“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.
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.
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!)
For those of you unaware of the horrors perpetrated on society by comedians Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher recently, a quick review: Griffin posted a picture of herself with what appeared to be President Trump’s severed head (the awful image can be seen here), and Maher used the “n-word” (a racial slur which rhymes with “trigger” just in case you’re…um, clueless is the best I can do, sorry) on live TV. Immediately there was media uproar about how these two should be shunned and unemployed. Griffin has been fired from her part-time job on CNN, and many have been vocal in calling for Maher’s Real Time on HBO to be taken off the air. Anderson Cooper denounced Griffin, and Chance the Rapper tweeted that Maher no longer deserved to be heard. In short, many have come out strongly not only against the sins these two committed, but also in favor of banishing them forever.
But not me. I’ve been a fan of Maher’s for his entire fifteen-year run on Real Time and have seen many of his stand-up routines. And based on his history of being progressive in his views (except maybe on Islam), I have no doubt that this slip of the tongue doesn’t represent anything other than a brain fart. I know some might question my right to weigh in on the depth of his mistake, since I am not black, but I do have the right to continue to enjoy his work. Griffin and I do not have as rich a history, but I have laughed at her jokes the few times I have seen her on TV. Don’t let my lack of Griffin exposure fool you, though; she has had a long, very successful career, with movies, television shows, comedy tours, albums, and even a couple of books to her credit (including Emmy and Grammy awards). Griffin’s attempt at political humor with Trump backfired severely, but to me, that doesn’t outweigh her long and steadfast support of LBGT rights over the years. And yeah, I know it doesn’t help my case that both of these people are strident, loud atheists. (Maher made an anti-religion movie in 2008, Religulous (a combination of “religious” and “ridiculous” in case you weren’t immediately offended), and Griffin got in trouble before for her speech upon winning an Emmy in 2007: “Now, look, a lot of people come up here and they thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. He didn’t help me a bit. If it was up to him, Cesar Millan would be up here with that damn dog. So all I can say is suck it Jesus; this award is my God now.”
So conservatives have plenty of reasons to despise this pair: They are the epitome of the anti-Hollywood crowd’s stereotype of the media liberal who flouts traditional Christian values and embraces such supposedly corrupting influences as atheism, gay pride, and transgender bathrooms. If it were up to these two, no baker could refuse to provide a wedding cake for two men who wanted to get married and “In God We Trust” would be removed from our currency. If right-wing conservatives had a “Most-Wanted” list of those they wanted silenced, these two would probably make the top ten, although certainly behind Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon. (Of course, such lists do exist, and the one I found had neither Kathy nor Bill on it, alas. Moore and Sarandon were #2 and #7 respectively.) But Griffin and Maher both apologized admitted they were totally in the wrong for what they did, and promised to do better in the future. Griffin’s press conference came across as self-serving (as well as painfully awkward), and Maher did bristle a time or two when three black guests (on the next Real Time which aired after the n-bomb disaster) chastised him for the severity of his mistake. Neither, however, tried to mitigate the error of what they’d done and both seemed to regret their poor choices.
That, coupled with their history of using some of the exposure their entertainment jobs provide them to do good helps me to stay with them. Yes, they now have more baggage beyond times when I found Griffin mean or Maher condescending, but overall, I think it’s okay to continue to consume their work product. I’m not going to call for their unemployment or boycott their performances. I do understand that some people will choose to do so, but I’d prefer to hate the sin and love the sinner in this case, since I often need similar understanding myself.
My acceptance of Griffin and Maher, despite their mistakes, does help me to understand some of the loyalty Trump voters have exhibited over the past tumultuous two years. He’s your boy, and you’re not going to dump him just because he says a few offensive, sexist, racist, ignorant, false things. That’s really fine, I guess, as long as you don’t attack my morals, patriotism, or whatever other non-related characteristic you can come up with for not being willing to accept those things. I could argue that he commits more such faux pas in a week than Bill or Kathy have in their careers, but let’s ignore sheer numbers of outrageous, inappropriate remarks/actions for the moment. We’ll also disregard the different standards to which leaders of our country should be held as compared to our entertainers—Trump clearly sees himself much more the latter than the former, which is another huge problem for many of us. But we won’t go there just now.
