Thursday, April 19, 2018

Oklahoma’s 110 Mile March for Education in Retrospect by Aaron Michael Baker

Originally posted at:

My wife and I were halfway to Tulsa on the Turner Turnpike before the full realization hit me; I was about to walk 110 miles of Route 66 from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. I had been interviewed by a local news channel that afternoon, and I joked on the way that evening that I could not back out because I was to be on television that evening saying that I was going. I felt confident that the experience had been well planned by a coalition of leaders from the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, the Oklahoma Education Association, and the National Education Association. At the same time, however, I could not escape a growing sense of uncertainty. Will I be physically and mentally able to complete such a challenge? How will our march be received by the communities through which we will travel? How will this all end?
The idea for “March For Education #WalkTheTalk” was born out of local organizing meetings in Tulsa leading up to the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout, which began on Monday, April 2, 2018. The march was planned in part to bring further attention to the commitment, perseverance, and strength of Oklahoma’s educators, and more specifically, educators from within Tulsa Public Schools. The plan was to walk from Webster High School in Tulsa to the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City over a period of seven days and six nights. The launch of the march took place on Wednesday, April 4, to honor the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The march concluded the following Tuesday, April 10, to coincide with the 1966 arrival in Sacramento of 8,000 farmworkers who, led by Cesar Chavez, marched 340 miles across California to bring attention to those striking against planters in the San Joaquin Valley.

As a teacher from the Oklahoma City metro, I began this experience considering myself a “guest marcher.” I viewed my participation in part as a show of solidarity with my soon to be new Tulsa friends. I learned very quickly the first day that I would not be viewed as an outsider by Tulsa marchers. There are over 2,500 teachers in Tulsa Public Schools, and while many marched with family and friends, most of us that first day were marching in front of and behind complete strangers. I met some people on that first day march from Tulsa to Kellyville that I would not see again because they were only participating in the first leg. There were others I met on Wednesday, April 4, who I learned were part of a group that would soon come to be called “Through Marchers,” a group of close friends with a shared experience that cannot be fully captured with the words expressed here.
The first and last days of marching were not exceptionally difficult because additional marchers and the anticipation of what was to come provided a helpful dose of adrenaline. The first evening, however, was particularly difficult for me. As each day passed, my body began to acclimate to the average 15 mile walk, making each evening less difficult than the one before, but upon arriving at Kellyville High School on Wednesday afternoon my muscles quickly began to shut down. The desire to get to know each other as marchers and organizers was complicated by our need to care for our ailing bodies. By 9 p.m. the room was quiet, the lights were off, and marchers were sleeping indiscriminately around the cafeteria floor on wrestling and cheerleading mats.
During our six days of walking on Route 66 (the last day of walking took us off Route 66), there seemed to be not a single person travelling by vehicle that was unaware of what we were doing. If I had to guess, I would say that the number of honks of support numbered well into the thousands. By my count, the number of aggressive motorists, drivers that expressed frustration with our presence, was two. As uplifting as the travelers were, the support from local residents was at times completely overwhelming.
There was Larry, a retired 5th grade teacher from Sapulpa, who walked a few blocks from his house, joined our march for at least a mile, and then turned back toward his home offering prayers and best wishes.
There was the Department of Human Services building where staff gathered at the windows with cheers and signs expressing support and solidarity.
There was the conservative pastor of the Church of Christ who partnered with an interfaith group and an LGBTQ advocacy group to provide us lunch.
There was the daycare with young faces and sticky hands pressed hard against the glass trying to catch a glimpse of the marching teachers.
There was the group of elementary age kids with two women that offered us snacks and water and then identified themselves as homeschoolers, but nonetheless strong supporters of public education.
There was the lawyer from Tulsa that brought us lunch, a pizza for every two marchers, high atop a hill in someone’s driveway.
There was the team of Stroud teachers and families who took up a personal collection to allow us to stay in and utilize the state of the art facilities at Stroud Coliseum.
There was the truckload of 3rd grade boys who marched a full day with us, doubled back in the bed of mom’s truck only to march again with a different group, and then topped off the day with a game of basketball in the park in Luther.
There was the group of teenage girls that gave us helium filled balloons to tie to our packs providing an extra measure of visibility.
These experiences and countless others created an emotional state for marchers where tears were never far below the surface. The most often repeated comment as we passed by was, “Thank you for what you are doing!” To which we replied, “Thank you for your support! We are doing this for the kids!”
The 110 mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City seemed aggressive enough to satisfy my personal desire for an escalated means of nonviolent direct action, incredible enough to attract attention from multiple media outlets, and ambitious enough to elicit empathy from Oklahoma legislators most reluctant to approve further revenue raising measures for public education. No doubt other marchers felt as I did on that first day, that there was a very real possibility that the march would be cut short by a clear end to the walkout, that we would be bussed to the Capitol early because all of the union demands had been met with fully funded legislation. The efficacy and timing of the nine day walkout is easily debatable, but the impact and value of our march for education cannot be denied.
In the gymnasium at Northeast Academy in Oklahoma City, marchers were informed that we would be ushered the final mile to the Capitol by a high school marching band. Minutes later outside, I found my way near the front of the large crowd to see the Douglass High School Marching Band, “The Pride of the East Side,” ready to lead the way. The perfect representation of why proper funding for public education is so important was right there in front of me. Just blocks away from the Capitol, our parade was stalled, and we began chanting toward the band, “This… is… for… you!” When we arrived at the Capitol, I had the privilege to speak to the passionate crowd, where I said in part, “We marched for black students. We marched for Latinx students. We marched for native students. We marched for differently abled students. We marched for every underserved student population all over the state of Oklahoma. It is true what they say; a truly free, truly public education is the great equalizer in our society. But it must be fully funded!”
The perfect representation of why proper funding for public education is so important was right there in front of me.
As of writing, public education in Oklahoma is still not fully funded. But the greatest achievement of both the walkout and the march for education is the full knowledge of the possibilities of what mobilized and organized Oklahoma educators can accomplish together.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory by Steven Singer

