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No Public Education, No Democracy!

I teach English at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, California.  I love my school, my amazing colleagues, and the kids who enter my classroom each year.  But I hate what is happening to public education.

From the national to the local level, our public schools are under attack, and that means our students are under attack.  This attack takes more than one form.  The cuts to vital education services are horrifying enough, but they’re only half the picture.  The other half is the violation of our public trust by private interests.

It’s not a pretty sight, but we must look squarely at the vultures of privatization that prey on the damage to our schools, from New York to New Orleans to Wisconsin to California.  Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, refers to the three big education funders, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family, as the Billionaire Boys Club in her excellent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Ravitch has come a long way since her days of working under Bush Sr.  I’ve even heard people refer to her as the Noam Chomsky of education, a sure sign of how far to the right our political culture has drifted.

But we were talking about vultures.  These corporations are poised to supply the artificial heart of learning to a wounded public school system they fully intend to finish off.  But they won’t succeed. No they won’t because our communities are going to fight for our beloved schools, we teachers are going to fight for our students, and our students are going to demand the education they deserve!

There are so many intelligent, talented, compassionate educators who were called to this profession.  Teaching was a calling for me.  I’m in this for the long haul, and by this I mean public education.  I’m going to stand up for the right that all young people have to a quality education.

Education is a right.  Education is a human right; it’s not a humiliating race for basic funding, something the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan would do well to remember.  Education is indeed a right, and yet did you know there is more segregation in our schools today than at any time since 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?  The corporate obsession with charter schools and high stakes tests has contributed mightily to this segregation while shamefully distracting us from the poverty and income inequality that go hand in hand with it.

I’m not going to lie down while corporations prey on our students.  I don’t want to see our nation’s young people at the mercy of a Rupert Murdoch or a Michael Milken.  Do you remember Michael Milken, the former felon and Junk Bond King of the eighties?  Michael Milkin is co-founder of K-12 Inc., America’s largest provider of online education for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Do you know what an online school is?  That’s the one that exists inside of a computer.  These days, kids can conduct their entire social lives on a computer and get all their schooling done there too.  They never even have to leave the house.  It’s very compact, very efficient, but there is one missing link: the human link, the spacious beauty of the human bond.

Online or virtual schools typically have high withdrawal rates, and that’s not surprising.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  It must be very tempting to drop out of a “school” when there are no human beings there in person to make you feel connected to a real community, no gym, no playground, no student art on the walls, and no teacher to get to know you, to care, to see who you are and who you might one day become.

The bitter irony is that these online schools are marketed to English learners who need the exact opposite of isolation, who benefit most from cooperative strategies in natural, not virtual, settings.

Or they are preposterously promoted as beneficial to low income students as though it were a good thing to get education at a discount, off the rack. As Diane Ravitch warns of the educational dystopia that is fast gaining on reality, “the poor will get computers and the rich will get computers and teachers.”

The corporate predators also target struggling learners, kids with learning disabilities or emotional problems; in other words, the very kids who need human engagement and interaction the most.  And make no mistake: all kids need it!  One shudders to imagine children as young as five attending a virtual school.  It’s a Brave New World, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an English teacher.

Our district right here in Santa Rosa has just launched an online charter school.  I understand we are paying for it in-house, no involvement from Michael Milkin, not as far as I know, not yet anyway.  But our community needs to ask critical questions about this online school nonetheless, especially when we are told to expect teacher layoffs this March.

According to SRTA President Andy Brennan, the district promised this online venture would be geared toward homeschooled kids but in spite of that claim, they have recruited from our general population.  They forwarded a letter of recruitment to all department chairs in the district and got over 200 applicants.

So why are we diverting precious resources from our actual schools toward this virtual school?  What priorities does this decision reflect?  Who made the decision that an online school was good for our kids?  Were studies consulted, and if so, which ones and with what level of scrutiny? The argument that getting the bulk of one’s education through a computer will give kids marketable technological skills is wholly unconvincing without evidence that students of these virtual schools actually get hired in these fields.  Do the jobs that require these technological skills even exist in the present U.S. economy or have they been outsourced to other countries?