Instead, let’s go back to one of the main reasons I’m forgiving (if that’s the correct term for not hating on and petitioning for public execution of) Griffin and Maher: their good works. They have consistently advocated for positive things for others when they didn’t have to; and they did so when taking stands they didn’t have to (they’re mere comedians, after all) could and did cost them fans/money. How does Trump fare in that comparison?
Horribly, by my estimation, both before and since he’s become President. Clearly, charity and good works had little to do with his life before politics; if there was a buck to be made—be it steaks, wine, hotels, office buildings, casinos, golf courses, or universities—he was more than happy to slap his name on the product, shill for it shamelessly, and then duck responsibility for any debts or blame when those products tanked (or in the case of his university, hurt people). Even the limited charity work he did seemed shrouded in questionable fund usage or significant delays on promised donations. “Giving back” would not be one of the characteristics anyone would have used to describe Trump the businessman.
As President, it’s been even worse in the short time he’s been in office. He’s pulled back on all environmental protections or programs to improve or maintain our environment. Poor people are always the first to suffer from environmental degradation, as those in Flint, Michigan, would be the first to tell you. Trump’s health care proposal would deprive millions of poor people of their insurance; struggling seniors would be especially targeted under the current plan. The travel ban? It’s hard to imagine how the average person would benefit from that which is a direct challenge to many of the foundations of our Constitution. Our police, federal agents, and homeland security agency have done an excellent job of protecting U.S. citizens; that some crazed individuals believe they are committing heroic acts by blowing up innocent people along with themselves has changed how our protectors have to function, and we’re all still wrestling with the best way to protect freedom at the same time we’re providing protection. Plus, the ban will never make it through the courts intact. Trump’s tax code revision (the scant outline of it he has provided thus far, anyway) directs the bulk of its benefits to the rich, hardly the key demographic which won the election for him, nor those who are hurting in today’s economy. And let’s not even delve into the Russian scandals, which might include collusion and obstruction of justice. Outside of saying how wonderfully he’s doing and forcing his cabinet members to praise him effusively, I can’t point to anything that Donald has done at all besides golf, much less acts which would benefit others. Insult, belittle, ridicule, attack, deceive, manipulate, and betray—absolutely. But help, advance, support, or sacrifice for? Not that I’ve ever seen for as long as he’s been in the public eye.
So I will continue to accept Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher into my world, albeit with a heightened awareness that they are fallible humans like all of us who have to accept their own mistakes and eat crow on occasion. Meanwhile, I’ll keep waiting for the President to concede that it was wrong to mock a reporter’s disability, attack the family of a slain American soldier, brag about sexual assault, or bash the London mayor after a terrorist attack. (And we all know this list of Trump outrages barely scratches the surface of the total number for the last year!) And we won’t even get into a further examination of his “Make America Great Again” agenda based on discrimination and fear. You might not agree with me on whether or not Bill and Kathy deserve any slack (which I can completely understand), but I would be fascinated to hear how Trump supporters rationalize his mountain of sins as he continues to spout the most inane covfefe while doing nothing to benefit anyone but himself.
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.
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.
To “Resist!” that which the Trump administration will attempt to do has become a rallying cry for all who disagree with his agenda (or the agenda of the puppet-masters who control him, depending on your view of Trump’s competence). One of the most controversial of his appointments, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been front and center in this spotlight, given her past history of favoring for-profit charter schools and educational vouchers which would allow parents to divert tax money from public to private/parochial schools. So what is the best way to resist someone in charge of the federal approach to public education who will have significant influence in both funding and policy? The two largest teacher unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have adopted different approaches, as explained in this New Republic article, but the NEA tactic is not the one which is in public education’s best interests.
No matter what happens, who’s in charge, what program’s being pushed, or which laws are proposed in Congress; kids will still keep going to schools. Every day, they will show up, expecting to be educated (even if their attitudes occasionally suggest otherwise), and plop themselves down (eventually) into their seats as the bell rings to start the day. And the teacher will do her all to make that educating process happen, 99.9999% of the time. I taught for thirty-three years beginning in 1979, which is when the very first Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler appointed by President Jimmy Carter, took office. And not once in all that time did I spend any significant time worrying about what the Secretary of Education wanted me to do. It simply did not intrude upon my daily work life. Sure, I was aware of what comments, for example, Arne Duncan (9th Education Secretary) or William Bennett (3rd) might make—Duncan (despite his weak record) always came across as reasonable while Bennett never failed to elicit anger—but never did I ever alter what I believed to be in the best interests of my kids because of what federal educational experts preached from Washington. It makes me laugh that anyone would think good teachers would worry much or (God forbid!) alter their behavior because of what Betsy DeVos says. She simply isn’t relevant to teachers’ worlds.
