and in some places mismanagement) in the public pension systems they pay into throughout their careers, even as many states do not have public employees pay into Social Security.  Now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he plans to institute new ratings for the Colleges of Education where teachers are trained.  We have come to accept the language of economics to discuss the “inputs” teachers contribute and the  “outcomes” teachers are thought to “produce,” and we’ve learned that the inputs don’t really matter.  What’s measurable in the outcomes is all that counts.

I frequently find myself thinking about the observation of Parker Palmer, the writer who devoted his career to helping people consider their vocation.  Palmer wrote The Courage to Teach to help exhausted teachers recover their connection to their sense of calling.  In his introduction to a companion volume, Stories of The Courage to Teach, Palmer asks us to appreciate teachers in ways that can neither be counted nor computed, nor measured, nor monetized:

“America’s teachers are the culture heroes of our time.  Daily they are asked to solve problems that baffle the rest of us.  Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task.  And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies…  If you are not a teacher and are skeptical either about their plight or their dedication,… visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers for a couple of days.  Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.” (pp. xvii-xviii)

Thank you, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for recognizing the work of New York City’s teachers with a fair contract.

 

 

Public Education, Public Obligation, and the Distribution of Opportunity

A just society would distribute opportunity fairly and, in the case of K-12 education, give each child the chance to realize her or his promise.  While our society has never fully realized this ideal, we have, historically, agreed on the goal.  We have also assumed that there is a public purpose for public education—that our society benefits from the education of its citizens in myriad ways.

Education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87) Political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes public schools as, “our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goods, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 14-15)  Chicago education professor Bill Ayers writes:  “What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”

These writers define public education as essential to the public good, and they point to the moral obligation to provide opportunity for all, not just for some in a society that aspires to justice.  These days we talk very little about the universal provision of public services as the foundation of opportunity.  We placidly ignore the skewed provision of public goods based on vastly unequal local resources from place to place, refuse to find ways to fund the equalization of those services, and then suggest that if we give parents control through privatization and school choice, they will be able to finesse the system on their children’s behalf.

Two articles posted this past week explore the moral implications of vast inequality experienced by children in today’s America.  Arthur Camins, in a column reprinted by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, explores the false promise of choice as a so-called solution to educational inequality. Camins contrasts a value system grounded in common purpose to a value system of individual initiative and competition. He critiques the result after describing the rationale for school choice: “that successful schools will win the competition for students and thrive, while others will wither and close.  However, this strategy is in itself inequitable because the disruptive effect of school closings negatively impacts students in already unstable communities, but not those in stable middle class or wealthy communities…  In doing so it shifts the improvement focus from a shared concern or common struggle about the community’s children to individual parents making self-interested selections for their own children…  Self-concern is a rational moral choice only in the context of a society that refuses to systemically address inequity and only if everyone becomes convinced that collective action is a hopelessly naive moral and strategic principle.”

In Getting the Edge, Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines another moral issue in a society of exploding wealth inequality.  He describes the  benefits that accrue for the children of the wealthiest among us as private and public privilege add up in a society that manages, through over-reliance on local property taxes, to spend the most public dollars on the education of children who are already pampered.  Some children end up with almost unimaginable privilege as their parents invest in foreign travel and posh summer camps even as children in poor communities are denied basics like small classes and libraries in their public schools.

Rev. Thomas writes: “Aside from the wisdom of treating some of our children like pampered thoroughbred race horses in the Ivy League sweepstakes, or of infiltrating every activity with the rhetoric of economic competition, all of this demonstrates the structural ways in which our society helps to protect the very affluent class from downward mobility while doing little to nothing to provide meaningful upward mobility for poor and near poor children.”

In the unequal world that Rev. Thomas describes, we must continue to ask whether school choice through privatization—the prescribed “solution” today to inequality in education across America’s big cities—can possibly address the deepest injustices. Privatization and school choice embody values of individualism, freedom, liberty, choice, innovation, and competition—very different principles from those embedded in universal public education.

Benjamin Barber sorts out these issues with precision in his reflection on privatization.  It is a fascinating exercise to consider carefully Barber’s statement that follows in the context of one of today’s examples of a school system designed around choice—whether in Chicago, New York City, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, or Philadelphia:

“Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.  With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak….” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

In the context of growing family wealth inequality, Rev. Thomas believes our best chance for justice in education is through the public schools that represent our society’s public obligation to our children: “Children don’t need to study marine biology in New Zealand or entrepreneurship on Wall Street in the summer to have hope.  But they do need good schools; well paid, well trained, well supported career teachers; and supports for their families to be able to provide a safe and stable home life.  Absent this, all the talk about equal opportunity for all our children is not only futile, but obscene.”

A Powerful Reflection on Inequality for This Thanksgiving

The Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a teacher and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary.

His blog post for this Thanksgiving lifts up the research on widening inequality in America and the inequality he observes in Chicago.

Thomas explores the implications of growing inequality not only for those trapped in poverty but also for the sequestered affluent. What does it mean for all of us that the powerful—including an increasing number of our leaders—are more and more insulated?

Rev. John Thomas Decries Our Culture of Extortion

The Rev. John Thomas has posted a timely reflection on his blog at Chicago Theological Seminary.

He describes an African Methodist Episcopal pastor who defines his vocation as being “a good ancestor.” “An ancestor… considers not just himself, or her household, but generations yet to be born and forever unknown to us.  Central to this orientation in life is the notion that life ought to be about inheriting and bequeathing, not merely consuming.  It is to be profoundly communal rather than fiercely individualistic.”

What a contrast to our Culture of Extortion.

Rev. Thomas is writing, of course, about the states that have chosen to deny Medicaid Expansion to people who desperately need health care and about the debate in Congress that has shut down the federal government.  He also describes the kind of corporate extortion that demands amazing perks for the location of a business in one or another state or municipality.  While demands by corporations for tax breaks and other perks are always described as mere nickles and dimes when spread over a number of years, Rev. Thomas declares, “to the poorest public schools in Illinois watching state funding cut… the nickles and dimes are important.”