Tagged: elections

Factory Farming and Moral Evolution

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Understanding the problem but managing to disassociate ourselves from even thinking about it, much less taking action to correct the situation, I believe factory farming is something future generations will accept as inhumane and wonder at our casual cruelty in tolerating it for so long.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)  estimates that more than 99% of all animals used in food production each year in the U.S. are raised on factory farms under problematic conditions such as “cages and overcrowding; physical alterations (e.g.,teeth-clipping or tail-docking) performed without anesthetic; indoor confinement with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns; inability to engage in natural behaviors; breeding for fast growth or high yields of meat, milk and eggs that compromises animal welfare; neglect of sick and suffering animals, often due to high ratio of animals to workers; misuse of antibiotics to compensate for unsanitary conditions; and/or rough or abusive handling by workers.”  Many cringed at the 2014 story about how then New Jersey governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie vetoed legislation which would have required pigs being raised for slaughter to be enclosed in crates at least big enough for them to turn around.  Despite few if any pig farms in New Jersey, Christie rejected the bill in order not to offend potential Iowa caucus Republican primary voters.  It hardly seems too much to ask that a living creature be given enough room to turn around before its unnatural (not to mention brief) life is abruptly ended so that I can have sausage with my scrambled eggs.

It’s not my intent to go off on an anti-factory farm rant or to encourage you to join the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the extreme (some would argue) animal rights group, although factory farms are pretty terrible and you could probably do much worse with your charitable time or money than PETA.  No, what strikes me as I think about this, after my cheap chicken dinner purchased already roasted from Costco, is our how paradoxical our species is in understanding what’s wrong with our behavior at the same time we take forever to change it, especially if it is inconvenient or different from what we’re used to.

There are those who claim critics don’t fully understand what factory farms are becoming and even places where the most humanely raised products can be found (although the aforementioned PETA would argue that no meat is produced humanely, and they would have lots of graphic company), but the truth is most of us won’t do much about factory farming, despite our revulsion at some of the conditions under which our food is created.  One day, when the vast majority of Earth’s residents have done away with the consumption of any meat except wild animals which have died of natural causes—“Fire up the grill, Maw! I just saw a sickly-looking possum!”—we indifferent carnivores who acted as if hamburger were born in Jewel will justifiably be viewed as primitive and ignorant (at best, with more creative pejoratives regularly used in anonymous on-line comment sections).  But what happens when we discover that plants have a rich, ancient culture and have seen our farms as concentration camps where their children are poisoned and butchered, their bodies hacked up and used for human structures, their remains ground into flour, their unborn fetuses boiled in water or baked in ovens for human consumption?  Don’t get too smug, vegans!

Changing our ethical behavior requires an evolution of morality which seems to be just as important and vital to our humanity as that which helped us to develop our bodies and brains to the point where we dominate the planet so completely we seem destined to destroy it.  Perhaps moral evolution is the only hope we have in preventing that destruction.

Any examination of the human age can’t help but find atrocity after genocide after brutality, ad nauseum—we are responsible for vast numbers of them:  From ritualistic human sacrifice by the Incans to European/American buying, selling, and using Africans as farm machinery to Nazi experiments on and extermination of Jews to tribal slaughter in Rwanda to ethnic cleansing in old Yugoslavia to the Syrian military killing thousands of its own citizens (occasionally resorting to chemically induced murder)—oh, and don’t forget about the religious persecution of Myanmar.  And that historical listing just scratches the surface of the dozens other newsworthy things we are confronted with every day, many of which present us with other moral questions: How do we guarantee children’s safety in schools if we do nothing about the prevalence of guns in the hands of anybody who wants one?  How do we ferret out and punish males who use their dominant, powerful positions to subject woman to intimidation, sexual predation, and violence?  How do we deal with equality of rights, particularly as they are applied to sexual orientation and gender identity which conflict with religious leaders who condemn these people and won’t bake them cakes?  (And by the way, how do we still grant so much power to organizations which advocate discrimination against innocent people?)  What can we do about minority rights again, but this time in reference to blacks and the predilection of white Americans to feel threatened by anyone who happens to be black, leading to dire consequences, especially when the police are involved?  How do we allow the situation where any human’s ability to access medical care is contingent on whether or not that person has the money/insurance for it?   That’s a sampling of the issues which tempt us to ignore our responsibility to do that which is right in the name of convenience or personal biases; we could add dozens more.

For example, something which is closer to the aforementioned animal cruelty issue in that it affects everyone is the environment.  There is much each and every single person could take every day to make sure we are not wasting limited resources and are creating as little pollution as possible, but billions of us are still fooling ourselves that our small acts make no difference in the grand scale of things.  Regardless of our rationalizations, there’s plenty to do:  Ban single use plastics (or at least ban them from our own homes), always bring canvas bags when shopping, and limit both car trips and our Amazon orders for all the fuel consumed and garbage those entail.  We could buy organic produce, use push/reel lawnmowers (ones without gas-powered motors), stop using fertilizers and pesticides on our gardens or lawns, and create compost heaps to recycle all our food waste (which we should striving to limit) back into the ground.  And coming full circle on our opening point, we could cut animal food products out of our diets to conserve water and other natural resources, not to mention reducing pollution, as well as eliminating the problems of factory farming and the animal cruelty which ensues.

The path to progress often seems impossible, or at least absurdly slow, especially given the obvious benefits improving our behavior would lead to.  Yet, despite our selfish reluctance and stupidity, we keep taking small steps which do advance the cause.  We begin in ignorance and unintended harm—who the hell would have figured that a chemical in aerosol cans (deodorant, hairspray and the like) would lead to the destruction of the ozone layer?  (And yeah, most of us have to be schooled on what the ozone layer is, much less on why its existence matters.)  But we then move to rationalized evil for a time after we’ve learned of the damage we’re inflicting but don’t want the hassle of changing our behavior, thus denying anything’s wrong—and wind up with a hole in the ozone.  Once we can’t pretend we’re not engaging in negative actions, however, is when things get interesting, in both horrible and ennobling ways.  There are always a few outliers who understand what’s happening more clearly and quickly than others who sound the alarm.  Ridicule and ruin often follow for these poor visionaries: The things they have proved to be harmful seem indispensable to our way of life, so we attack them: “Hair spray, gas-powered cars, hot dogs, and smart phones cannot be lived without—we need them!  You must have it completely wrong—how dare you claim my precious convenience is hurting anything!”  (Now, of course, we’ve evolved our denials even more effectively in the way we use political affiliation, religion, race, and even gender to discredit anyone calling attention to a moral wrong in our society.  How much will this new “skill” delay necessary progress is anybody’s guess—the children being separated from their parents hope we can sort this out quickly.  Enhanced moral evolution would help, especially when you consider how technologies and cleverness  have increased the pace at which human actions impact our lives, which only exacerbates the need for our figuring out the right path fast.)

Eventually—but often not before those pioneers who tried to warn us have been attacked, black-balled, ignored, persecuted, bankrupted, and/or died—we do achieve forward movement, albeit in incremental, halting stages, with regular, significant backslides, until we reach a higher moral ground and clean up our acts.  Despite how impossible it seemed thirty years ago, we’ve now had a black President.  Nobody thought it could happen fifteen years ago, but gay marriage is currently the law of the land.  Women being believed and powerful men being held to account for their crimes and indiscretions didn’t seem likely five years ago, but seemingly invincible males are now losing jobs, social standing, and even going to jail.  Those minuscule advances do lead to eventual progression, taking us out of the darkness into the light—well, at least into a patch that is a little less murky.  That we can’t recognize how much development actually occurs or what the key turning points are as we agonizingly inch forward is due to the depressing regressions we’re prone to; but if we can force ourselves to look backwards far enough on some issues, we can recognize that we’ve come a long way, that movement forward is a remarkably consistent human trait.  Our history is littered with countless horrific mistakes as we’ve already referenced, but out of those low points, we seem able to recognize the evil we have perpetuated in order to make improvements.

It doesn’t happen quickly or easily, and it is damnably difficult to recognize that good is inexorably winning out; but take a look at any recent dark period in human history and you will see that we are doing better now, at least in relation to the specific circumstances of that particular conflagration.  Treatment of and rights for minorities and women have improved in most places; pollution has decreased somewhat (or the harm we are doing has slowed down a tad); and the general quality of life has gotten better for hundreds of millions.  Sadly, there is an eternal parade of evil things happening, and human corruption will apparently always be a significant part of the equation.  Recognizing progress can never come at the expense of uncovering our rottenness, but the positive deserves our attention too.

Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself out a general sense of doom based on the awful, awful regression the United States has taken since the 2016 Presidential election and the subsequent significant back-tracking Trump has instituted in racial issues, environmental protection, corruption, women’s rights, civility, empathy, rule of law, immigration, income distribution, health care, civil rights, democracy, international alliances, and just about any progress we’ve experienced in the past fifty years.  No matter what your political leanings, there can be no denying that any movement characterized by the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is based on trying to revert to the way things were in the past, the antithesis of America’s (admittedly, not completely linear) movements over the course of its history.  You think differently?  Then contemplate the America of one hundred years ago:  Women were still fighting to gain the vote, to say nothing of being allowed to compete with men in the workforce.  Blacks were regularly being lynched in parts of the country and were severely restricted in voter participation, employment opportunities, and housing options.  Child labor laws were so permissive that 18% of American workers were under 16 years old.  Still nostalgic?  Then would you advocate refashioning present-day U.S. into what it was two hundred years ago in 1818?  If you’re hankering for a time when half the country permitted slavery, then I’d recommend you stop reading this blog immediately and never click on my essays again!  (I know—no big loss…) Through the prism of historical fact, we can see without a doubt that the wild liberals of their day—those advocating women’s rights, protection of minorities from oppression, reformation of labor laws (not to mention unionization), and abolitionists (one of the more radical groups you’ll find in America’s young life)—were 100% right in pushing this country towards what seemed like extreme positions at the time.

November will be a fascinating evaluation of Trump’s attempts to move the country in his direction (translated: backward many decades); but regardless of the outcome of this grotesque blip on humanity’s moral evolution, history suggests we will finally come to our senses, bit by bit, as we stumble our way to a brighter tomorrow.  It will be embarrassing to confess to our grandchildren that we were a party to this idiotic, repressive phase in our development, but just like those humiliating pictures from our early teenage years, we can at least be confident that it will get better.  We just don’t know how or when we’ll conquer this particular awkward stage, but if we keep slowly but surely acknowledging and fighting for that which is good, that which is just, and that which is right; even a country that was foolish enough to elect Trump will one day move forward again.  We can do better and we will.  It’s just that I—like billions and billions of factory farm animals every year—wish it wouldn’t take so long.  Who’s hungry?

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Trump Is the Total Package

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It’s hard to conceive that America could ever choose someone to be our President who would be worse than Donald J. Trump.  Before you go off on your “libtard” rant about people like me, you need to understand that what makes him the worst commander in chief this country has ever had the misfortune to elect is not about the policy changes and initiatives he has pushed, or even the lasting stain his appointments will leave on our judiciary branch.  No, we’ve weathered horrible policy Presidents before, and we’ll probably have to do so again; plus, it’s too early to make evaluations on his legislative legacy after only a little over a year. Trump is superlatively egregious because of what a horrible person he is, not because of his misguided ideas.  In every aspect of what it takes to be awful, he sinks to the bottom.  Donald J. Trump fails as a human being, and that’s why it’s so vile that he has now become an American historical figure.

Before we can really get started, I’m afraid I need to explain my personal categories of character.  To me, flaws are demonstrated when someone does anything rude, offensive, and/or mean.  And those three adjectives sum up the main three groupings I have come to assign immoral people in ascending order.  Therefore, meanness is the worst trait a person can have, with offensiveness next, which leaves rudeness as the least terrible of the three.  Since all those traits are abhorrent, connotatively I need really insulting terms to use when I describe them.  So, rather than using “rude, offensive and mean,” when discussing those who commit these faux pas, I refer to them as “assholes, dicks, and bastards.”  We all have our own special terms which help us to cope with our chaotic world, and I apologize that mine are offensive to some of you (which I readily concede places me in the dick level of my own scale).  To elaborate:

An asshole is that obnoxious guy in the movie theater who keeps talking as he loudly consumes his endless popcorn/pop/candy.  He’s that fool who has to tailgate you or won’t hold the elevator door (or any door for that matter).  Most rude behavior is simply someone being inconsiderate and self-absorbed, so everybody acts like an asshole once in a while: You don’t answer the phone when you see it’s your talkative neighbor, you take the last of the leftovers even though you know somebody else was looking forward to them, or you don’t cover your mouth when you cough, even at the height of flu season.  One of the reasons that Rick Moranis was surrounded in this wonderful Spaceballs scene is that because assholes happen to all of us.

But while being an asshole is almost inevitable—at least some of the time–most of us feel bad when we realize we’ve acted that way and try to make up for it somehow.  Dicks typically don’t readily concede that they’ve done anything wrong; they seem to relish their inappropriate acts and don’t hesitate to double down despite the discomfort they cause others.  It’s one thing to slip and use a term or phrase that others might find distasteful; it’s another to rationalize away people’s difficulty as “their problem” or to dismiss their feelings with, “Sorry you don’t have a sense of humor, for God’s sake!” (Or, closer to home, claiming that you need to use sophomoric, vulgar language in order to write your essay about why Trump is so awful.) Dicks abuse their positions and cross the line into crass.  It’s not that they’re intentionally trying to anger people so much as they can’t accept that anyone else won’t cut them some slack since they rationalize their motives as “truthful humor,” or for the truly trite dick, “Just telling it like it is!”  Being dickish does seem to involve words more than anything, so a dick’s offenses might not seem worse than those of the asshole.  Intent is the key here, however, in that dicks have a pretty good idea that what they’re saying is going to piss somebody off.  That they say it anyway is why it seems worse to me than the me-centered acts of assholes, who are often unaware that anyone is upset over what they did.  There can be some intimidating tinges to how dicks interact with others, but you’ll find most of that kind of stuff in the third and worst type of person: the bastard.

Bastards really don’t care about anyone but themselves and will do whatever it takes to ensure they come out of all situations well.  The guilty conscience or trace of remorse you will find in assholes and dicks has no place in the bastard’s behavior; if he can take advantage of your weakness, he will.  These are the people who crowd the edge of anti-social behavior and woe to anyone who gets in their way.  They make heartless jokes and laugh loudly at them, they strive to make others feel bad about themselves, and they will stab even close friends in the back, given the slightest self-advancing excuse.  You can easily imagine them being cruel to pets, indifferent to elderly parents, and impatient with physically challenged.  They probably don’t have many friends, but there will always be a certain percentage of people who tolerate them out of fear.

To put all three into the same situation so you can see the differences, imagine you’ve gathered with hordes of others at some department store right before it opens on Black Friday, and everybody there has designs on the same hot item of which there is a limited supply.  Our three archetypes happen to be standing right behind a senior citizen in the crush of eager shoppers as the store opens.  The asshole would push through our hapless senior, oblivious to any damage or anger he causes; he would be truly surprised should the old person confront him for being knocked down in the initial stampede.  The dick wouldn’t do anything physically aggressive, but he would loudly make jokes to his companions about how he could easily outrun the senior, how he could toss her out of his way, or how he will out-muscle her should they both grab something at the same time, without much concern about who else heard him.  And the bastard would intentionally trip the senior in order to get past her, step on her as he went forward to ensure she couldn’t recover in time to compete with him, and then vehemently deny doing anything wrong when challenged about his actions, not completely hiding the smirk on his face as he held the coveted item.

One final note on these designations:  All three can be intensified with the addition of the modifier, “total.”  A total asshole is perpetually rude; even the sound of his voice will grate after a while.  A total dick is someone you count on to say something inappropriate in every situation, and he will cause hurt feelings regularly.  A total bastard, then, would be about the worst thing you could say about someone, and somebody to cut out of your life as much as possible.  (I also sometimes substitute “complete” for “total” to the same effect.)

All of which brings us to our conclusion:  Donald Trump (our President) is a bastard, as well as a dick and an asshole; and not surprisingly given the number of asshat, dickish, bastardly examples he accumulates almost daily, he deserves, without hesitation, the extra heft of “total” in all three categories as well.

A total asshole shoves a prime minister out of his way, yells at then hangs up on another, brags about not paying taxes, and doesn’t mind a shock-jock calling his daughter “a piece of ass.” 

As far as being a total dick, he would boast of sexual assault (of course, denying actually committing the act when his remarks come to light), insult Native Americans using, “Pocahontas,” as a pejorative, defend neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” and say/write so many racist things that the New York Times would feel the need to document all the times he denigrated blacks (to say nothing of his making “shithole” comments about Africa and Haiti.)

Actually, several of those incidents could easily be placed in the bastard category, but for sheer meanness, you only have to look at the belittling nicknames he has plastered on his enemies, his effectively calling a soldier’s widow a liar right after her husband had died, how he matter-of-factly tried to ban transgendered military personnel from service, and (it’s still hard to accept anyone could do this)  mocked a reporter’s disability in front of both television cameras and a large crowd.  (Oh, and as I was working on this, he fired his Secretary of State—who was no prize either—with a tweet.  Only a real bastard could make us feel sympathy for incompetent, nasty, and/or racist characters like Rex Tillerson, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, and [amazingly enough] Jeff Sessions!)