The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

This is unacceptable.

But not unexpected.

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

That’s what I tried to do.

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

It’s not in my curriculum.

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

I wish that were true everywhere.

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movementthat inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

Doing so would upset the status quo.

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In Trump’s America, You No Longer Need to Pretend to be Against School Segregation by Steven Singer

School segregation is kind of like war.

When asked point blank, no one wants to admit to liking it.

To paraphrase Motown singer songwriter Edwin Starr:

“Segregation. Huh, Good God.

What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing.”

However, when it comes to supporting actual integration programs or even just education policies that don’t make segregation worse, no one in politics really gives a crap.

Both Republicans and Democrats are heavily invested in ways to divide up school students along racial and economic lines – whether they be charter and voucher schools or strategic disinvestment in the public schools that serve the poor and minorities and hording resources for wealthy whites.

That’s why it’s somewhat shocking to hear the outrage over Trump judicial nominee Wendy Vitter.

Trump nominated the extremely partisan justice for a federal judgeship in Louisiana. Yet during a Senate hearing Wednesday, Vitter refused to answer a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about whether or not she believed the Supreme Court was right in its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

The decision overturned the excuse that we could educate white and black people in different facilities so long as they were “separate but equal.” In effect, it said that when we educate the races separately, their schools will never be equal.

And Vitter couldn’t bring herself to affirm this ruling.

“If I start commenting on ‘I agree with this case’ or don’t agree with this case,’ I think we get into a slippery slope,” she said.

“I don’t mean to be coy, but I think I get into a difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with,” Vitter said.

She added that the ruling was “binding” and that she would uphold it if confirmed as a judge.

And there we have it, people.

That’s where the bar is set during the Trump administration.

You no longer need to pretend to be against school segregation.

On the one hand, it’s more honest than most people in the political arena.

On the other, how far have we sunk when you don’t even need to feign decency in order to expect having a chance of Congress confirming you?

Let me be clear. Vitter’s nomination should not be approved.

Congress should draw a line in the sand and say that it cannot accept people who do not share bedrock American values on the bench.

And that is the barest minimum.

That is merely decorum.

It’s like having the decency to condemn Nazis – something else Trump can’t bring himself to do.

What actually happens to Vitter will probably be determined by the degree of backlash against her.

As of Thursday afternoon, the video clip of Vitter’s comments about Brown V. Board had more than 1.7 million views, and was retweeted over 13,000 times.

A few months ago, another Trump judicial nominee, Matthew Petersen, withdrew from consideration after a video in which he couldn’t answer basic legal questions went viral.

But even if this reprehensible person who has no right sitting in judgement over anything more taxing than a checkbook gets turned away from the bench, we’ll still be far from where we need to be on school segregation.

And instead of putting on our big boy pants and tackling the issue, we’ve gone in the opposite direction.

