School Choice: An Inside Look

Like so many others in #oklaed, I registered and received a free ticket to attend the Oklahoma School Choice Summit, January 26th, 2017, at Oklahoma City Community College. On Thursday, I left school and went straight to OCCC. I went in around 4:15 wearing my Mid-Del ID, signed in on the back of a piece of folded paper, and received a wrist band and a “National School Choice Week” yellow scarf. I briefly looked around the exhibits of various private and charter schools and then immediately began tweeting out my impressions and observations.

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Soon after, I found my way to a nearby building where breakout sessions were taking place. I caught the last half of a workshop called “School Choice Policy Panel.” Then at 5, “Advocacy for School Leaders,” and at 6, “Communities of Color Panel.” When I got back to the Performing Arts Center at 7, I gained entrance with my wrist band, despite the fact that many of my education colleagues were denied entrance. But that’s another story. The main program began around 7:30 and included a legislative panel, awards, and culminated with a keynote address from Dr. Steve Perry. As I reflect on my experience, there are three specific and valuable lessons that are emerging for my personal understanding of the School Choice “movement.” For real time observations, please check out my twitter feed from 01/26, @bakerleft.

  1. School Choice wants to be seen as “the little guy.”

There is a “David and Goliath” narrative taking place in the School Choice world. In describing the giant, School Choice people use words and phrases like “the educational establishment,” “opponents of choice,” and “government schools.” Despite the fact that School Choice has massive corporate funding from the likes of the Walton Foundation and the Koch brothers, the narrative is that School Choice is a grass roots movement, a movement of the people trying to overcome this great big unchangeable object known as the public school system. Make no mistake, School Choice is playing offense, and they want to be seen as the underdog, the up-and-coming challenger. This is all carefully orchestrated to create a cause worthy of empathy while concealing the real giant, corporate greed eager to profit from within the public sector.

  1. School Choice is a partisan effort.

The characterization from within the School Choice movement is that all public schools advocates are liberal members of a teacher’s union. This is so much more than a gross and misleading generalization. Especially in a red state like Oklahoma, this kind of characterization is patently false. If all public school teachers in Oklahoma were liberal, then it is doubtful that the GOP would have a supermajority in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature. Furthermore, if every public school teacher in Oklahoma were union members, it is doubtful that Oklahoma teacher pay would have ever been ranked 49th in the nation. The fact is, Educational Savings Accounts have been rejected year after year in Oklahoma largely by the conservative constituents of Republican legislators, conservative teachers and families who happen to love their public school.

  1. School Choice claims social justice only when it is convenient.

The majority of School Choice rhetoric consists of very typical capitalist “free market” talking points. That’s why the word “choice” is so important. Then the switch occurs and suddenly School Choice becomes a civil rights issue or even a human rights issue. But since when is the free market a protector of civil rights? The primary need for market regulations is to protect vulnerable populations from the excesses that naturally occur in capitalism. The overwhelming evidence points to educational opportunities in communities of color suffering under unfettered School Choice policies. In a letter to his wife in 1952, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” Capitalism, by definition, benefits some and leaves out others. Is this what we want for our children?

Having spent an afternoon and evening among School Choice proponents, I am more resolved than ever to stand against charter schools and voucher programs. It is always interesting how candidly people speak when they believe that their ideological opponents are not listening. And it provides very valuable insights to those (like me) who arrive early and keep their contrarian thoughts to themselves.

Dear Mr. Trump,

The following is anonymous advice to President Trump from some of my middle school history students, presented without comment.

“I think you should be nicer and not rude. You should not make a wall. You should leave all the rude stuff and start over and not be rude to other people because you are a different color. You should treat people the same if they are different colors.”

“I hope you really make America a great and safe place, and I feel like before you wanna say something you should think about each person, not just a few, and not just the white people. I feel like Mexicans and brown skin people should all be treated just like everyone else. Nobody should be treated different. Even if you don’t like them, you should still be kind to them. But I feel like you shouldn’t kick people out, including Mexicans, because they are not doing anything wrong. They are just as important as you are. So Trump, please make America great again.”