And that does provide some justification for the NEA’s avowed intent to shun DeVos as not worthy to meet with or talk to, as explained in the above article. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García has stated, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.” As a past NEA member and union activist, I completely understand that reaction to the problems that DeVos brings to her position. DeVos has been strongly opposed to teacher unions and worked against both teacher rights and interests. But that has been true of many educational leaders at the local, state, and federal level over the years; regardless of who’s in charge, it is the job of elected union representatives to continue communication in order to push for that which is good for their members. And the AFT, in contrast, has agreed to meet with DeVos, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has already had a brief conversation with the Education Secretary.
Don’t get me wrong: Given the chasm which exists between how DeVos views public education compared to almost every public education teacher, it is unlikely that either García or Weingarten will be able to make progress softening or changing her positions on basic educational policy. In the best case scenarios, it’s possible to envision a frosty, agree-to-disagree kind of relationship. But the stakes are significant enough that the unions need to remain engaged. Then too, they’ve got plenty of resources and opportunities to try to modify, fight, and/or protest against Republican measures. There will be many talking points and chances to set the public straight about what DeVos is trying to do. But one aspect of DeVos’s position trumps all these things when it comes to doing what’s best for public education and a key reason the unions need to maintain some sort of contact.
And that’s something which matters to every school in the country: Money. From teacher salaries (always my top priority in my role as teacher union representative) to supplies to facility maintenance, up-grading, and construction to getting quality support staff, to instituting new programs/technologies, every dollar counts. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in. At the local level (where I was active for most of my career), the unions negotiate contracts, file grievances, and generally advocate for the teachers whom the leaders (who are also teachers in that district) represent. The state organizations sometimes provide assistance with local issues that might overwhelm a small union, especially things requiring legal help, but devote most of their time to working with and lobbying state legislatures. And the national unions, like the NEA and AFT, receive members’ dues to help advance educational issues at the federal level. In the end, the most tangible issue affecting teachers’ lives and their ability to do their jobs effectively relates to funding, to money. And the federal government has some.
Granted, the amount of Washington dollars which end up in any one school district varies by a lot. In the district where I worked—Hinsdale High School Township District 86—we got a very small percentage of funding from the federal government—a percent or two of the total budget. You can contrast that with the 12% Chicago Public Schools expects to receive this fiscal year. And that difference might be one reason AFT leaders automatically show a greater willingness to work with DeVos than the NEA: AFT locals tend to be larger, more urban, and more strapped for cash than the more suburbanized, wealthier, smaller locals which make up the bulk of the NEA’s power base. Chicago Public Schools? An AFT local. Naperville Community Unit School District 204, Butler School District 53, or Community High School District 99? All part of the NEA. NEA’s locals are more able to shun federal money should they so decide, whereas large city school systems operate at huge deficits regularly. Losing federal money can mean larger class sizes, school closings, and less qualified teachers. But any loss of funding can negatively impact any school system.
And that doesn’t mean union leaders need to compromise their ideals or goals just to curry favor with DeVos in order to receive a few dollars. The issues which matter to NEA and AFT members have to do with labor laws, governmental unfunded mandates, and collective bargaining regulations. How those complex issues work requires that all sides maintain clear lines of communication—during my time as teacher representative, our local had to work with numerous board members and administrators who did not agree with our positions; some even actively sought our elimination. Yet, we continued to interact, negotiate, and ultimately hammer out agreements which allowed for working relationships to exist and the shared goal of educating kids to continue. Nobody’s expecting García and DeVos to go on joint vacations or to become besties—the teachers just need her to communicate their opinions and represent their interests, regardless of how hostile DeVos is to those views.