As far as that “total” being added all three times, it’s a given, especially when you realize that the disturbing examples documented here are just a small sampling of the huge number of his offenses:  Even if you limit your time frame to when he announced his candidacy for the Presidency (by calling Mexicans rapists) to the latest storm over the $130,000 his lawyer paid to silence a porn star’s revelations of her sexual encounter with him at the time his wife was recovering from delivering his son, you’d still have more than enough examples to earn Trump a featured place in the Asshole/Dick/Bastard Hall of Shame.

We can debate his various policies, and I would be happy to discuss with anyone how I disagree with him on most issues you could name.  I can also recognize that my dislike for his ideas on how the country should be run would lead you to conclude that my evaluation of him as a human being is biased, but his constant repulsive acts make that charge easy to refute.  For one, I believe that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were poor Presidents too, both of whom took the country in the wrong direction (way, way wrong in Reagan’s case especially) during each of their eight years in office. I would never, however, criticize their fundamental humanity or question that they were (more or less) moral, decent people.  I would be happy to meet either (Yes, I know Reagan is dead) and was not ashamed to have both represent me to other heads of state and the world.  I didn’t like them at all as Presidents, but they’re fine as humans.  (I still get misty listening to Reagan speaking about the Challenger astronauts who were killed, especially as edited into the Owl City song “Galaxies.”)

I can’t come close to that level of tolerance when it comes to Trump because there is nothing about the way he conducts himself that is appropriate or acceptable.  From his constant abuse of our mother tongue (I taught English for thirty-three years, so Trump’s vicious assaults on the conventions of our beautiful language and its grammar especially irk me), to his sleazy affairs with porn stars, to the way he ignored his wife as they came to the White House for his inauguration, to his boorish speech for the Boy Scouts, to his handshake games with other heads of state, to his lobbing paper towels at suffering Puerto Ricans, to his gloating about firing a government employee one day before the employee would have received his pension…well, I’ll stop there since you don’t have time for anything close to a comprehensive list—oh, don’t forget his childish feud with a Gold Star family. He has lied  more than any other politician in history—the only way he has made America #1 again—and never, ever apologizes or admits to mistakes.  Of course, there are many examples which can be pointed to of how other politicians have misled the public, but Trump lies about stupid, inconsequential things that serve no purpose other than to boost his ego, like crowd size at inaugurations.  Any other person in the world would have squirmed uncomfortably at the revolting sycophancy he engineered before a cabinet meeting began (I would have had to bolt from the room to save myself from dying of humiliation), but Trump seemed to revel in the false praise. I’ve never been able to watch that whole grotesque video; I probably should have put a nausea-inducing-warning label on the link—sorry about that.  Virtually every person who has gone to work for him during this administration has seen his/her own reputation sink to the depths—not only is Trump morally bankrupt, but contact with him taints and diminishes everyone else—Typhoid Trump.

I don’t need to belabor the point, but keep in mind that the chief character issues our previous President was accused of were charges of a phony birth certificate to cover up a Kenyan birth and that he was secretly a Muslim. So, two fantasy stories easily disproved were the main “scandals” of Obama’s eight years.  Petty personal feuds? Marital infidelity? Inappropriate ties to foreign governments? Publicly attacking his own Attorney General? Literally shoving people out of his way?  Notes to remind him to be empathic enough to tell grieving parents, “I hear you”?  Nope, and Obama didn’t praise a wife beater’s character, demand a military parade for his own ego, or regularly swear on TV, either.  (And don’t forget that Trump was the driving force behind the fake birth certificate nonsense, and in another dickish move, demanded copies of Obama’s college transcripts and passport.)

I know that just as I despised the policy directions the U.S. took under Bush the Second and Reagan, many of you felt the same pain based on the projects and initiatives which took place under Obama.  But if you can watch the Trump show now and somehow claim that he is as decent a human being as Barak, then you have a really warped view of what “decency” means.  I realize that I have sunk to dickish methods in characterizing this lump of orange flesh with disturbing hair, but there can be little debate on the reality that Donald Trump is a total asshole, a total dick, and worst of all, a total bastard.  Now, about his colluding with Russia, his obstructions of justice, his using his office to profit himself, his ignorance of climate change, his starting trade wars, his manipulation of the Dreamers, his shifting positions on gun control, his being accused of sexual assault and marital infidelity, his support for a candidate who stalked minors and was banned from a shopping mall, his false claims of voter fraud…Yeah, no doubt about it—he’s the worst.

Guns

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“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”  Flannery O’Connor

At first, the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, seemed like just another in the series of horrific school shootings we’ve come to dread and expect in the U.S. “Hopes and prayers” would be profusely proffered with nothing changing until the next school joins the bloody ranks of this uniquely American epidemic.  But then articulate, camera-ready high school students gained access to our national media, and suddenly the possibility of some progress on this shameful legacy became possible.

As a high school/junior high teacher for thirty-three years (1979-2012), I was certainly aware of this issue, teaching for the bulk of my career in a high school similar in many ways to the two frame high schools of this era, Columbine (1999, 13 dead) and Parkland (2018, 17 dead) with Sandy Hook elementary school (2012, 26 dead) notably in between as well as way too many others.  I worked with kids very similar to those who attend Stoneman Douglas High School—upper-middle class, mostly white, with the majority going on to college and top 25% socio-economic status for their adult lives.  These are our future lawyers, doctors, and business leaders; they are the ones who take charge of our country, but typically not for twenty-plus years into the future, so it is fascinating that the country is paying so much attention to what they have to say right now.

Let me be very clear right up front: I strongly agree with their agenda—tougher gun laws, more comprehensive background checks, raising age limits, and assault-rifle bans (if anything, I don’t believe they go far enough)—but my support comes with a few qualifications as well.  Where was all this outrage and activism when other places were being shot up?    The fifty-nine dead in Las Vegas happened just months ago; did they take to social media after that too?  Who organized the marches to change laws in memoriam of these concert-goers’ and their hundreds of family members and friends? This self-absorption—where we humans seem capable of action only after we have been personally touched by an issue—has always frustrated my sense of right/wrong.  That our personal lives have to be impacted before we see an issue’s importance and are willing to support action is hardly a new phenomenon, though.  Gay rights progressed rapidly only after so many people had come out that virtually every straight person knew and liked at least one gay person.  Until we had Will and Grace, not to mention Ellen, we were quite capable of blithely saying and doing nothing about ludicrously unfair statutes which prohibited many rights to gays.  But once we realized that Jack McFarland and Sulu might die because they couldn’t get insurance coverage on their life partners’ policy, we recognized the inherent unfairness and compassionless nature of the bigoted system which had always been in place.

That certainly seems to be the case with these students. As Trevor Noah pointed out during off-camera comments on The Daily Show, they are using the privilege they have been afforded all their lives to question the status quo, at least once they have directly experienced how that quo functions.  So we who have long been appalled by the unfettered access our country has allowed to high-tech guns need to be patient with some of the eye-rolling inducing comments these kids make in their insistent demands that things change immediately now that they have an awareness of those things’ flaws.  (The most cringe-worthy moment I’ve seen so far was when a student being interviewed on CNN along with Dan Rather complained that on the day after the shooting, he had been rejected by one of his “safety schools,” Cal State Long Beach, even though he plans to go to Harvard or Northwestern (at about the seven minute mark of the interview).  I’m very familiar with that kind of student, having taught them for many years.  These Parkland students are extremely intelligent, articulate, and exceptional but they are not as unusual as they have been portrayed by the media—any high school teacher from similar districts throughout the country would recognize the earnest, idealistic, privileged, media-ready attitudes exhibited by these teens.

I guess the main thing I want to point out here is that there have been many individuals over the years who have been trying to accomplish the goals these kids are lobbying for and who offer an expertise and knowledge which would significantly supplement the raw emotion and idealism of those who have taken up the issue only after—and primarily because—they have been personally affected by gun violence.  Of course it’s imperative that those victimized by a problem participate in the formulation of a societal consensus on what the solutions should look like; it just seems unfortunate our attention and willingness to listen requires the emotional outpourings which follow tragedies.  It’s the same psychology which leads to horrific car wreck remains being displayed on the grounds of many high schools right before senior prom to deter drunk driving or the vicarious yet safe fear and dread spike which forces most to slow down to see as much carnage as possible after highway accidents.  I understand that impulse and recognize it will always be this way, but I wish we didn’t need such negative energy to be motivated to do what seems logical, humane, and obvious.