“I think that you should not kick anybody out. You would not like it if somebody kicked you out? And if you kick out people, we will not like you.”

“Don’t use your presidency to your advantage. You should make America great again by keeping equal rights and keeping us strong. We need help more than anything. You tearing us apart will break us even more. Use the money you have to help fix our schools and buildings, especially Oklahoma schools. We are struggling badly.”

“Sending people away won’t help you or anyone else. It will just make our country seem cruel and unjust. You can’t change people, and they can’t really change you.”

“I love you, but please don’t do anything stupid. Don’t build a wall.”

“Please don’t make Trump Care. Do something positive like make college free or something. Oh yeah, be nice.”

“You need to treat people kindly. Respect people. Don’t build a wall. How is building a wall making the world better? You think all Mexicans are bad. They aren’t. Everybody has a different personality.”

“I hope that you will make America a safe and peaceful place. I also hope that you can change the way you feel toward Mexicans and other races. At the end, we’re all one nation, and we’ll all soon have to come together as one. There will be challenges along the way, but maybe you can solve the issues without violence.”

“I believe you should not be racist or mess with Mexicans. They are my family, and I show love to any and every Mexican. Same thing goes with African Americans and all white people. I don’t discriminate. I am mixed with all of the above, and I have a family member of each ethnicity. Hopefully Barack Obama was a great enough example of a great leader you can be.”

“I really don’t care if you’re President. It doesn’t really matter to me. I just don’t want my Mexican friends to have to go to Mexico.”

“You should listen to people’s ideas because some people have good ones. You should support gay rights because that is what people choose to do with their life. I think that you shouldn’t put up a wall because people around the world could come here and be who they want to be.”

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“Please don’t build a wall. I don’t think that’s right because what if you build it, then some of the Mexican’s parents will have to go, and that’s not right. You should think about it.”

“I like your presidency, but you need to be a little nicer to people, even if you don’t like them.”

“Be a president for all Americans no matter the race. We are all equal and should be treated with kindness. No hate, no negative vibes, or anything. Also, I just ask for you to do your best as president and hopefully you take this in and really think about our country and not just yourself.”

“If you want to be a good president and quit getting talked about, quit discriminating and quit acting like you’re better than everybody, and quit thinking that black people and Mexicans are different from white people. The only thing that is different is skin color. Just because you had most things handed to you doesn’t mean that they’re different for trying to survive.”

“I want you to be a good president. You have to be good, kind, and very helpful to black people. I don’t know if you like Mexicans, but if you don’t, what did they do to you?”

“I have heard many things about you that are not nice. I have also heard you say some pretty offensive things about women. Please be nice. Thank you.”

“As a student, I know we would like more security and not be afraid of going to school. This is supposed to be a free country, and everyone is welcome. I get you want to get illegals out, but they came here for security, money, and a better life. One last thing, if you want respect, you have to respect others and not discriminate against them.”

“Hopefully you can be a wonderful president because I was scared that you would take my friends away from me. This is America, and the U.S.A. is the home of the brave and free. So please don’t take anybody’s freedom away.”

“I hope you don’t use foul language. You should let illegal people get a chance to get registered. You don’t need to get rid of the people who want to be here.”

“People in my school always talk bad about you. Does that phase you? I think you’re a business man. I believe if you put yourself in others’ shoes, you can be a great president. Think logically. Stop the publicity act. Stop the sexism. Stop the racism. Stop the homophobia.”

“Please don’t send half of my family back to Mexico.”

“Don’t be rude to women. Try to make people not hate you by doing good things. The actions you do speak louder than words.”

“You should not build the wall to try to keep out Mexicans. Mexicans are Americans too. Be nicer to girls and women.”

“There are a lot of people who hate you, but honestly their opinions don’t matter. If you can keep America strong or even make it stronger, you can prove all those people wrong. Since you are going to be in office, a lot of people are gonna depend on you, and others are gonna doubt you. You can either make a good impression or you can ruin lots of things. It’s your choice!”

“I am writing to you to give you advice. One thing is women are not sex toys. We are unique individuals. The only difference is body parts. Women have grown in society over the past 100 years and now we deserve respect. We shouldn’t just be forced to stay home, cook, clean, and have and take care of kids.”