Refusing to engage with DeVos might play well with García’s membership and enhance her popularity among the anti-DeVos crowd (which includes most teachers), but it’s hard to see how it helps out the schools where her members work. We have definitely entered a different political environment, and I certainly don’t want to overstate the influence DeVos will wield (I’ve actually written exactly the opposite), but grandstanding instead of doing the job you’ve been elected to do hardly seems an effective strategy. Maybe García has some unstated plan which will make this seeming futile petulance pay off in the long run, but for now, I don’t believe giving DeVos the silent treatment will serve anyone’s best interests—except maybe Devos’s since she will have to interact with one less critic. And this will improve the lot of NEA teachers how…?
For ideas that can improve public education, you might want to read Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
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!
We’re just a couple of days from inauguration, and then we will have President Trump. No, I still don’t like that fact any better than I did back in November and have seen little in the cabinet selections or policy promises to make me happier about our new executive branch leader or those he is bringing in with him. From an adviser who ran a racially biased, religiously intolerant, and misogynistic web site to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t accept the reality of climate change to an ex-Dancing with the Stars contestant as Energy Secretary—and don’t get me started on what could happen to the Supreme Court—there will much to worry about in the coming four years. Foreign relations, trade wars, cyber espionage, health care, and the resurrection of failed economic policies/tax breaks are all important areas where I do not believe Trump will lead us in the best direction. (And that’s not even taking into account the actions taken so far by the Republican-controlled Senate and House.) But my biggest concern right now is that we will lose our focus and waste our energy going after the embarrassing, foolish, but ultimately not very important distractions of which we will now have an unending supply, when we should be directing time and effort to resisting that which will make our country worse.
It’s happened again and again over the past year: The substantial gets lost in the commotion surrounding a late-night tweet storm, some inappropriate remark at a rally, the revelation of a past interview filled with insensitive/sexist/racist comments, and/or clear evidence that a current position stands in complete opposition to the stand emphatically stated years ago. The important issues get dropped in the click-appeal of a new post, and then we’re all discussing how Donald met with Kanye. During the campaign when all we were doing was choosing who would be the next most powerful person in the world, this was bad enough; but now this powerful person will be taking all kinds of actions that matter to the world. We have to be able to differentiate between that which is just tacky, crass, and idiotic from those things which will impact our lives. Donald and his group are going to get away with way too much unless we learn not to allow our focus to be diverted from the significant by the stupid.
It is little solace that in our previous world of politics—just a few years ago—any one of those stupid things we now have to dismiss as frivolous would have probably gotten the politician who committed the sin immediately ejected from his position and party. Clearly that standard no longer applies: Instead, these stories now consume everyone’s attention for several days, flat denials (which everyone knows are lies) are aggressively pushed, statements are spun as meaning something other than what they clearly meant (and we’re asked to understand what’s in his heart rather than what he actually says), panels on news shows discuss the issue (always including at least one pro-Trump person on who tries to dominate the air time), and significant issues get scant attention. Suddenly, we all realize that those significant things have been resolved with little discussion, beneficial revision, or opportunity to challenge them. Whether this obfuscation is the product of evil genius or idiotic luck no longer matters. We all know what’s happening, and we must do a better job of sifting through low priority garbage to force adequate debate and opposition to coalesce against those things which could hurt people rather than that which hurts our image of how our country’s leaders should conduct themselves.
Of course how our leaders conduct themselves does matter, and the messages this prime example of America will send to our kids and the world will be problematic, probably for many years. Any time racism, intolerance, or misogyny appear, they set us all back and we have to confront them whenever we see or hear them. But we need to conserve our outrage for real instances of that which is divisive, mean-spirited, and cowardly, rather than go to the walls every time Donald reveals how impulsive and overly sensitive he is by lashing out. No matter what you think of him as a person, we can’t spend too much time worrying about his character flaws when his programs will have much larger, more harmful effects.
That Trump’s version of governance will be challenging to navigate is quite the understatement. But we have to hold him and his allies accountable for improving that which they have so vehemently attacked and obstructed for the past eight years. I’m not sure how much agreement and love is shared by the various wings of the Republican party—it now appears that Mike Pence will be the “calming” influence on getting established leaders like House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to play nice with Trump. That will take some effort, I would assume, and even that might not stop others in the GOP from rebelling against much of what Trump will push. He’s already shown a willingness to shift positions, and his discipline-by-tweet approach which got the Republicans to back away from significant restrictions on any Senate/House oversight by anti-corruption governmental investigators was both heartening and hysterical. That he will be able to exert influence through tweeting is another new thing we have to deal with—it sure doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon. That, however, also plays into the hands of those who would prefer not to have their actions or decisions too closely examined or debated.