None of which blunts in the slightest the importance of our seizing upon this moment as an opportunity to make some progress on attacking the killing machines which so many Americans have determined to be their god-granted right, regardless of the potential harm they can so easily cause when in the hands of the wrong people.  For too long, we anti-gun folks have remained an impotent minority as our country has gotten more and more extreme about firearms.  Every once in a while (like right now or after Sandy Hook), an emotional wave spurs a few more to action and there are many anti-gun organizations headed up by bereaved parents or recovering victims, but the perpetual fervor and rabid attacks from the other side always manage to interfere with and ultimately defeat any actions that might change the dangerous lack of controls we have over who can get a gun, how many guns it’s acceptable to own, and/or the types of guns/accessories readily available all over the country.  Even liberal, reasonable people seem to have given up the fight, weakly pursuing only the most minor reforms in our lax gun laws.  But with the media megaphone provided by Parkland, anti-gun advocates might be heard more loudly and forcefully when they speak.  And I hope their goals are to limit the purchase of and to get rid of as many guns as possible, especially those in the hands of private citizens.

Yeah, I’ve heard and read all the reasons why this is a horrible violation of personal rights, not to mention the Constitution, but all those reasons are at worst completely invalid and at best hardly absolute when people look at the facts.  Let’s run through a few of the pro-gun arguments and see how well they stand up to logical analysis.

The right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution.  The second amendment was created during a time when the U.S. armed forces were a rag-tag collection of volunteers, and hostile Native Americans were prevalent on our continent.  We now have the best-armed, best-trained military in the world, and its ability to protect its citizens is without peer…anywhere.  The U.S. is bordered by friendly countries, and almost all of the threats to our sovereignty are overseas in places where our enemies spend more time fighting each other than trying to invade our shores.  No foreign country poses a military threat to the continental United States, and if one did, our armed forces could destroy it in a matter of days.  Ordinary citizens do not need guns to protect themselves from invading enemies, so the Constitutional need of 1789 no longer exists.  And let’s not even broach the topic of the infallibility of our founding fathers since that 1789 document also allowed for slavery.  Times change, and the Constitution needs some updating when it comes to guns even if you accept that the second amendment is intended as some sacred rite, rather than the need of another time when foes were closer and our federal armed forces were weak.  And we’ll also skip getting into all the other amendments—to say nothing of the Constitution’s basic tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which a heavily armed citizenry threatens as well.  The Constitutional argument for loose gun restrictions doesn’t hold up well at all.

We need guns to protect ourselves should non-democratic forces take over our government.  The NSA spying Edward Snowden revealed should give everyone pause about the increasing power of our federal government.  But does anyone seriously think that with drones, tanks, access to all our personal records, 1.3 million soldiers, and a military budget that dwarfs the next seven largest countries in the world combined; buying six shotguns would keep you safe should the government suddenly turn fascist?  It’s idiotic to believe that arming your ten-year-old with a .22 rifle would prevent our government from doing what it wants should it ever go rogue.  And that’s accepting that the kinds of coups which occur in places like Thailand and Egypt are even possible here.  Our system might lead to flawed leaders (Can you say Dick Cheney and Donald Trump?), but our tradition of peaceful dissent and the electoral process make militia paranoia absurd.  We don’t need guns to protect ourselves from our government, and even if we did, our government has way too much firepower for any community organization (and certainly any individual) no matter how well armed, to overcome.

If we ban guns, the bad guys would just use other weapons.  This one’s probably my favorite of the poor reasons gun advocates trot out.  Yes, we have had dozens and dozens of mass murders committed with knives and ball-peen hammers.  It’s just idiotic; killing people with a gun is light-years easier than anything else commonly available.  Perhaps one day evil criminal geniuses will come up with death rays or killer robots, but the only places you will find ANY examples of death on a large-scale that don’t involve guns are in the pages of science-fiction novels.  Oooo, look out—here comes that bad man with his clothes line!  He’s on a strangling rampage, and we’re helpless in the face of such deadly force!  C’mon; it’s just one of those debating points that has not a shred of evidence to support it, and we should just laugh when some gun-advocate tries to use that line of “reasoning.”

We need guns to protect ourselves from the bad guys.  This is probably the most effective argument (unlike the previous reason) that gun advocates use.  There have been cases where armed citizens have fought off or even killed evil ones who tried to rob or hurt them.  But there have also been cases where the armed citizen killed or injured innocent bystanders.  My preference is that guns only be in the hands of professionals—cops, soldiers, and criminals.  Yeah, you read that right:  The bulk of law-breakers do not want to hurt anyone, but just want money or drugs (or money to get drugs), and armed law-abiding citizens simply complicate what should be a simple robbery by brandishing a hand-gun, leading to somebody’s getting shot.  Certainly, sometimes the recipient of the bullet in these shootouts is a bad guy, but just as often a good guy with a gun is racked up.  You can go on-line to try to research how often guns have been successfully used to foil crimes (as I have), but both sides of the issue use various studies and statistics to prove completely opposite conclusions.  I don’t doubt that if we abolish guns there will be tragic events where unarmed people are hurt by evil idiots with guns.  But the evidence suggests that the numbers of innocents killed by guns will go down significantly once we get rid of the plague of guns currently awash in the U.S.

And we mustn’t forget that the bulk of gun-related deaths (roughly two-thirds) come in the form of self-harm:  Suicides are simply too easy with readily available guns and a federal government which is now trying to cut or eliminate funds for helping mentally ill people. The majority of those prone to violence due to mental illnesses direct that violence on themselves.  Again, yes, some of these poor people would find other ways to act out their pain with other tools, but guns are significantly faster and more lethal than anything else.

You can’t go by other countries since they aren’t like us.  Of course they aren’t like us!  But they aren’t like each other, either, and the one common factor in England, Canada, and Australia (three countries more like us than many in that they all share a language and heritage [or a heritage imported to the country from England]) is that they have significantly fewer gun deaths every year than we do.  Australia is especially interesting in that they only changed their gun laws after a horrific 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania.  A conservative president John Howard (who was an ardent backer of George W. Bush and thus obviously no bleeding heart) pushed through a significant reduction in guns by banning all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, coupled with a government buyback.  And Australia hasn’t had any mass gun killings since, not to mention that their gun-related suicide rate has plummeted without any increase in other types of suicides at all.  The firearm-related death rates for these four countries look like this per 100,000 population:  England: 0.25; Australia: 1.06; Canada: 2.38; and the United States: 9.42.  (See this for a list of all countries where you will see that only less developed countries in South/Central America and Africa have rates higher than the U.S.  Of the “modern, developed” (rich) countries, the U.S. is definitely the gun-death capitol of the world.)

So it’s great that these young people are joining those of us who have been against guns for a long time.  That they now agree with long-time opposers is heartening, and that they are drawing significant attention to this issue is wonderful.  Like the veterans, they should understand the important implications of their support, because they can have no illusions that this will be an easy task.  But as we’ll see below, there are some positive signs we could see progress this time.

First, understand the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its five million members wield significant sway with many politicians right now, both in terms of financial backing and the ability to deliver votes. On the money front, there are a couple of ways to fight back: In the short term, find candidates and politically active groups to support and donate money to them.  It does seem that the U.S. government is for sale, and politicians have to have large sums of money to wage campaigns and conduct public relations which will keep their constituencies happy.  So we anti-gun people will have to buy our own representation exactly the same way the NRA has.  Given the poll numbers which suggest the majority of Americans are ready for reform, it should be possible to compete with the millions gun groups (especially the NRA) donate to Senate and Congressional races.  We could even take some solace in that our bought politicians are at least being paid to save lives.

Hand in hand with that, you can use purchasing power to insist that your dollars don’t go toward the support of the gun industry or its mouth-piece, the NRA.  This is an extremely effective way to exert pressure on others who donate large sums to influence politicians.  And guess what?  Two airlines, six car rental companies, and at least one bank have all eliminated special discount programs open to those with NRA membership.  Now Wal-Mart has raised gun purchase age from 18 to 21, and Dick’s Sporting Goods has discontinued sale of assault rifles (expanding a partial ban which came after Sandy Hook).  And in perhaps the most interesting development, retailer REI has decided not to reorder from some of its suppliers because their parent company manufactures assault rifles. REI does not sell guns and it bought mostly clothing from these subsidiary manufacturers, but its executives have determined that contributing to the overall revenue of a corporation which sells these kinds of weapons is no longer acceptable business practice.  It’s understandable not to trust the words of politicians, especially those of Donald Trump, but once gun manufacturers and the NRA start to feel financial pain, who knows where this could lead?

But the long-term, more important battle is to get Citizens United  overturned.  (Citizens United is a Supreme Court ruling which more or less allowed unlimited money through super-PACs and the like to corrupt the political process to the point where single-issue groups or wealthy individuals have disproportionate influence in our government.)  If you saw NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre, at this year’s conservative summit, CPAC, you heard his unbridled disdain for our law enforcement officials, schools, and mass media, all areas which have little to do with a group supposedly interested in gun safety and hunting.  But NRA campaign donations totaling millions to politicians like Senators Mark Rubio and John McCain, as well as Speaker Paul Ryan, have allowed LaPierre and his followers to dictate policy on any issues they feel impact gun sales; thus the NRA’s main solution for making our schools safer revolves around an insane plan to arm teachers, but only the ones who are as good at shooting as Jose Abreu is at hitting home runs.  Trump has been all over the place on his proposals following the Parkland shootings, but the Republican leadership has been rock solid in its opposition to doing anything, except proposals like the latter, which the NRA likes because it would lead to more gun sales.  Of course we need better gun laws in the U.S., but cutting lobbyists off at the wallet would help us to get better laws for just about everything.