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers support charter schools. Republicans and a few Democrats support school vouchers. And just about everyone is fine with the fact that our public schools serve vastly disproportionate racial and economic populations yet rely on local tax revenues for funding and thus are inequitably resourced.

In every case, these policies make segregation worse. Yet hardly anyone in the halls of power or in the media even admits it is happening.

At most, you get a news story every anniversary of Brown v. Board about the increased segregation and a journalistic shrug. Well, we don’t know how to solve that one…

Yes, we do!

We need to redraw district boundaries.

We need to audit school policies that keep the races apart within districts by building or by class.

And we need robust, equitable funding that can’t be manipulated to favor wealthy white kids.

That will take a lot more moral courage than partisan outrage against Vitter.

Oh, she deserves outrage, but because of her lack of morality, not her political party.

This can no longer be about if your political football team is in power or not.

It has to be about what’s right and wrong.

Caring about integration should be part of what it means to be an American – like freedom, justice and apple pie.

If it isn’t, we have a lot worse problems than one reprehensible would-be judge.

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

School Funding Case Gaining Attention As Cynthia Nixon Primaries Andrew Cuomo

By Jake Jacobs

Should a state with extreme wealth and extreme poverty use public education to even the playing field so all children have an opportunity to improve their conditions?

Many New Yorkers would, and the state’s constitution as interpreted by an appellate court promised a “sound basic education” to all public school students. For decades, however, the rich and powerful have blocked funding to needy schools. The state's current Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has been long accused of blocking fair funding for education as he stakes out a “centrist” position that could help raise funds for a potential 2020 presidential run. Last week, New York lawmakers finalized the state’s latest budget package, underfunding the state’s neediest school districts for yet another year.

But a formidable challenger to Cuomo has emerged, and she is trying to bring the issue of equitable education funding front and center.

Actor Cynthia Nixon, known for her role in the HBO TV series Sex and The City, is a
longtime activist for public education, LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights. Her children attend public schools, and she has made educational inequity her signature campaign issue, portraying Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, as a Republican-lite who withholds public school funding to please large donors.

“I’ve seen up close the commitment [Nixon] has to public education and giving voice to everyday people,” says Billy Easton, director of the education advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education. Easton explained in a phone call that Ms. Nixon had worked with his organization for sixteen years as a spokesperson, and  “very strongly supports public education that prioritizes the needs of the whole child, focusing on high quality academics, equity, arts and music, social emotional supports, and physical education.”

Nixon has not yet made a dent in early polling, but is already getting far more media attention than Cuomo’s 2014 primary opponent, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who took 36 percent of the vote with only about 2 percent of the funding. Teachout now serves as campaign treasurer for Ms. Nixon.

At the heart of the education funding battle is the language in the law. Dating back to 1894, Article XI, Section 1 of the New York state constitution ordered “the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

In 1982, a landmark
decision by the New York Court of Appeals affirmed all New York students had the right to a “sound, basic education,” although the state was not necessarily responsible for equitable funding. This gave birth to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a 1993 lawsuit contending that New York City schools (which comprise over 40% of students in the entire state) were not getting basic minimums.

The courts
ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 1995 and then again in 2001; a New York State Appellate Court upheld an appeal in 2003, charging lawmakers with the task of carrying out the equitable distribution of funds. They did not do so.

In 2005, the court ordered payments of $5.6 billion to New York City schools. This was appealed by then-governor George Pataki, a proponent of charter schools. In 2006, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed the verdict yet again, setting out
specific minimums and formulas to allocate funding dependent on factors like poverty, disability, and language status.

In 2007, lawmakers
started to budget for a portion of the money owed to needy districts across the state. But the rug was pulled out as Wall Street imploded in 2008. Sharp drops in revenue led to freezes and reductions in state funding, followed by teacher layoffs and devastating cuts to counselors, clinicians, arts and sports. An art teacher myself, I was laid off. Cuts also included elimination of electives, kindergarten, repairs, custodial services, and building security.

In 2011, his first year in office, Cuomo reduced taxes on millionaires and billionaires yet cut funding to schools to close “inherited” budget gaps. This represented a major broken campaign promise. In his 2012-2013 budget, he increased funding by only 4 percent, ignoring billions due in Campaign for Fiscal Equity “foundation aid” funding, contesting that it was even actually owed at all. He also imposed performance grants and new teacher evaluations that linked federal “accountability” money to test scores.