This week has been a good example of the focus shift we permit regularly. Top cabinet member nominees were to be questioned by Senate committees, as is the Senate’s responsibility under our Constitution. There is much which needed to be discussed with these potential appointees—with the leaders of departments such as Justice, Transportation, and State to be confirmed or rejected. Others are more qualified to comment on the problematic baggage most of Trump’s selections carry, but I did discuss my areas of concern for one of them, Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, based on my experience teaching for thirty-three years. But just as these dates approached, Meryl Streep made a moving speech at the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, which was broadcast to millions. In it, she condemned Trump’s intolerance and urged everyone to reject it as well. I’m betting 99.9% of the people reading this know what happened next: Trump responded with tweets of how “over-rated” Streep is as an actress and that she was basically just a sore loser. He also criticized her in an interview with the New York Times. Suddenly the confirmation hearings were no longer being discussed as we all held our collective bated breath to hear what would happen next between Meryl and Donald!
It’s important to state emphatically that I’m not suggesting that Meryl Streep shouldn’t have said what she said. She had an important message and the forum to present it to a large audience. Those who claim that an awards show wasn’t the “appropriate venue” for such comments fail to understand how infrequently anyone gets that kind of chance to communicate with a bunch of people. If you believe what you have to say matters to lots of people, of course you go for it. And the better response from Trump would have been silence or at most an acknowledgement that he had heard Streep’s remarks and believed she would change her tune once she saw how “great” America would become under his rule. That, of course, would still have gotten a ton of coverage, but not the deluge that their supposed “feud” did. But anyone who’s been following how he’s operated over the years would have known that he would fire back with criticisms of his own, especially his opinion of his challenger’s worth and popularity. And, sadly, anyone who’s been following Trump coverage over the past two years would also know that once he fired back, those exchanges would suck the air of anything else’s importance, for 24-48 hours, time enough for the confirmation hearings to sneak up on everyone.
Yes, the Democrats also know how to put on a show, so you knew there’d be quite a few sparks to fly during those hearings; but they have to compete with who’s performing at the inauguration, the debate on how many quality inauguration ball gowns are still available (Trump claimed they were sold out while retailers pointed to plentiful stocks), and the inevitable new tweet feud based on an unflattering picture, Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on SNL, or how unfair he thinks the media is in its treatment of him. None of that, though, matters one scintilla as much as allowing a climate-change denier to be put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. We’re all going to have to be much better at ignoring the smoke in our quest to put out the fires this administration will keep lighting. The aforementioned Vice President Pence allied with Paul Ryan will be able to run rampant will little accountability over many programs and repeal rights which have positively impacted millions of people unless we can keep their actions squarely in the public eye.
And even if you agree 100% with the directions Pence and Ryan want to take the country, I would hope that you believe their arguments and evidence should be on full display for all to understand and analyze. If Republican ideas are better, then they should be examined openly with the goal of making these gems shine even brighter, if at all possible. Everyone has an interest in transparency and the power of reason as the driving forces of a thriving democracy. Present your proposal, debate it, modify it, debate it some more, and put it to a vote—that’s what we should demand. Not tweet something outrageous, counter attack with even more bizarre remarks when the press over-reacts to the initial comment, all while you enact reactionary laws that damage poor people’s lives or scratch the backs of your rich friends with little scrutiny under the cover of that public furor over your silly comments.
I can’t say I’m optimistic about our ability to downplay the stupid while forcing our Republican majorities to explain just how cutting taxes for the most wealthy in the belief that it will trickle down to the poor—a policy pushed since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and one which has been failing since that time—will somehow be successful in its current iteration. But we have to ferret out these real issues lest our air and water get dirtier, our individual rights (whether they be sexual orientation, birth control, voting, racial, or religious) vanish, or public education is starved of funding so already privileged parents can use their tax dollars to support private schools which won’t accept students with special needs. At the very least, minimize the time you give to the Trump sideshows so that you can devote more energy to the vital things. Above all—and this is the most important point—you absolutely have to…wait! I gotta go—Trump just called CNN “fake news” and is accused of being with Russian prostitutes! OMG, can you believe it? See ya…
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.