I’ve already seen Facebook memes suggesting that it’s hypocritical for voters to single out politicians who accept NRA donations as bad when the drug, insurance, and other industries also use cash to influence governmental policies to the detriment of us regular folks.  So, if we more tightly restrict and limit ALL cash contributions, that won’t be a problem.  Nobody’s pet cause should be adjudicated legislatively based on how much money its patrons can pony up.  There’s simply too much money in our political system.  Maybe those Parkland teenagers should be advocating another of my causes:  Political elections which are severely restricted in both time and money spent.  In England, for example, a typical general election lasts four weeks, and candidates are prohibited from buying broadcasting time.  Contrast that with the billions of dollars wasted on TV ads in the U.S. or the Presidential campaigns which begin at least two years before the actual election—one year into our current administration and potential candidates are already gearing up for their shot in 2020. And no, that’s not just Democrats as John Kasich and Jeff Fluke are clearly making plans to challenge for the Republican nomination.

But, ultimately, voting is crucial to making any of the Parkland teens’ wishes come true.  Already, the Florida legislature has backed away from any reforms, and you can be sure Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will be loathe to allow any debate, much less bring any legislation to the floor of either the House or the Senate.  Trump has been erratic, but just as during recent immigration discussions on DACA, he doesn’t follow through on any of his controversial proposals unless his Republican cronies and special interest groups agree with him.  The only way we will change the gun culture of our society is to make our voices heard on Election Day.  So after all the protests and marches and town halls, those of us who want fewer guns in our society need to be sure to show that desire with our votes.  For me, it’s pretty simple—if a candidate is willing to accept donations from the NRA or has a high rating from the NRA, he/she will not get my vote.  And I don’t really see how any pro-gun people can criticize this approach—it’s the way they have come to control this issue despite overwhelming public sentiment in opposition.

If you’d like to make it even simpler, voting for Democrats or Independents is the easiest way to get gun laws changed.  Looking at the 2017 NRA ratings of Senators or the campaign contributions the NRA has made over the years (the top Democrat received $50,000 total for his career, compared with over eight Republicans who have been given over $1,000,000), it becomes crystal clear for whom we should vote if we want representatives who are not beholden to the NRA.  The key this year will be the suburbs of urban areas in places like Illinois, California, Texas, and New York which have traditionally supported Republican, “pro-business/anti-tax” candidates, who have fallen in line with the NRA over the years.  Congressional districts in rural Alabama or Montana are unlikely to support any changes to current gun laws, but these suburban areas—exactly the communities which have suffered the most school shootings—can make the difference in who controls the legislative branch of our government.  Coupled with a different President in 2020, reasonable changes in gun federal gun laws could be in place within three years.  No, that won’t be the weeks or months which the Parkland teenagers have demanded, but it would be a huge improvement.  It will take even more radical changes in our laws and gun culture to rid ourselves of this mass shooting epidemic completely than seem possible right now even with this optimistic schedule, but modest adjustments could go a long way to reducing their numbers.

It is depressing to contemplate that we are so divided we can’t come together on sensible procedures to prevent unstable people from easily obtaining guns, to agree that assault rifles don’t belong in homes, to ban over-sized magazines (which allow guns to fire significantly more bullets before reloading is necessary), to get rid of bump stocks (which alter guns to fire more rapidly), or to increase the age requirements for rifle purchase from 18 to 21 without significant Congressional and Senate turnover.  Let’s hope that the Parkland teenagers—and the rest of us who support their cause’s goals—recognize that no matter how logical anti-gun reasoning is or how brutally tragic future massacres are, given current political realities, nothing will change on the federal level until we have voted many of today’s leaders out of office.  And the potential for regression on a wide variety of issues will constantly be at risk as long as the Citizens United ruling is the law of the land.  We can make a difference and lower the risk our children take every time they get on the bus to head to school, but it will take a lot more than well-spoken distraught teenagers or a couple of marches.  We need to work together to make progress on this deadly scourge in our schools; the first step is to understand the importance of getting the money out of our political process and insisting that our elected representatives do what’s in our best interests, rather than what’s profitable for their biggest donors.

Hinsdale Township High School District 86: New Year, Same Problem

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As the 2017-18 school year begins, one district continues to deal with an old problem.  If you’re at all familiar with the attendance-balancing conundrum faced by Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central High Schools, the news that the school board is planning to hire a public opinion research firm to figure out what the community believes should be done to solve the matter might have led you to some significant eye rolling.  Since I taught English for twenty-five years at South, as well as having been active in the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) for most of that time, I could only shake my head at the prospect of an outside agency being hired ($52,000 is the proposed budget) to gauge (gouge?) public sentiment while soliciting input on the solutions most favored by the community.  Yet, I do understand the difficulty the board faces, which has led to this course of action.

In case you don’t know about all the drama in District 86 over attendance:  For the past several years, Central’s student population has been rapidly growing while South’s is shrinking.  On the most recent Illinois Report Card, Central had 1281 more students than South (2834 vs. 1553).  More problematic is that Central’s numbers are above what district administrators feel the building can handle, while South is roughly 400 below its capacity.  “Not much of a problem,” you might think, since it seems obvious that students could be moved from one high school to the other.  And even if the district chose not to transfer any students who had already begun attending Central, you might conclude it would make sense to shift some incoming freshmen from Central to South each year, which would gradually even out both schools’ totals.  But you would be very naive to underestimate how challenging either of those actions would really be.

You see, parents in the Central attendance adamantly do NOT want their children to go to South.  This has been proven repeatedly whenever the board has even hinted at moving students. Last year, when the board broached the topic of changing the district’s “buffer” zone (an area in the middle of the district where parents can pick which of the two high schools their children attend—almost all choose Central) so that those students would now have to attend South, hundreds of parents showed up, with the overwhelming majority protesting the possibility of not being able to send their kids to Central.  Soon thereafter, the board tabled even forming a committee to look at attendance issues, preferring to bury the matter in the overall strategic plan for the district. (For me, one particularly surreal moment occurred at that meeting when a board member apologized to Central parents for “stressing” them by considering shifting their kids to South.)   Then, this past spring, the board attempted to pass a referendum which would have funded a Central building expansion to accommodate the growing Red Devil masses, effectively increasing the imbalance with an ever-growing Central campus. But district voters soundly rejected the proposal by a three-to-one margin.

If you’d like to read a more detailed account of all this (flavored liberally, of course, with my own insights), you could check out my other essays on this topic, starting chronologically with this one  from May 2016, followed by another one in September that same year, topped off by this analysis after the referendum was voted down in April, 2017.  While I heartily recommend this journey down memory lane in its entirety (and there are others, if you’re game), the bottom line of all this doesn’t offer any solutions which won’t anger a hearty portion of one section of the district or the other.  Current Central parents will be livid if they can no longer send their kids to Central, and South folks will not be happy to see their taxes increased to add on to Central when there is more than adequate space already available in South.  There really aren’t many solutions to this problem outside of these two, which would seem to lead to disgruntled residents no matter which is selected.

But you would misjudge human creativity if you felt those two options couldn’t be finessed to make them seem more palatable, or at least hidden—it’s just that those are the only two that follow the letter of the law and spend tax dollars most reasonably.  Another couple of ideas floated over the years are even more radical or risk being horribly offensive and morally questionable.  First, some have suggested merging the two schools, which would result in one campus inhabited by freshmen and sophomores, with the other populated by juniors and seniors.  This new Hinsdale Township High School would definitely solve all the balancing problems (even though it would create others—most notably to some, the elimination of half of the district’s varsity sports programs), and there could be little question that this would offer all District 86 students equal academic opportunities.  One high school instead of two would be such a huge change for everyone, though, that it is hard to see it getting any serious consideration, or being endorsed by many on the proposed public opinion surveys.