“I feel that you are not being fair. Everyone in America deserves the right to be here. Mexicans have the right to be here. You should treat everyone equally. I feel you are very disrespectful. Just because you’re president, doesn’t mean you have the right to judge people by their race, disability, or who they are. I don’t care if you’re mad at how I feel.”

“I believe you could be a good president if you choose to listen and understand that what you do has consequences. Your power is a tsunami of change. Choose carefully what you do. I believe in you.”

“I hope you don’t build that wall. America is supposed to be known as the land of the free. That’s why they are here. My mom wants you as president. She says you have good policies. I hope you can make America great again. It’s scary for some of us because Obama was our president most of our life. If the next four years go good, I’ll vote for you.”

“Please speak of everyone kindly. Wait your turn. Don’t discriminate. Respect all people, even if you don’t like their ideas. And mostly, if you think someone else will be offended by it, don’t say it.”

“I don’t understand why you want to take away Obama Care when it has helped so many people survive. So when you take office you should really think about the people and their opinions because you can’t do some of the things that you said.”

“No one should feel unsafe. No one should have to be ripped apart from their family. No children should be scared that they will never see their parents again. No one should be afraid of a country that promised to protect them. We are all equal and beautiful in this country, and we come in all shapes, sizes, religions, backgrounds, races, genders, sexualities and mindsets. Why should safety and security and love be only for some Americans? My advice to you is to think before you speak and to control your anger.”

 

Zero Tolerance Policies Are Not Pro Teacher

One of the many education related bills already introduced in Oklahoma’s 56th Legislature is Senate Bill 81, filed by Senator Ron Sharp, Republican, of Shawnee. The headline at www.newsok.com on Tuesday, January 10th, reads, “Under proposed bill, violent elementary school students subject to suspension.” According to the introduced version at www.oklegislature.gov, the bill is “an act relating to school discipline… lowering the grade level at which students who commit certain acts are subject to out-of-school suspension.” Currently, Oklahoma students in grades 6-12 are subject to suspension if they “act in a manner that could reasonably cause bodily injury to an education employee or a person who is volunteering for the school.” Senate Bill 81 would make 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders subject to the same penalty.

This kind of policy is what is known as “zero tolerance” discipline. Zero tolerance has a storied history that begins with the mid-90s “tough on crime” policies of Bill Clinton, policies of which disastrous consequences are now well documented in the film “13th”, and policies of which Clinton himself has since apologized. The real problem with zero tolerance is the lack of discretion related to the strict enforcement of the policy. This type of school discipline is literally “one strike and you’re out.” Students are subject to suspension for behaviors that don’t logically apply to the intended infraction, behaviors like wearing a charm in the shape of a gun or accidentally bumping into a teacher or principal.

Senator Sharp said concerning the need for the bill, “These third-graders today are not the third-graders of yesteryear. They’re big and strong, and they are attacking teachers and other students. It’s a problem today in our public schools.”

I remember yesteryear. That was when third-graders sat quietly in neat rows of desks while the teacher paddled the “class clown” in the hall. I, for one, am glad that both rows of desks and paddles are not common in third grade classrooms today. And is Senator Sharp imagining a generation of third graders on steroids? Sure, data suggests that the human race is getting taller, but kids have not changed. Schools and school discipline has changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. But it seems some like Ron Sharp are nostalgic for “the good ole’ days”.

But the Senator is not alone in this push toward zero tolerance. NewsOK cites POE (Professional Oklahoma Educators) as the organization that requested the expansion. Ginger Tinney, executive director of POE is quoted as saying, “Private schools and charter schools can kicks these students out of school; public schools can’t do that.” That is akin to what so many of us in #oklaed have been saying for years. Public schools serve a function in society that no private or charter school can. Is Ginger Tinney suggesting that there are students who don’t deserve to go to school at all? Because private and charter schools kick out so many students is precisely why public schools need to be extremely cautious when denying an education to any young person.