The next year, Cuomo got even tougher,
threatening to withhold funding increases to districts who do not use the revised teacher evaluations. But they were challenged in court, deemed to have little scientific validity, with hidden “proprietary” algorithms that violate teachers’ rights to know how their official rankings are computed (in sharp contrast, Ms. Nixon recently tweeted “Time to reverse Cuomo’s obsession with high-stakes testing.”)

After a
botched transition to Common Core standards, Cuomo went largely silent on K-12 education, but continued to block Campaign for Fiscal Equity funding while making increases to per-pupil funding for charter schools.

charter school PAC money rolled in as Cuomo shared Koch, Walton family and billionaire private equity donors with the Republicans he was “negotiating” with, illustrating the Albany meaning of “hedge fund”.

In 2015, the majority leaders from both the state Senate and Assembly were convicted on bribery charges
amid a statewide epidemic of corruption. In 2018, Cuomo’s closest aide and confidante, Joe Percoco was convicted on corruption charges.

Albany’s murky machinations have caught the ire of a rising tide of grassroots Trump “resistance” groups who were alarmed to learn their state’s senate has been run for years by a controversial alliance between Republicans and a band of eight “turncoat” Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference.

Nixon timed her campaign launch announcement with the recent revelations of political corruption in Albany under Cuomo’s watch.

Governor Cuomo perennially complains that New York spends more per-pupil than any other U.S. state. This is true, but New York’s funding discrepancy between wealthy and poor districts is also highest in the nation, topping $8,000 per student, and has increased dramatically during Cuomo’s tenure. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s “foundation aid” formula is supposed to correct for this, but Cuomo stands opposed, reticent to hike taxes on the wealthy.

Nixon, on the other hand
calls a millionaire’s tax to raise revenue “a good idea,” and has been calling attention to the exorbitantly high average donations made to pro-Cuomo PACs as she echoes the pledge taken by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders not to take contributions from corporations.

IDC OR NO IDC? This week, the Independent Democratic Conference abruptly announced they are dissolving to rejoin mainline Democrats. Nixon has suggested Cuomo orchestrated the entire Independent Democratic Conference scheme, and she is being credited in press accounts for hastening the IDC shake up. But as we saw in 2014, this deal may be but an election year ruse (Governor Cuomo attended a fundraiser Thursday for the “zombie IDC”, drawing a number of protesters).

There is still solid support for IDC challengers, as evidenced by Bill Lipton, spokesman for the Working Families Party (WFP) who endorsed the challengers weeks ago. The progressive third party narrowly endorsed Cuomo in 2014, but was burned when Cuomo broke a string of promises made in exchange for their support. Today, the WFP endorsed Cynthia Nixon by over 90%.

It’s fitting that one of the IDC’s primary challengers for state senate is Robert Jackson, an 11-year Washington Heights councilman who was the lead plaintiff in the original CFE court case.

Last year, Cuomo and his allies tried to “wipe away” CFE, by legislating funding formula changes that eliminated poverty as a factor, instead measuring enrollment and language status. The measure failed, but did succeed as a time-wasting diversion.

This year, Cuomo’s excuse was that the funding is being mismanaged by everyone else down the line -- by cities and districts - and particularly larger cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, but
most notably, New York City, run by Cuomo’s arch rival, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cuomo’s assertions that New York City and other cities are not equitably allocating education funding led to a new policy passed without any hearings or notice.
Cuomo added new reporting rules into the law, making districts provide school-by-school funding data breakdowns to the governor’s budget director, who assumes amazing new powers to approve or deny the budgets.

New York City says it’s “Fair Funding Formula” has issues, but the problem is Albany’s failure to fully fund CFE and the much greater funding imbalances Governor Cuomo presides over in another 732 school districts across the state. The NY State Education Commissioner Elia says the data will all be made public, so we may learn more, but we already know much of the per-pupil funding being allocated or “spent” doesn’t actually reach the classroom, going instead to testing firms, consultants, a sprawling industry of for-profit curriculum vendors and even private charter school management fees.

Meanwhile, the fight to force Cuomo to equitably fund education continues through the courts. Another case is now moving forward, seeking yet again to enforce the Campaign for Fiscal Equity rulings of 1995, 2003, and 2006. The Small Cities” case, begun in 2008, has sought to extend the constitutional right to “a sound, basic education” to impoverished students in cities around the state other than New York City.  

But if Cynthia Nixon prevails, the issue may well be settled at the ballot box.

A version of this article originally appeared in
The Progressive.

Jake Jacobs is a New York City school teacher and education blogger. He has written for Washington Post, Diane Ravitch’s Blog, AlterNet, the BAT Blog and elsewhere.