The other, shadier idea which has been suggested would be creating an elite “school within a school” at South which would house a small, advanced group of students.  I’ve disliked this idea from the start as a somewhat cynical publicity stunt to convince Central people it was safe to journey into the wilderness they believe South to be, where their sheltered children could pursue their more advanced studies, isolated from the unwashed masses that populate the rest of the building.  The official concept District 86 has considered for this is an International Baccalaureate program, which I have nothing against and appears to be a solid, worthwhile concept.  The catch, however, is that the Advanced Placement classes already in place serve essentially the same purpose, and no one is suggesting the elimination of any A.P. classes in District 86.  Instead, this idea is a misleading way to trick parents into thinking the school-within-a-school approach would be much better than the programs already in place, an extremely shaky premise given the excellent education currently being provided at both schools.  What the I.B. proposal really facilitates is a way to segregate any Central students who might enroll in it from the general population at South.  No one will ever admit that, and I’m sure this hidden bias would be denied vehemently by all District 86 board members and administrators; but it is a bit odd that during my twenty-five years teaching high-level classes at South, nobody ever broached this idea or even hinted our honors programs were lacking.  In my opinion, the I.B. idea has surfaced as a means to balance attendance, not as something for which there is a curricular need.  That it takes several years and significant retooling to be certified as an I.B. school, however, makes this approach seem unlikely to address a problem which needs decisive action sooner rather than later.

The one tried-and-true method for solving overcrowding is for the school board to use accumulated tax money combined with issuing new bonds in order to add on to Central without subjecting these new expenditures to the referendum process.  You might be shocked that the board would be able to circumvent the normal process for new building projects (that is, seeking permission from its electorate before committing millions of tax dollars to expansion; i.e., a referendum), but this has been done repeatedly over the years.  Any and all new building in District 86 since South was constructed in the 1960s was funded this way—and that would include field houses, science lab wings, air conditioning, and annexes, to name a few, totaling over $75 million (conservatively).  That the board sought referendum approval in the spring of 2016 before proceeding with additions is actually an outlier when compared to typical District 86 operating practices:  No property tax increases for new construction have been approved through referendums in over fifty years, yet many significant building projects have been completed during that time.

So it is still possible that Central could be expanded over the decisive margin of objections evidenced through the recent referendum of District 86’s electorate.  To its credit, however, school board members are trying to involve the community in the ultimate decision, hence the proposed hiring of a public relations firm to assess community opinions.  Yes, it would seem pretty obvious what community opinion is at this point given the crushing defeat of the referendum proposal this past spring, but that defeat did not resolve the overcrowding at Central, which is only getting worse.

And it is possible, maybe, that the survey could provide helpful information on the key question that has impeded the most fiscally responsible solution to this problem:  Why are Central area residents so opposed to redistricting attendance boundaries for better balance, which would mean some students currently slated to attend Central would be moved to South?

Clearly, the answer to that pivotal question is not simple, direct, or even totally understood at a conscious level by many opposed to the change.  Without a doubt, the most significant and readily accessed reasons have to do with the quality education Central has provided over the years.  Consistently rated as one of the best high schools in America, Hinsdale Central has a proud tradition of academic and extra-curricular excellence as evidenced by the success its students have in elite colleges, their professional lives after graduation, and how often Central racks up Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sports championships.  Most people resist change, especially when that which is to be changed is regarded as exemplary.  Many residents of the Central attendance area selected their homes and paid a premium price (Oakbrook, Hinsdale, and Clarendon Hills are NOT cheap places to buy real estate) particularly because it meant their children would be able to go to Central.  To have that switched to South will not be received well, regardless of South’s own excellence.

But that’s where things start to go wrong, to get twisted, to get an ugly sheen which contains hints of racism, class snobbery, and economic bigotry.  As someone who taught for twenty-five years at South, I know how good it is, and the shrill resistance of Central residents to sending their children there often seems hurtful both to the teachers and students who go to South every day.  I’ve been over my opinion of South’s high quality several times (see the previously referenced blog entries for more on that), but the rumors and myths many Central people accept as truth about South destroys anyone’s ability to convince them of how good the school is, and most significantly to believe the opportunities afforded South students are in every way equal to those at Central.  Unfortunately, it will come as no surprise to anyone when the public opinion firm verifies what everyone already knows—South is perceived within the Central attendance area as more dangerous, less academically rigorous, and generally a huge step down from Central in preparing kids for college and providing them with an education anywhere near as good as the one Central provides.  That the top students at South go just as far as Central’s elite—although fewer in number—is disregarded; some may even believe those kids achieve despite going to South, not because of it.  Unless this public opinion firm can somehow alter those negative perceptions many Central residents have about South, nothing but confirmation of the status quo will come from the $52,000 the board is planning to spend.

Why South has such a bad reputation on the Central side of town and how that can be changed is a discussion nobody wants to have, but it’s at the heart of any solution to District 86’s attendance issues.  To some, the whole time-consuming exercise (to say nothing of the cost) of public opinion surveys does little but delay needed resolutions to the issue.  And others would argue that more time is all the board is really seeking by postponing a direct confrontation on this controversy, now that the referendum solution has failed.  As the last board did a year ago when it tabled any discussions of what to do; in hiring a public opinion company, the current board could be accused of kicking the controversy down the road another year or so.  And as has happened each time the board has avoided hard decisions, the problem hasn’t gone away, emerging later in an even more acute state.

While we can empathize with the difficult situation in which District 86 school board members find themselves, it is hard to believe that an outside public opinion research firm will be able to discover a magic solution which will make everyone happy.  Regardless, something concrete has to be done.  In an extensive demographic report created in 2015, attendance estimates were made based on “enrollment projections assuming turnover of existing housing units and family in-migration which are A. less than anticipated; B. as anticipated; or C. greater than anticipated through 2029-2030.”  And under all three scenarios, significantly more students are projected for Central until at least 2030.  Even more ominous is that last year’s attendance at both schools was closer to the high projection (C) with Central actually 37 students beyond that largest projection (2797 projected vs 2834 actual).  Eventually, the school board will have to decide if it is going to change attendance zones and send students who originally were slated to attend Central to South (and anger the parents of those students) or spend millions more than is necessary through increased taxes/bonds so that Central can be enlarged despite all the space available at South (and anger everyone else).

This day of reckoning can only be put off for so long.  Not only are Central students suffering with overly crammed facilities and decreasing course offerings, but South’s students face issues too.  Numerous faculty members have been transferred to Central, which leads to an unsettled atmosphere and fewer services (like the English Department’s Writing Lab) offered.  It’s hard not to see actions like hiring a public opinion research firm as anything more than delaying tactics which will make necessary solutions even more unpalatable to everyone later.

For more on the challenges facing public education and common sense ideas to meet them, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, which can be previewed here.

Staying Focused

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First off, let me state for the record that I’m reassured with how the system is moving to hold President Trump and his administration accountable for the questionable dealings which have taken place during and since his presidential campaign.  Between six Congressional committee inquiries, Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, and the FBI’s work; I believe we will eventually know what happened.  As Don Trump Jr.’s by now infamous meeting/email chain/ever-evolving stories have proven beyond any reasonable doubt, there is definitely a problem with Trump’s family/campaign and Russia.  But with all these various governmental groups looking into it, we should have the facts uncovered so that a just course of action can be taken. Or we will have enough information to pressure our leaders to do more, if there are attempts to minimize or ignore clear wrongs. (At this point, it would be foolish to believe Trump will accept factual findings which show him to be at fault.)

So maybe we who are opposed to this administration and its legislative goals should ease up a bit in our zeal to find, magnify, and exaggerate every mistake and flaw this president exhibits.  Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen stories about his facial expressions during French parades, a to-do over his greeting to the French first lady, a montage of alleged hand-shaking faux pas, and complaints that he said, “Hell,” in front of boy scouts.  Now, I’m not saying those things are good or normal, but in context of everything else that’s going on, some of which is only peripherally tied to Trump, we would do better to focus on the weightier issues rather than dwelling on the merely stupid or boorish which, it would seem safe to predict, he’s going to keep on doing.

No, his comments to Brigette Marcon that she was “in such great shape,” were inappropriate and classless, but I do believe he was just doing his best (which is downright awful, I readily agree) to be pleasant.  Yes, it would have been awesome if she had responded, “Thank you. I’m sorry I can’t say the same about Melania’s spouse.”  (And that does sound much more acidic in French:  Merci.  Je suis désolé, je ne peux pas dire la même chose au sujet du conjoint de Melania.)  But compared to his plotting with Russia or his pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, sexist pleasantries don’t amount to much.  These social gaffes are wonderful fodder for our satirists and late-night hosts, but our news outlets can get caught up in devoting way too much time to dissecting and analyzing things which are not nearly as important as the hatchet job Pruitt (Head of the Environmental Protection Agency) is being allowed to do on our health—this man is trying to ignore scientific evidence and research on a widely used pesticide which causes brain damage, especially in children.  Now that’s something we all need to focus on and fight.  Yes, Trump’s ignorant female body shaming (he clearly has little shame about his own) and obsession over any woman’s appearance are appalling and shocking, especially coming from someone charged with representing all of us, but I’d definitely rate having brain-damaging residue on our produce as a more serious threat, at least in the short term.