Finally, is it possible that, in our district as in so many others, what is good for our kids once again lost out to the bottom line, the almighty dollar?  These are some of the questions we must ask.

Another question is why we allow Michael Milken, a man who wouldn’t be allowed inside of a real classroom because of his felony conviction, to make a profit off of marketing his online curriculum to kindergartners.

Letting the business world gain control of our public schools has many sad consequences, but there is no question that it is making a few people very rich.  There is a reason that Rupert Murdoch referred to the for-profit K-12 education industry as, and I quote, “a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”  I’d like to keep Rupert Murdoch waiting desperately until the end of time.  How about you?

And we can’t forget the Walton Family.  The Walton Family spent $157 million dollars on Ed Reform in 2010 alone and has spent $1 billion to date on pushing charter schools and busting teachers unions.  Do we really want the people behind Walmart to set the education agenda for America?  Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

We hear so much these days about standards in education and holding teachers accountable to the standards.  Ask yourself what the Walmart standard of education might be – You’ve heard of the chain store, so now consider the chain school, all those unique kids across the nation being force-fed one standardized diet of junk learning.  It’s the fast food of education these corporations are pushing.  And when I consider the current and future classes of 40 plus students due to budget cuts, the term “supersize me” takes on a whole new meaning.  Hey, how big can an online class get?  Supersize me.

But these days in education, it’s not fashionable to examine the big picture, to ask too many questions about what students are learning and why we are teaching it to them.  It’s not recommended for the teacher and it’s not prescribed for the student.  Nevertheless, we teachers are not about to give up on critical thinking within or beyond the walls of the classroom.

Here is one critical piece of the big picture: The Walton Family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of the whole U.S. while one in five kids here live in poverty. There is no question that poverty is a huge factor in the success of students.  It accounts for 60% of student achievement!

Finland, the country whose scores in international test comparisons we’ve been holding up as a model, has high-performing schools in large part because they do things like provide food and free health-care for their students.  And not incidentally, they don’t have standardized tests.  They understand that a quality education emerges from a strong community and a humane society.  Why can’t we figure that out here in the U.S., in the wealthiest country in the world?

So if the Walton family really wants to improve education, then maybe they should start supporting Single Payer Healthcare. Maybe they should launch a massive campaign to end child poverty.  And no education reform effort would be complete without a major challenge to the corporate stranglehold on our system of government.  Come to think of it, these philanthropists, as they like to think of themselves, might want to join the Occupy Movement.  Except they’re the owners of Walmart, a conflict of interest to say the least.

The 1% is hoping that if America continues to blame teachers for everything then they will forget to tax the millionaires.  But we here today can’t afford to forget the real scope of the problem.  So as an English teacher, I decided to end my speech today with a nod to the parts of speech.

We can’t forget that Occupy was a verb before it became a noun.  Whatever you believe about your political identity, your party affiliation, your status in America today, please don’t forget to occupy your conscience, your activism, and your humanity. We need to vote in California to fund public education and other essential human services, and I am giving my support to the Millionaires Tax Initiative supported by the California Federation of Teachers and the California Nurses Association.  But we need to do more than rouse ourselves for intermittent election cycles.  We need to occupy our hearts, our minds, and our capacity for critical thinking.  We can’t go back to sleep.

People everywhere are waking up to the radical threat that corporations pose, to our global economy, to our planet and to our very existence as a species.  And let’s not forget that corporations are a threat to our democracy, to the self-determination of people all over the world.  Without public education, there can be no democracy.

This is why we reject this authoritarian education mandated by an illegitimate corporate power.  We must overthrow the plutocracy!  We must demand our human rights! And we cannot afford to wait timidly for politicians powered by big money to give their lukewarm legislative blessings to our kids’ fundamental human rights.  We the people need to take to the streets to demand those rights, to demand the legislation that is just and fair in the wealthiest country in the world. We are the decision-makers and we are the people!

I would never have become a teacher if I didn’t believe in the power of people to change the world, and especially the power of young people.  Students, I know you can change the world!  You can change the world!  I believe in you.

Simone Harris is a high school English teacher, activist, and blogger who writes about the politics of education at theedutalk.blogspot.com.

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