Ed Allen of AFT (American Federation of Teachers), the bargaining association for OKCPS, has a more nuanced view. “In a perfect world there would be services and placement opportunities so that they could continue their education.” But does the world really have to be perfect before we realize that zero tolerance policies don’t make anyone safer? At best, suspensions are a brief recess for teachers. And at worst, the research is clear that suspension is the official entrance to the school-to-prison pipeline. I guess Sharp and POE are more interested in a “preschool-to-prison” pipeline.

There are alternatives to suspensions, if any legislators, professional organizers, administrators, or teachers are willing to see them, alternatives that involve helping the student rather than punishing the infraction. Restorative Justice is working in public schools all across the country. Justice circles, conflict resolution, and peer mediation are just some of the tools of restorative justice. Whole districts are turning detention rooms into areas for yoga and meditation. Schools are giving students with behavioral challenges an opportunity to work out their frustration through “cybercycling” programs. Is it difficult? Yes! Especially when it comes to creating a paradigm shift in the way an entire school building thinks about discipline. But it is possible, and it does not require a perfect world.

Don’t get me wrong, teaching can be a dangerous profession. I am not denying the inherent risk, especially in under-served urban areas. I am not advocating for the self-sacrifice of educators, a disregard for the safety of teachers. My contention is that suspensions do not ultimately make teachers any safer. There is a gaping wound in how we approach discipline in our public schools, and suspensions are a very poor band aid. One that offers very temporary relief. The real misfortune is that a lack of student centered discipline policies often leads good teachers to rejoice over the suspension of their difficult students. As for me, may I never find pleasure in the detention or suspension of any of my students.

Reading For Revolution

All of the presently available alternatives to the American public school system (private schools, charters, vouchers, home schooling, online, and even “unschooling”) are all predicated on elitism. It is hard to know what Paulo Freire would think of the public school system in the U.S. today, but I am quite confident he would be highly critical of the above mentioned alternatives.

Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher best known for his “critical pedagogy” and his influential work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Freire worked in adult literacy in some of the poorest areas of Brazil, and for a time was imprisoned for his work. He believed that literacy was the key to the oppressed class taking back their power from their oppressors, the ruling class.

I believe there is now in the U.S. under an impending Trump presidency an opportunity for urban public schools to become centers for revolution in the tradition of Paulo Freire, a chance for us to teach “reading for revolution”. The curriculum for this reading program would emerge from a framework of class warfare. Students at underserved schools would be taught the complexities of the systems that have created the inequalities they experience at home and school. Then literacy would be offered as a way to combat that inequality.

The goal would not be to teach urban students to despise their suburban counterparts. After all, suburban students are not their oppressors (although suburban white flight parents with their “school choice” may be). But no doubt some animosity would arise along the way, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Unfortunately, many urban schools lack the resources and/or environment necessary to host this kind of revolution. Too often, these schools spend much of the academic day addressing the very challenges of inequality created by the system, leaving little time for something like meaningful reading. It can be very difficult for a student facing hunger, homelessness, and the like to see the importance of reading.

And too often, teachers use an antiquated system of grades to coax students into reading. Reading must become a higher cause than receiving a grade. Students must learn the paths to their own liberation and then be loosed to read (and write) their way out of oppression and become stakeholders in a true revolution of the people.

Spoon Vision?

Near the end of Act I of the hit musical “Hamilton”, the cast, made up almost entirely of people of color, summarize the sentiment of the Americans in the very moment when the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown signaling the end of the war. “I hear the drinking song their singing… the world turned upside down.”

A favorite hymn at my small urban Mennonite church in Oklahoma City is “Canticle of the Turning”. My favorite lyrics are in the third verse: “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.”

An upside down world is apt imagery for a true revolution of the people. Despite my initial impression, the world is currently not upside down, post November 8, 2016. Trump’s rise is not a revolution by any definition. As so many have testified in response to the election, life was difficult for people of color before Trump. The only difference now, it seems, is that many white people are waking up to this reality.

So “Spoon Vision” is my attempt to see the upside down world that could be. The Revolution that is possible. The Revolution that starts and ends in education. This blog will focus on social justice issues and their relevance in Oklahoma public schools, but more specifically, social justice issues that haves names and faces inside my 8th grade U.S. History class in Del City, Oklahoma.