Even the Russian disaster could be something we obsess over to the point where really bad things get sneaked into law legislatively without nearly enough scrutiny.  Mitch McConnell (Senate leader) has been trying to con America for years that the ACA (Obamacare) is the worst thing ever for Americans, while at the same time pushing for an evil, cruel replacement nobody wants.  The cynicism of Paul Ryan (House Speaker) and McConnell in speaking of the damage Obamacare is wreaking while trying to price millions of Americans out of healthcare insurance AND giving the wealthy a large tax break is infuriating.  It’s especially so when you add that no debate or hearings have been held to allow everyone to be heard.  Nor have Republicans faced their constituents with any regularity in town hall meetings to gauge what the people they represent think. This secretive, devastating law still has a chance to be passed, and McConnell and Ryan won’t acknowledge their extreme duplicity, especially given how loudly they howled about the speed with which the ACA was passed. (They’ve now shifted to the position that they’re just doing the same thing the Democrats did with the ACA, which Snopes rates as a “FALSE” claim.)  I know that its passage seems unlikely right now, but remember how that was what we thought about the “mean” House version until Ryan slipped it through.  McConnell is considered even better at manipulation of arcane procedural rules (Remember how he ignored the Constitutional provisions which clearly mandated Obama be allowed to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court?), and he will continue to finagle ways to weasel something through—not because it would be better for Americans, but simply to garner a “win” on this issue.

Even one of our biggest goals—getting Trump out of office—needs to be tempered with the context in which that happens.  Until at least one of our Legislative bodies, the Senate or the House, is safely in the hands of those opposed to Trump (i.e., Democrats), a Pence Presidency could conceivably be much, much more effectively bad.  No, he wouldn’t embarrass our country with his blustering, bullying, vulgar absurdity; he would just get awful legislation passed.  Then too, some hope that the taint of Trump’s corruption will stain Pence enough to…what?  Get him out of office as well?  That unlikely scenario might seem like a positive outcome, but we should all keep in mind one of the most insightful quotes ever from Oscar Wilde:  “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”  Next in line after Pence would be the Hypocrite of the House, Paul Ryan, followed by the Senate’s President pro tempore Orrin Hatch and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  Outside of number six, Defense Secretary James Mattis, there’s not much to look forward to after Trump should he get booted before his term ends; number fifteen, just to show you how bad it could get, is Betsy DeVos…now, c’mon, really?

If Trump goes, then, we’d better have at least one of our Houses in order, or else we could see the country take even bigger steps backward in voting rights, environmental improvements, educational fairness, foreign relations (although nobody could be as bad as Trump in this area), and health care.   Our goal can’t simply be ABT (Anybody But Trump); instead we should be careful to make sure that this repeal and replace is more than petty sniping and grand-standing gestures without any solid alternatives mapped out…hmm, for some reason that dumb strategy sounds strangely familiar!

I am sticking with my belief that Trump will eventually resign rather than fully reveal all the shady financial dealings he’s had with Russian billionaires—who have been pillaging that poor country at an incredible rate.  His most recent “red line” comments about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and attempts to shame Attorney General Jeff Sessions into quitting show where he seems to be heading:  In replacing Sessions he could put in his own lapdog who would willingly fire Mueller, effectively slowing or even ending that group’s work.  A couple of pardons lavished on those already implicated (Flynn, Kushner, and Junior, for starters), and the whole “witch hunt” could conceivably be mostly over—without anyone ever being held responsible for collusion, obstruction of justice, and who-knows-what-else.  In that scenario, the only thing standing between a successful cover-up of wrong-doing and evasion of accountability would be the willingness of the Republican leadership to stand up to Trump and move toward impeachment.  Not many I’ve heard analyzing this situation have suggested the Republicans would ever do that, and their past lack of action supports the spineless theory.

So those opposed have to focus on things which can be verified and proved—and our media has been stellar in pushing legislators in the right direction.  But their quest for ratings and on-line hits (translated: profits) could overcome the time needed to review complex issues which require more thoughtful, thorough discussion in order to cover today’s “hot” topic.  The Russian methodology of using “cutouts” (individuals connected through more informal channels to the Kremlin) in order to test interest before initiating more serious…Sean Spicer just resigned!  Too often we all fall victim to our inner Doug (the talking dog in the movie, Up), and are incapable of focusing long enough to finish with something before the inevitable new squirrel scampers into our line of vision.  That tendency can only prolong the length of time Trump continues to wield power.

In order to get this right—not too fast or not to slow—we need thorough investigations which help the truth of how bad much of this is to sink into the public’s awareness more completely.  To my way of thinking, that would lead to everyone’s understanding just what this administration stands for and would force Republican leadership to go down with the ship or to cut ties with this mistake we Americans elected (enough of us, anyway).  And that gets back to my initial thread about not going overboard on the Trump’s stupidity, which only angers those who supported Trump last November.  For Republican leaders to be forced to do the right things, they need to know that their electorate understands the certifiable wrongs which have been committed.  Emphasis on the crudity of Trump seems unfair to his voters, which can then bleed over into their acceptance of other issues involving matters of right and wrong.  How many golfing days Trump has amassed in the past six months is certainly newsworthy given how he lambasted President Obama over that exact issue before taking office.  But it is ultimately insignificant—many would argue that any Trump day off is a safer day for America—and belaboring it just lends support to his spin doctors claiming the media and opponents manufacture bogus issues just to pick on poor Donald, who’s only doing what every President has done.

So let’s not overreact to the stupid, hypocritical, lying small things Trump does—yes, you can extrapolate from his obsession over crowd size at his inauguration that he has deep psychological issues revolving around his narcissism, if you must.  (I’d rather leave that to Trevor, Seth, Samantha, or Stephen, personally.) But make sure we resist generalizing or stereotyping just because members of our community made one poor choice in an election.  Without further defections from his supporter base, we could be subjected to the chaos of the past six months for four years!  I know many cannot forgive their fellow citizens for voting for this man, and Michelle’s “When they go low, we go high” mantra is way tougher to do in the real world rather than fighting fire with fire by lashing out in return.  With the long-term goal of keeping this country from getting screwed up too badly until we can get more reasonable people back in charge, however, we all have to try to stick to the more mundane, but much more important actions Trump and his minions did or, more importantly, are trying to sneak in.

Our mission, therefore, is to do what we can to minimize the damage this radical minority can inflict on our society and the world before the 2018 Senate and Congressional elections.  (And yes, we need to hold our state legislators to the same standards of responsible governance.  Illinois’s Rauner, Wisconsin’s Walker, Michigan’s Snyder, and New Jersey’s Christie all needing new jobs after those states’ next gubernatorial elections would be a great start, in my estimation.)  I understand that beyond making sure our voices are heard and supporting legal challenges to the most egregious outrages, there is not much we ordinary voters can do to affect that end. (That assumes that everybody will VOTE when the time comes, of course.)  But at least we can do our level best not to make things worse, and our sinking to petty complaints and blaming our neighbors for inflicting Trump upon us only pollutes the already toxic political climate even more.  Of course challenge and resistance to the Trump agenda needs to be unflagging, but ridicule and belittling that which is idiotic will do little besides moving us into that same category.  (Unless, of course, you’re as funny and talented as Randy Rainbow—then, go for it!)

Going After the Poor

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Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country.  As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra:  If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad.  We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head.  While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent:  Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now.  And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.

Naturally, it’s no different with education.  The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct:  We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know.  No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all.  And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil.  But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars.  Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish.  In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.

Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind.  And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools?  Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever.  This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different.  That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony).  Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.

There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy.  But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here:  The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.

Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate.  And let’s all hope that is true.  But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents.  Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years.  Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.

I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help.  What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives?  It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions.  For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it.  The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t).  His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.”  Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.”  Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare.  The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts.  Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.

That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces.  But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor.  You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based.  That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling.  From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.

Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly.  Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.

Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party.  As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today.  Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here).  That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over.  Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.

Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way.  Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.

Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness.  We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices.  That applies to all parties:  While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer.  We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.

Hinsdale 86 Voters Pick the Hard Way

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Several weeks ago, a referendum was put before the residents of Hinsdale High School Township District 86 (which is composed of Hinsdale South and Central High Schools).  The referendum outlined plans to raise property taxes by $76,000,000 in order to upgrade aquatic areas at both schools and to add more classrooms at Hinsdale Central to accommodate its increasing enrollment.  The communities of District 86 (Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Burr Ridge, and Clarendon Hills) voted down the tax increase by three to one—75.1% against and 24.85% in favor in DuPage County.  This will leave the District 86 school board (four of whom were elected as new members on the same ballot with the ill-fated referendum) with significant challenges immediately as this board takes charge.

My knowledge of this excellent school district comes from its astute hiring practices:  I taught English in Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, and became familiar with the district’s workings (at least somewhat) in my roles for the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA—the union which represents all District 86 teachers): president, contract negotiator, and grievance chair at different times for much of my career.  So I followed with interest this particular referendum since it was the first one attempted in District 86 since the 1960s.  There has also been much controversy about the two high schools and how they are perceived in their communities through the years, most recently over the expansion of District 86’s “buffer zone,” an area in the district where some residents can select either high school for their children to attend (almost all currently in the zone have selected Central).  That, coupled with a declining enrollment at South while Central’s attendance sky-rocketed, led to the referendum’s being not just about adding on to Central, but instead a forum on the two high schools.  Why, many asked, should homeowners vote to increase their property taxes so that Central can add classrooms when there is significant space available right in the district, just a couple of miles away at Hinsdale South?  To some, though, the answer was obvious—addition was necessary, so no one currently eligible to attend Central would have to go to South.

I’ve written about this issue several times.  You can find the essays (along with links to various news stories which motivated them) on my blog, with this one and this being two which ought to give you the highlights.  I’ve never tried to hide my bias in favor of Hinsdale South as an excellent high school and that the opportunities provided by its amazing staff (I can say that now since I’ve retired) compare favorably to every high school in the country, including and (what school board members and administrators need to keep reminding everyone) especially Hinsdale Central.

And now that distinction needs more emphasis than ever:  For the past decade or so, as the enrollment has gone up at Central, several additions and upgrades have been made to the facilities there.  From library remodeling to new science labs to air conditioning, tens of millions have been spent to improve the physical plant at Central.  And yes, most of those upgrades were also made at South as well.  But in the last few years, South’s enrollment has declined from over 2000 students at its peak to less than 1600 on its most recent 2016 school report card.  With Central still growing (not to mention the expansion of the aforementioned “buffer zone” last year), this meant any new building was only going to take place at Central, unless the board shifted attendance areas for the two schools in order to send more students to South.

The discussion of the transfer/redistricting solution to Central’s overcrowding lasted about two board meetings last year, as parents from the Central attendance areas turned out in droves to protest the possibility.  That board (of whom three members are still on the current board) quickly backed away from the idea, pledging not to broach the subject again when determining whether or not to seek a referendum and even apologizing to parents for “stressing” them with speculation about their children being made to attend South.  That led to the proposal for a $76 million tax increase, and we know how that turned out.

So now the whole South/Central issue comes into play once more.  The overcrowding at Central is not going to go away; facilities are limited, and there is only so much room available (especially in specialized areas like science labs).  Increasing class sizes is never an appealing solution (nor should it be), and the growth in Central with South shrinking has already led to the reallocation of the most valuable resource any school district has: its teachers.  Many have been transferred from South to Central, which leads to some uncertainty and tension, especially when department chairs have to agree on which teachers should be moved and younger teachers need stability in order to polish their craft.  Any involuntary transfer will create some negativity; the goal should be to minimize that kind of disruption of the staff.

But that leads right back to the much more unpopular and difficult disruption of students who were supposed to go to Central being told they have to attend South.  And with the referendum’s being soundly defeated, there aren’t many alternatives.  Temporary classrooms could be used at Central as a stopgap, depending on how long the enrollment bulge lasts, but that is hardly a palatable solution, especially in one of the more prestigious high schools in the country.  Other than that or a population shift to South, the board could try for another referendum or use its excellent credit rating to issue some bonds which could finance Central’s expansion.

That last option is basically how past additions and building modifications have been funded, so it would hardly be surprising should the board take that direction.  But as I’ve also previously pointed out, the intent of property tax laws is for residents to have a say in approving funds for building projects, among other things.  A referendum is the more letter-of-the-law method to get necessary money for projects, but the key point opponents of the recently defeated District 86 proposal made was that much of this building wasn’t necessary, that needed classroom space was already in place. With that kind of controversy at the heart of this spending proposal, then, a referendum is by far the best method to determine the will of the people.  And that just happened, without much doubt as to what community members feel about increasing taxes. So, guess what—we’re right back where we started with one question each before both sides in this issue.  For the No Transfer people:  How will the district provide adequate facilities for so many students without changing any attendance boundaries or increasing property taxes?  For the “Fill South First” advocates:  Why is attending South so unpalatable for parents in the Central attendance area?

I no longer work in District 86, and I only lived in district for a few years a long time ago (a rental unit, of course.  I could definitely digress on the irony of teachers’ being entrusted with the education of children in whose neighborhoods they can’t afford to live), so I will refrain from analyzing or judging the reasons so many strongly oppose redistricting so that more students wind up at South.  I’m sure some of those reasons are based solely on a positive perception of Central, of familiarity and experience.  But as someone who worked at South and dealt with many from Central-land, I do believe there is a strong streak of irrational horror at the idea of having to slum it by going to South.  No one in any of the towns which feed into Central would ever accept that racism, class-snobbery, or “white trash” stereotyping has anything to do with not wanting to attend South; yet that vibe is impossible to avoid if you listen to some of the rhetoric when South is discussed.

And that’s what will have to be confronted by the new board.  Regardless of what happens with the overcrowding at Central, the divided district needs to move toward more unity, toward more respect for each school, and toward a celebration of the equity of opportunity provided for all students in District 86.  And there is some positive news to report in that direction.  #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is a new organization created by parents of Hinsdale South students (both past and present) which has formed to promote South since “South’s reputation took some unwarranted hits in the past few years, including from a member of the school board,” according to one member of the group. #WeAreHinsdaleSouth has plans to make sure that everyone in the District 86 attendance area is aware of that which makes South such a good school, publicizing accomplishments, opportunities, events, and people which show the school in its best light.  You can read more about them here, as well as finding out about attending their next meeting on Monday, May 8.

I certainly wish this group well and hope they finally help South to be better recognized for the stellar school it is.  I also hope that #WeAreHinsdaleSouth is in this for the long haul—it will not be an easy task to enhance South’s image on the Central side of town; patience, creativity, and diligence need to be the key strategies since reputations are quick to form but hard to change.  And regardless of #WeAreHinsdaleSouth’s efforts, the school board must accept the challenge of fostering a more unified approach to the district.  Although wanting to change the South vs. Central dynamic for the better might not have been the key reason voters rejected District 86’s proposed referendum, a potentially beneficial unintended consequence of that vote could lead to a stronger, less divided community.  This is definitely not the easiest path, but it is the right direction for the district and something everyone should be rooting for.

To find out more about #WeAreHinsdaleSouth, go to their Facebook page.  For more on how school districts can improve, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.

Referendums Should Be for Teachers, Too

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On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like.  Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding.  Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest:  Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates.  (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.)  Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.

Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair).  Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education:  No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers.  And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions.  Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators.  Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.

But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff.  I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day.  But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers.  The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.

Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry.  I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected.  Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.

The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries.  The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.”  Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them.  Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.

The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom.  No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics.  Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions.  As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years.  Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years).  And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.

So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty.  Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff.  My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building:  The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years.  The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues.  This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees.  Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools.  (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.)  I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice.  My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building.  The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later.  Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract.  (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay).  Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably.  Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses.  (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)

One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction.  There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly.  Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.

For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.

DeVos Is Not the Biggest Cabinet Problem

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Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start:  I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate.  For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember.  And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.

Don’t misinterpret me here:  Of course I believe public education is crucial!  I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get.  From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve.  And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so.  Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none.  Yeah, I think education is important.

But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence.  I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central.  Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam.  Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change.  And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?

Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money.  For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year.  That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs.  These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities.  There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools.  Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools.  (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.)  And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school.  The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong.  We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions.  Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.

On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving.  It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative.  Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations.  Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her.  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools.  Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids.  Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work.  I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better.  Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses.  For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.

Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet.  Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons.  Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department.  Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury.  Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon.  Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it.  Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock.  Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior.  All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.

Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor.  Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder.  So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?

The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being.  More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened.  Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids.  As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”  Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her.  That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective.  That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.

Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position.  In this case, we have a bad woman candidate.  I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife.  Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills.  Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years.  I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments.  Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school.  But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence.  And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices.  Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.”  (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor.  So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)

I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge.  Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get.  But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come.  As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education.  I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington.  State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal.  With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.

And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across.  Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial.  Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause.   These articles come from the following sources:  Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.

And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well.  Take that, Betsy!

The Next Education Secretary

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As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do.  Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.

What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort.  She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools.  She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform.  So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience.  Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses.  If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…

So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences?  When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices.  Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it.  What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education.  And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one.  If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you.  You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good.  If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding.  You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open.  Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.

The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits.  Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?).  These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns.  The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.

Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids.  Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents.  But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children.  (Not very, this parent would argue.)  There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number.  Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses?  Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs.  Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.

It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent.  Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education.  Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree.  Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education.  Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible.  The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely.  Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools.  At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.

I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington.  And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them.  We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better.  Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.

Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did.  Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth.  But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address.  Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.

But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately.  Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.)  What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are.  My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations.  And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way.  Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill.  And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.

We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education.  The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next.  If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage.  I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations.  Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread.  But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now.  Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.

If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire.  Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.